Interview – Ms Amy Birks

Ms Amy Birks is an award-winning vocalist and songwriter, and also produces and arranges her own music. She previously sang with the acclaimed band Beatrix Players, and she released her first solo album All That I am & All That I Was in 2020. Now she returns with her new album In Our Souls. In an in-depth interview with Nick Holmes Music, she talks about how she writes and records her music and the inspiration for songs on her album, including the Brontë sisters and their home at the Parsonage in Haworth, West Yorkshire.

PART I Writing and Recording

I think I know who I am and what I want to do with my life and what my purpose is. So maybe that comes through.

Nick Holmes Music: To someone who doesn’t know your music, how would you describe the style?

Ms Amy Birks: I would say it was a mixture of classical meets songwriter and it has a kind of haunting and theatrical presence. And I definitely don’t get stuck in one genre. You know it’s whatever comes naturally, but definitely the theatrics, drama, songwriter, classical with a dash of rock in there.

Nick Holmes Music: There’s something quite theatrical about some of the spoken word introductions to some of the songs on the album.

Maybe it was lockdown that sent me very internal … It wasn’t a planned thing. I would just come up into my studio, really working and reworking the tracks and with Brothers and The Woman in White it just felt natural to add an extra layer of drama on there, so it was just me locked in a room with, ‘How can I really put myself into it?’ I remember from my last album with Jamaica Inn when I did the video, I really enjoyed a bit of acting for the video, so I think that’s in me and the performer in me came out.

Nick Holmes Music: How would you describe your voice? It’s quite distinctive, isn’t it? Have you had any formal training?

Ms Amy Birks: Oh no, I was only speaking to John Hackett [flautist on the album and younger brother of Steve Hackett] about that the other day and he said, ‘of course you’ve had training haven’t you’ and I said, ‘no, not one hour, one day, nothing.’ I’ve always sang since I can remember …  I was in the church choir, just up from the family house. As soon as I could sing in front of the school audience, I was up there and then I did Music Tech at university, so all the way through my life I’ve had opportunities to sing, but no formal training – piano, yes, but not vocals.

Nick Holmes Music: So it just came out naturally, that really rich sort of mezzo soprano?

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, it’s maybe because of the people that I’ve listened to in the past. I would religiously listen to Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction when I was in my younger teens, and I can hear sometimes in my pronunciation that you can tell certain artists that I’ve listened to. So it was like Eddi Reader, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos. Those sorts of guys. Never really Kate Bush to be honest, even though that tends to come up quite a bit, I was more into Joni Mitchell, Natalie Merchant and Suzanne Vega, very much. It’s that world and the storytelling.

Nick Holmes Music: How and when do you actually write?

Ms Amy Birks: This might sound odd, but I don’t plan it. I feel like something comes to me and I have to very quickly go up to my room or grab some paper and the song comes very quickly, or the idea. Sometimes the piano riff comes first, but I generally feel like someone’s going, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get this down now’, if that doesn’t sound weird. I never say, ‘Right, this weekend, on Saturday and Sunday, I’m going to go and sit and just wait and see what happens. It doesn’t work like that. I have to wait for it to come to me and then I disappear for a while.

Nick Holmes Music: And which comes first, the words or the music?

Ms Amy Birks: A lot of the time it’s all at the same time. So I can kind of hear a finished piece, but then have to decipher, break it down, ‘Okay, my lyrics are coming.’ I’m writing it down and the melody and the structures are all coming at the same time, unless I’m sat at my piano, I think, ‘Well, actually I like this piece, I’ve got a good idea coming here.’ And then I’ll write lyrics. But the main vocal melody and the lyric tends to come at the same time, and sometimes cello, piano, and bass and everything all at the same time.

Nick Holmes Music: Do you write at the piano, or does it come into your head?

