I’m a firm believer that album/CD covers usually provide a good indication how an artist and their team have thought through the process of releasing their work. ‘Floundering’, the debut album of Minnie Birch, is a fine example in all aspects of its presentation, and importantly, content.

Step up to the applause plate, Minnie’s dad. From cover to lyrics booklet his artwork provides a clear representation on the theme of each song. The female character in the booklet, captured in varying caricature poses such as sailing, walking and brooding, in case you were wondering, is Minnie Birch.

Birch describes her musical style as “sad and dreary that will make you feel happy.” Really?

When setting up the interview in Birch’s newly adopted town of Hemel Hempstead I have two stipulations: 1) We meet in a public place. 2) We should never be alone at any time.

The reason is simple. I have heard the album and read her lyrics. Messages have been left informing loved ones where I am, just in case.

We set up drinks (in a well populated bar). Birch shares with me her love of fairy tales. “I studied fairy tales at university. My favourites are the Brother Grimm tales. Most of my songs have a story with a fairy tale association.” To provide some clarification here, most of them are gruesome in the telling.

Although Birch is petite in frame, pleasant in conversation and passionate regarding her music, I’m still on my guard.

She has been playing local venues around the Watford, St.Albans and Bedford area for the past few years. Sometimes she has played with friends, and at other times on her own. There are a couple of DIY EPs from around 2011 available to view online, which were sold at gigs. These days Birch is a solo performer.

It was ‘Sea Shanty; the tale of a sailor who couldn’t be kept on shore by love, which provided her first break. The song was picked up by musician and record producer George Shilling.

At his Bank Cottage studios ‘Sea Shanty’ was remixed with a percussion base and a subtle background of breaking waves. The quality of Shilling’s production accentuated the expressive and tender tones of Birch’s voice
‘’Love and Affection’ star Joan Armatrading decided to offer Birch an opening slot on her tour when hearing the arrangement of ‘Sea Shanty’.

Birch says the reaction to ‘Floundering” is somewhat overwhelming. “I’m really shocked by the reaction. People have said really nice things about the album, sending photographs and comments from various parts of the world, places I’ll probably never see.”

Birch says she was lucky Joan Armatrading liked her music. She mentions luck again. When playing a Blue Monday gig at the Boogaloo venue in London, husband and wife team Nick and Hannah Harris saw Birch play, resulting in an invitation to record a track at their Spare Room Recordings studio. “I like being in their company. They have a comfortable dynamic between them,” she says with a warmth of smile. “We recorded ‘Glitter’ which was picked up by BBC Radio 6 Huw Stephens, who played it as his ‘Introducing’ track. Then we thought, ‘Oh this may work, let’s record an album.’”

‘Glitter’ follows the template set by ‘Sea Shanty’. A basic guitar riff (which Birch calls her three chord and the truth style) and simple piano key breaks allow the haunting, fragile narrative of her voice to resonate and vibrate throughout the track. ‘Glitter’ made it on the debut album, while ‘Sea Shanty’ didn’t.

The gentility of her voice cannot hide the song’s hard -edged narrative. The protagonist only wants those who tremble at her touch. ”I only run with those I can outsmart/I know it’s my cold, dark, lonely bitter hear”, sings Birch. It is an indication of the darker side to Birch’s lyrical themes.

As with most artists or bands, tracks can be heard on Spotify, Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Many of her tracks have had thousands upon thousands of hits. I check if she is aware of the numbers and if she thinks that there is a reason. “Yes, I’ve seen the hits. To be honest I don’t know the reason why. I just get my music out so people can listen to it if they want to,” Birch says with startling simplicity. “It’s not as though I have a head for planning or business things. Somehow ‘Floundering’ is selling really well.”

Officially Birch plays guitar. When telling me she unofficially and occasionally plays banjo and ukulele, she falls into fits of laughter. Composure regained, she explains. “My grandad has given me his banjos and ukuleles over the years. He was a George Formby impersonator.” With that nugget of information, she is off into laughter once more. Birch is thinking of her grandad. I’m thinking of my dad, somewhat inebriated trying to sing ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’. Thanks to George and Grandad, it's a small world.

By her own admission some of the songs on her debut album are disturbing. Online comments define Birch as a femme fatale.

