For Amy Birks, music has been all about a journey. From Staffordshire to London to south-eastern France, her route has been physical, emotional and creational. Finally, she arrives in 2020 as Ms Amy Birks with her debut solo record All That I Am & All That I Was, a progressive, classically-influenced chamber-pop tour-de-force.
But let’s look back to Birks’ childhood, a happy family upbringing in Stoke-On-Trent, the West Midlands hub where Anglo-Saxon treasures, Roman roads, coal-mining, steelworks and 17th-century pottery industries were framed by vales, a green belt and vibrant folklore tradition – from witches, to a White Rabbit boggart, to various spectres at crossroads. With house filled with music and a piano at her fingertips, the young Birks would start playing at age six, her soundtrack being “Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, The Beatles and Supertramp… Dad was always singing Supertramp.”
Pursuing music at school, Birks went on to study a degree in Music Technology at Staffordshire University – writing and production – with a brief time spent as a model. “I was used in things like adverts for DFS [the furniture retailer],” she laughs. “As I’m only five foot three I’d make sofas look bigger!” During this time, Birks became managed by a photographer who was friends with local legend Brian Tatler, frontman and guitarist for the hugely popular New Wave Of British Heavy Metal band Diamond Head. Birks’ manager suggested the two should meet. The unlikely pairing led to Birks finding a mentor. “Brian’s a great guitarist,” she says, “He told me, ‘I’m going to show you how to write a song.’ As a child, I was always coming up with melodies or harmonising to songs and people on the radio. He showed me how to structure something – and I bought my first guitar, a Takamine, which I still have.”
“I’d go to Diamond Head rehearsals and make the tea,” Birks says. “Then I’d sit on the floor and watch them go. There are a lot of great songs in heavy metal that we don’t appreciate – catchy melodies that connect to the classical world. What an education!”
At Uni, Birks originated a group, the Beatrix Players, with friends Tom Manning and Helena Dove and by 2006, when Birks had her degree, they relocated to London together (“I knew I had to be there – it’s not the catalyst for everything but it helps.”). By day, Birks worked as a graphic artist, designing sunglasses. By night – and at weekends – she worked on music, influenced by Eddi Reader, Ani DiFranco, Joan Armatrading and Natalie Merchant. But a shape-shift or two later, in 2013 the Players became a different trio, Birks leading the ensemble vocally, and completed by Jess Kennedy (piano, backing vocals) and Amanda Alvarez (cello). An international concern – Kennedy coming from Melbourne, Alvarez from Madrid – their arresting blend of chamber music, folk song and progressive style was soon compared to Tori Amos and Kate Bush with debut EP Words In Lemon Juice, although, at that point, “we hadn’t listened to that much Kate Bush,” says Birks. “The girls weren’t that into her but I started to investigate her a little more.”
Gathering momentum in the progressive scene, and championed in particular by Prog Magazine, when debut album Magnified emerged in 2017 – a 13-tracker of heartfelt and elegant compositions – the group came to wider notice. Winning the Limelight (best new band) gong that year at the Prog Awards, Beatrix Players performed a short acoustic set to a room full of stars, including that year’s Prog God, Carl Palmer, formerly of ELP. “We knew we were nominated but no way were we going to win… we just concentrated on our performance, we didn’t even have a glass of wine!”
“It was a beautiful night. And winning that award was the start of something special.”
Soon, gig offers were flooding in and over the next year, Beatrix Players opened for Carl Palmer, Steve Harley and Big Big Train. At the end of 2018, Birks had topped the Female Vocalist category in Prog Magazine’s Readers’ Poll. But it was time for a change and Beatrix Players ceased operation. “We were pulling in different directions [as songwriters] over six or seven months,” says Birks. “I needed to know if I could do this by myself.”
Birks took a stack of songs – some co-written with Kennedy – and spent “six hours a day, for about a year”working on what would become solo material. “It had been a while since the Music Technology degree,” she laughs. “I hadn’t recorded myself and I certainly hadn’t produced and arranged, so I had to climb a steep learning curve but was really wonderful and I really enjoyed it.”
Writing, producing and arranging the album that would become All That I Am & All That I Was took Birks from a Belsize Park bolthole to George Martin’s iconic AIR Studios in Hampstead, the nearby No 50 England’s Lane and the quirky, floating steel ship studios, Soup in East London’s Trinity Wharf. Her songs became embellished with guest appearances as Birks reached out to influences and new connections.
Her 11-song collection is a journey in itself, transporting us from character-led drama such as the Cornish coast-themed opener Jamaica Inn (“This is from my love of classic English literature, I’m a big Daphne du Maurier [the author of the 1936 novel Jamaica Inn] fan.”) to the court of Henry VIII with Catherine and All The Fault Of Lady Anne (where Birks gets her history-head/Rick Wakeman on), and to Latin America with the flamenco spark of I Wish (here Birks’ deftly incorporates Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem I Wish I Was A Little Bird). Birks’ father Andrew brings the record back to Stoke with a sprinkling of backing vocals (and her seamstress mum took care of costume design for Jamaica Inn’s epic video). Then there are two connections to France, with gentle ballad Road To Gordes, signposting Birks’ future relocation to the south-eastern mountain village, and sparkling piano-led album closer Keeps You Guessing, co-written with French band Lazuli’s keyboard player Romain Thorel.
“I’m a bit cheeky and I don’t mind tapping people on the shoulder!” Birks laughs, when asked about collaborators. “For I Wish, I was thinking about who might be incredible at a classical guitar part – then I made a beeline for Steve Hackett at the 2018 Prog Awards. He kindly obliged.”
It was at one of Steve Hackett’s shows that Birks also cornered Steve’s brother John, and asked if he might like to supply flute. “Some of my compositions had flute in mind so I sent him the music, wondering if he could do something with a couple of tracks – and he’s on about nine of them!”
Meanwhile, cello was also important to the mix. “I went to see Loreena McKennitt at the Royal Albert Hall and that’s when I saw Caroline Lavelle playing,” says Birks. “I was impressed because she had a bit of a rock edge, and luckily she knew my manager, so that was an easy connection. I was delighted when she said she’d contribute.”
“Things fell into place beautifully,” she continues, “and although I’d written a lot of the parts already I said to everybody, ‘Look, where there’s a space on this record see what you want to do’, and it just opened up this collaborative sort of feel. Caroline and John helped me shape the album.”
Throughout the album, Birks’ beautifully enunciated modern mezzo voice in notable, by turns vulnerable, playful and powerful, her storytelling coming vibrantly to life with each track. All That I Am & All That I Was is a highly personal endeavour. Put aside the historical notices, the flamenco whirls and the classic English literature and a beating heart of real-life emotion is exposed. Reflective, stripped-back mid-tempo tracks such as Unlike The Heart, More and Not Every Night deal with painful past relationships, and Say Something carries the heaviest message of all, relating to Birks’ time as a teenage model and the older male who took advantage. “It’s not just about my experience, but also other people’s,” she says. “These songs help to take me through very difficult parts of my life. I’ve realised I’m much stronger than I thought I was, now I’ve had time to explore those feelings.
“But I’m okay, I really am. I’ve had time to understand those things and finally I’m okay on my own.”
All That I Am & All That I Was is out April 5 on MAB Records. Find out more at www.msamybirks.com