Ms Amy Birks: It comes into my head and then I have to find it on the piano because I’m not a naturally gifted pianist. Not at all. I would find it very daunting playing in front of anybody.  I’m very different when it comes to my voice, I can sing in front of anybody but piano, totally opposite. I see it very much as a vehicle to get my ideas out, rather than me being a pianist. So, it comes into my head and then I have to work through and work out, ‘What is that, what note is that?’

Nick Holmes Music: Is it fair to say that in some ways In Our Souls is a less personal album than your first album All That I am and All That I was?

Ms Amy Birks: Yes. I think so, but there are a couple of songs that are deeply personal on this, Brothers being one of them, I needed to just get that off my chest and out there. The Woman in White is definitely about me and my past marriage. But the rest, I kind of just wanted to have more fun with the music. And I suppose I’m in a better place. So, not so many horrendously charged songs. Hopefully it feels a little bit more uplifting this time.

Nick Holmes Music: You recorded, produced and mixed the album. How did you find that? Did you find it difficult to be objective and step back from it all?

Ms Amy Birks: I suppose it was actually but, Tom Manning [guitarist] listened to the mixes towards the end and also my manager Ian Blackaby. So, I had those guys to just tell me, ‘Is this okay or tell me to stop now!’ But I felt like I was in a much better position to understand what I was doing this time compared to the last album. I spent hours and hours on really understanding sound and the soundscape and positioning. I try if I can to structure a lot of my music based on an orchestra. You know where they would sit naturally within the orchestra, which is I suppose natural for my music because it always seems to have cello or violin or viola in. And so that kind of creates my base. But I did find it easier this time. It was hard, the first album. I was really quite worried, I didn’t know whether it was going to be good enough, how people were going to react to it, but for this one I felt more confident and I’m proud of it, even before it went out the door so that was a good test for me, I think.

Nick Holmes Music: You did all the arrangements yourself? They feel quite a lot more complex than the previous album.

Ms Amy Birks: That’s probably just my brain becoming more complex, but arranging is one of my favourite things to do. I love layering and working out how to build the tracks. I spent a hell of a lot more time on arranging than I did actually writing the songs, that’s for sure. Definitely a favourite part of the whole process.

Nick Holmes Music: It feels that there’s a new kind of maturity and richness both about your singing and your song writing compared with the first album, which was excellent by the way …

Ms Amy Birks: Thank you!

Nick Holmes Music: What’s changed? How did that come about?

Ms Amy Birks:  I’m less stressed about everything, I think because I’ve just matured and realised what life is about a bit more. And I have a really solid partner in crime in my now husband, Simon, so I just have the headspace that I never had before. And now I think – I know this sounds a bit deep – but I think I know who I am and what I want to do with my life and what my purpose is. So maybe that comes through.

Nick Holmes Music: So does your husband contribute creatively?

Ms Amy Birks: No, he’s just got a really good way of looking at life. He’s a crazy passionate ultrarunner and he’s really wonderful to talk through ideas with. Actually he’s got a really good voice, and he introduced me to bands like Depeche Mode that I never really listened to before, so maybe that had some sort of influence …. there were some electronic sounds actually that came through, and that’s probably off the of the back of me listening to some of the Depeche Mode records, but no creative input. It’s just good to chat through ideas at the end of the day.

Nick Holmes Music: You did virtually all the backing vocals yourself; how important was it to you that that you had this multi layered approach to the backing vocals?

Ms Amy Birks: It’s something I do naturally. I love harmonising off the cuff. I would never write a melody down or really take that much time. I just press record and see what happens. So there’s a lot of that on my record where it’s just of the moment. I put down what comes into my head and see what happens. There’s quite a bit of that on the album and I just enjoy it. I enjoy the build-up of layers of vocals. Maybe it comes back to my roots singing in choirs, and growing up in a house where my dad could sing. My mum can, but she would never admit it. So there’s always voices around. But for me, I kind of challenge myself, ‘Let’s see how obscure I can make this next vocal line’, and then see if I can interweave it; I like clashes, but it’s still got to make sense when it’s there.