For example, here are the opening lines of ‘Dagger’: “Kneel before me and I will raise my dagger so that I can cut out your throat.” While hiding away in a forest, unable to be found - a direct nod to ‘Sleeping Beauty’ –she also goes on to also cut her own throat. The piano of Hannah Harris brings an additional edginess to the track.

‘Unravelling’ explores the gradual demise of an individual and a relationship. Only the partner can see the problem. “But, oh, how cold you have become to me.” It confirms that this spiral into despair must be confronted alone.

The title track “Floundering” explores the reverse psychology of this. This time she is the one in control, and, having reeled and lured him into her world, she is about to let him go. Leave them floundering is the message. It’s expressed with a cold, calculative bluntness to the outcome, and all told with the gentility of a guardian angel.

The cello of Anna Scott is a perfect accompaniment to ‘Ferryman’. It breaks up the narrative, conjuring a sense of suspense and concern when dancing with the devil becomes a threat if you don’t have the right silver for the crossing.

“Sometimes I write the songs and it is only months later I say, ‘Oh, that’s what I was trying to say, or that’s what I meant,” explains Birch. “What I like about feedback on the album is everyone is taking something different from the songs, or has their own interpretation about what they mean. As a person I’m really not that depressing or dark. I’m not sure sometimes where the words come from.”

Most of the songs relate to Birch and her experiences in life to date, and are told through the comfort, distortion or cover of nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Her storytelling is powerful, disturbing and thought provoking, allowing the listener to work it out for themselves.

As with all albums, everyone has a favourite track. Some of the tracks I’m happy to let go without explanation on reason or rational, but, however, ‘Lightswitch’, the last track of the album, has me intrigued. The accompanying artistry shows a double portrait of Birch, joined by an intertwining of hair strands.
Is this her twin sister or a dual personality, or Birch looking at someone else's world through her own eyes? Or is it something else entirely?

“You’re close,” she says. “It’s a simple story. I lived next to a woman and the walls were so thin you could hear the woman's life events unfold. Even a light switch being turned on and off could be heard.”

In the song anger comes to visit in the guise of her neighbour’s husband. She is tempted to do something about it, but then it goes away. In reverse she believes the neighbour feels sorry for her as those who come to visit don’t stay. She’s probably tagged as a lonely soul. Their two worlds don’t collide but are drawn together. As one of the songs lines describes it, “Me and the woman next door share the lease on a piece of common ground”.

The opening verse is spoken as a nursery rhyme. Coupled with a dark, moralistic story of modern day life with its dilemmas and challenges, ‘Lightswitch’ confirms that Birch is a musician and songwriter with a voice in need of ears prepared to listen.

Up until mid-August ‘15, Birch is booked to play at local venues and some of the smaller festivals before she appears at the Edinburgh Fringe. “I played there last year and it’s uncertain. You can be playing to ten or five hundred people. I’m really looking forward to going again, especially as I have the album as a companion.” After Edinburgh, she’s planning to put tour dates together in Germany. “These have come together as people have asked me to play, so I worked with IMC (the Independent Music Collective) to put a small tour together. It’s pure coincidence Germany is home to the Brother Grimm's fairy tales,” she adds with a mischievous laugh.

With a “have guitar will travel” mentality, Birch talks about her limited time and exposure in Nashville. “I was signed up to attend a songwriter’s course run by Ani DiFranco last year, which was cancelled. As everything like flights and accommodation had been set up, I decided to go anyway. It was back to basics, just calling venues up, and asking if I could play. Luckily (there’s that word again) I was booked at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. I enjoyed it, I think people like my show. I also played in Memphis which was amazing., Everyone was so kind. My music isn’t country, but audiences did listen. But going back to Nashville, everything was just as I expected, how they dressed, music from morning till night, drinking from morning till night. It was lovely.”

As Birch knows only too well getting your music above the radar isn’t easy. Lots of bands and singer-songwriters are out there trying to do the same thing.

‘Floundering’ provides a perfect opportunity to showcase her skills to UK and European audiences. Undoubtedly her friend luck will play its part, I’m sure.

Note the name Minnie Birch, you could well be hearing a lot more from the teller of Grimm tales. As for me, I survived the interview. How well I’ll sleep is another matter altogether.

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