Nick Holmes Music: Steven Wilson has said that he was very strongly influenced by The Beach Boys in terms of layering vocals, and he does most of his backing vocals. Was there any particular band that influenced you?

Ms Amy Birks: I think if you listen to some of Eddi Reader’s records, I always loved her atmospheric sort of vocals, and it was always her. So I assume it’s probably come from that. I used to, from 13 or 14 years old, put her records on; this is how I taught myself that how to be able to harmonise with anything on the spot is to listen to records, like the stuff from Eddi Reader and just never hit her main note, and just train my brain to very quickly snap into what that chord could be. So I should imagine it’s from that.

Nick Holmes Music: And there’s a male voice that creeps in occasionally; is that your dad?

Ms Amy Birks: That’s my dad, yes. He got up on Saturday actually and sang at the album launch which was beautiful and I cried a little bit at the end. He sang Say Something [from the first album] with me, which is really poignant because the lyrics kind of point to my dad saying that to me, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’ So it was a real moment that we caught, but yeah I love his voice. Say Something was about two things that happened in my childhood. One, I was attacked by a boy in my music class when I was 14 and he got expelled; and the next was I used to do quite a bit of modelling and at the age of 17, I worked with a photographer, and he was horrendous to be around, and the sort of stuff that he was encouraging me to try and do was just… no one should be faced with that sort of behaviour at the age of 17. There was a lot of nude photography around me, and just things that happened and were said to me and done around me that I should never have experienced. But for some reason at the time, because he was kind of trying to be my manager, music wise, I didn’t say anything because I was scared of losing out on something. And I opened up to my parents later on and said, you know, he was a horrible man and the things that he said and did should never have been allowed to happen. I know it’s pretty hard and awful for my dad to hear, so then I wrote the chorus of Say Something from his perspective. So then to get up and sing together was emotional, to say the least.

Nick Holmes Music: Are you happy to talk about this?

Ms Amy Birks: I think you have to be open. If I’ve written a song about it then I’ve got to talk about it.

Nick Holmes Music: It’s in the public domain isn’t it?

Ms Amy Birks: Yes.

PART II Individual Songs on In our Souls

The less control you have I think from external sources the more creative you can be

Nick Holmes Music:  So let’s talk about individual tracks on the new album, starting with Brothers. It has really anguished opening spoken words, ‘Do you do you know why?’ And it’s about the relationship with your estranged brothers…

Ms Amy Birks: My twin and my younger brother. We’ve just had a very, very difficult relationship. I think maybe with my twin it probably started … I was never competitive with him, but I think it was the other way around. I even think it probably started when we were children in school. We were very good at sport so teachers would put us up against each other in things like swimming races, so that competition emerged. So maybe it started there. But really very sad, really, because you think twins are going to be close, but I’ve just had the most difficult relationship; it’s the most difficult one I’ve ever had in my life, and I’ve had a few difficult ones, and it’s upsetting. And really, I can’t put my finger on what it is, which is why I say, ‘do you know? Do you know why?’ Because I really don’t, and I don’t know why … There’s a lot of hatred between us and it is hate. I wouldn’t say it’s a dislike, and the same with my younger brother. We were very, very close until maybe six or seven years ago, something like that. And then relationships happen and people go off and meet partners and form their own opinion of life and how things should happen and – so yes, two very, very difficult relationships – heart breaking up to the point where a couple of years ago I thought it was going to break me … Probably why there was a lot coming through on my last album, I thought I was going to have a breakdown. It was that hard for me. But in the last three years I’ve realised that when things like this happen, you send them love and you send them on their way because certain people are not supposed to be in your life, whether they’re family or not. So if you can recognise that, you’re in a much better position then to enjoy your own life.

Nick Holmes Music: So do you feel to an extent that writing tracks like this and some of the more personal tracks on your previous album is almost a form of therapy for you?

Ms Amy Birks: Massively, yes! It’s cheaper too! Yes it’s a way of just almost putting something to bed, too. It’s like, ‘Yes, okay that’s out of my system now.’ I hope even with Brothers … it could come across as harsh, yes, because it’s been a hard relationship. However, there’s a lot of sadness in there too, so I try with all my lyrics not to … you know they can be quite close to the bone, but hopefully never go over that line because a lot of my songs are actually written about people, actual people. So I have to be careful.

Nick Holmes Music: And talking of that, who is Elsa? Is that a real person?

Ms Amy Birks: No, no. So I wrote that song when I was about 19, so I’ve got a couple of songs on this album that are really quite old now, well sort of old! It’s fictitious, just a lady that was very aware of her needs. I was 19 or 20 when I wrote that. Maybe it was a little of me in there. I don’t know. But some songs are very deeply personal; others, I suppose like The Beatles did, right – they just made things up and they just turned them into songs. So no, I don’t know an Elsa – I never met an Elsa!

Nick Holmes Music: There are three songs on the album which use words by the Brontës; why did you choose to go for their poetry rather than their perhaps more famous novels?

Ms Amy Birks: I suppose because the natural one was Wuthering Heights being, you know, Kate Bush, she’s kind of conquered that one. So don’t go near that. Actually Jane Eyre is my favourite, but I think when I read their poetry, I just thought, well, this fits so easily into pieces of music because there’s so much structure there already. There’s so much rhythm and I just remember seeing Evening Solace, which is In Our Souls and straight away I was getting a melody to it. So it’s a natural thing that I never really thought to tackle a Jane Eyre. I don’t know, it’s a natural thing to go towards. Maybe I was being lazy! It’s much easier to say the poems than to come to try and capture such incredible stories, but who knows, I might just do that next. I almost think it could be a concept album, you know the bigger pieces.

Nick Holmes Music: Let’s just talk through the individual songs, starting with In Our Souls by Charlotte Brontë.

Ms Amy Birks: So with this there was a lot of the just singular lines that resonated with me, and to me it just sounded like the sunshine, something like a real spring morning. I do a lot of gardening, I’m in an allotment a lot, and I tried to capture something that sounded like a celebration of something beautiful, something full of life. So when that piano part came to me, the big piano riff, it was like, ‘Yes! This has to be for that track.’ So that came separately, the piece of piano, but knowing that I was already looking at poems from the Brontës. So I think it’s more about bringing out the words and trying to bring out some of the character as well of each of the Brontë sisters. And so hopefully In Our Souls does sound like a kind of celebration and something that feels really fresh, uplifting and very English.

Nick Holmes Music: Then the next one is A Death Scene, which is Emily Brontë?

Ms Amy Birks: With what Emily’s written in terms of …  well, the only novel … but her poetry was dark. And from what I’ve read she seemed a feisty character, so I wanted that to come through, I think, in A Death Scene. I love the instrumentation on A Death Scene. Some of that track is definitely up there with my favourite parts of the album, normally when I’m not singing to be honest – I can sit back and listen to John Hackett, with the flute and Tom Manning with the guitar. I didn’t actually write that guitar part. I said to Tom, ‘Make people weak with this section.’ And then he sent that through, ‘Wow! That really is beautiful. You’ve hit the brief.’ And so where I could I have just said to the musicians on the album, ‘Really listen’. This is telling them what it is, what the song’s about, and then they’ve had freedom to express themselves. I think Tom Manning especially really comes through strong on this album. I can hear Tom in the music, which is great.

Nick Holmes Music: And finally, there’s The Dream, with words by Anne Brontë?

I wanted this to sound intimate and personal, just like your dreams. Through reading about the sisters I saw that Anne preferred vocal music, so this has more of a traditional singer-songwriter feel to it than the other two Brontë poems on the album. But it’s not without its drama, where she awakes in the middle eight,

But then to wake and find it flown, The dream of happiness destroyed.

Anne Brontë

Nick Holmes Music: And for the Brontës you actually went to Haworth to do some research. How did those visits go what? What did you find out that inspired you?

Ms Amy Birks: To be honest, I’ve been going to Haworth since I was a young girl. My mum and dad took me there when I was probably seven or eight years old. I’ve always been drawn to it and there’s such a darkness around their house – the sound of black crows all around sends shiver down my spine. But I always love to just go and be still. I’m very much into the energies of the place and the House [the Brontë Parsonage Museum] and I think you can absorb so much from just being in a place where they would write and create and go through turmoil and have happy memories. So I visited there, and I did my research to try and work out what sort of music and what sort of classical music they were all like listening to, like Liszt for example. But for me it’s about feeling the energies in that house, and I think it’s full of them. I’ve been there probably six or seven times and will keep going back. And it’s amazing that you know if you’ve seen some of the clothes they wore and how tiny they were, and Charlotte was absolutely minute. It’s fascinating to see some of their miniatures. I resonate a lot with them in lots of different ways. I have a doll’s house which is filled with antique miniatures and so there are lots of different reasons why I’m drawn to the Brontës.

Nick Holmes Music: And so striking that they lived in a small village, in a parsonage, and yet their imaginations were so vivid.

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, absolutely wild. But then again, you go to the back of the House, and you step foot into the Moors. And it’s barren up there and you can imagine what … you have to dig deep and find happiness in a different way.  I don’t really watch the TV so I tend to go inwards and do a lot, and the less control you have I think from external sources the more creative you can be. So I get it – once you’re there, I think you can understand where they did get those ideas from and the fact that there were three of them bouncing ideas and encouraging I think that’s incredible.  

Nick Holmes Music: Is there a link between your musical influences and Iamthemorning, and the solo work of their vocalist Marjana Semkina?

Ms Amy Birks: I’m aware of their work, yeah. I’m not sure if I’m aware of the sort of music that they would listen to you, but I know of those guys yeah and I’ve got their albums.

Nick Holmes Music: I was more thinking in terms of the fact that they have quite a Victorian sensibility. And I wonder if that that relates to what we’ve been talking about in terms of the Brontës and looking back in time to that era.

Ms Amy Birks: There’s a romance there, isn’t there, looking back through history. Maybe it’s because of the simpleness of it – complicated for other reasons, and hardships. But we lose ourselves in silly things these days and I think they didn’t, so everything was said because it needed to be said. I think we’re too soft these days and we would get distracted and controlled too easily. So I think if there is a romance, I’ve always been drawn to that era. I’ve collected Victorian clothes since I was at university, where I’d go to Manchester, to Affleck’s palace. The Victorian cape I have on the front cover of In Our Souls, that was something I bought when I about 18. So I always had a fascination with that era.

Nick Holmes Music: Mariana on her Twitter feed describes herself as a ‘dead Victorian girl.’

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, and her artwork’s beautiful and the whole vibe is wonderful.

Nick Holmes Music: The Woman in White – is there a literary connection? Or did you just take the title from the Wilkie Collins novel?

Ms Amy Birks: I think I read it around the time of actually writing Woman in White but that’s literally where the connection stops, because The Woman in White was definitely about me and my kind of split life of, ‘Who the hell is that woman over there. Oh, that’s me!’ So it’s that, but I do remember reading The Woman in White at that same moment. Actually I found that hard work. I found that book really hard work. It just jumps around so much, but I got to the end of it!

Nick Holmes Music: So just looking now at Hold On, which is another real highlight of the album…

Ms Amy Birks: Thank you.

Nick Holmes Music: … It shows a kind of new sophistication in writing and arranging – the way it starts with a gentle piano and a very sweet violin, and then rises to this huge epic guitar climax. Is that something you’re aiming at now, that kind of development within a song?

Ms Amy Birks: Yeah, more dynamics, so you really feel the quiet moments because again, that middle eight and the way that it drops, and you’ve got the guitar that’s really present, but it’s a quiet presence. Playing with those dynamics, is absolutely what I’ll do in the future. I want to really go for that. I wrote that song when I was sat by the lake in Coniston. And my husband was in the fells doing one of his runs, so it’s written about him. So this song is for Simon. So it was quite a personal song. He had … not the easiest start in life, but he’s found and channels a lot of his energy into running and he was up there in the fells when I wrote this. Again, a song that came very quickly and written on the back of a bookmark. I think I will play more and more with dynamics because I think you feel the words, you feel the presence in the song much more.

Nick Holmes Music: And why did you choose to end the album, to bookend it with an instrumental version of the title track?

Ms Amy Birks: I think it’s me growing as an artist in terms of confidence to be able to not sing on a track and believe that the music that I write is as strong as the lyric. And I love that piece of music without me on it, so I thought it would be a nice way of ending the album with the bookend.

PART III Musical Collaborations

There’s been a lot of natural input from the musicians on this album, and maybe that’s because there’s flexibility there, but I’m like, ‘Come on, inject your personality in there’, and they have.

Nick Holmes Music: Tell me a little bit about the collaborators you worked with on In Our Souls

Ms Amy Birks: John Hackett [flute] of course, he was on the last record. Everything I send to him, the stuff that you get back, I just think he’s a beautiful player. He’s very much melody and song first and he wants to complement and doesn’t want to get in the way. He’s very much that and I’m like, ‘Please get in the way sometimes, John, it’s fine.’ I could listen to him all day. But it’s an absolute pleasure to work with someone like John, he’s great and I spent a bit of time with him with the gigs just lately. So finally after all the lockdown, it’s nice to get to know these people, but you kind of get a sense of who they are through working together with the music.

Tom Manning [guitar] I met when I was 19. I think Tom was just 18. We both did music tech together at Staffordshire University. We formed the Beatrix Players together with Helena Dove. I’ve always loved Tom’s writing and playing, and Tom and I wrote Goodnight for Now when we were 19 or 20. So there are a couple of songs on that album that were right back from our university days.

Then there’s Kyle Welch, bass player. I think Kyle is 19 or 20. He’s so young and an absolutely beautiful energy, full of beans, and an incredible player. He’s so melodic and I love that fretless sound. He was recommended to me through another bass player that was my first ever bass player in my first band when I was about 16 or 17 and I said, ‘Hey, I really want a fretless bass on this record.’ He’s still playing, and he said, ‘I’m nowhere near as good as this guy.’ He’s young, keen, but my God is he good and I just think he is wonderful.

And then Andrew Booker, the drummer and percussionist. I met him when I supported Tim Bowness a couple of years ago in Camden. And I remember thinking then because I got up on stage with him, ‘Wow, this guy can really make me move’ and I’ve spent quite a few holidays and trips to South America, so I really love that sort of vibe and Andrew just gets it. He gets my direction and I love what he does. He’s so creative and absolutely magnetic to watch on stage, he really is. He’s a beautifully creative player.

Cellist Clare O’Connell, she’s lovely. I love to write for strings, so a lot of it is just sending scores, tweaking them and the guys record what I’ve played and written. She’s a beautifully sensitive player, very different to Caroline Lavelle [who played on the first album] who was really rock and roll in her playing. which I absolutely loved too!

And then, Frank van Essen, violin. Wow, he’s a powerhouse. So I sent ideas for Hold On. He messaged me saying, ‘ I’ve just put an idea down for Hold On, have a listen and see what you think.’ I cried when I heard it because I thought, ‘Wow, you’ve just taken this to another level’, so there’s been a lot of natural input from the musicians on this album, and maybe that’s because there’s flexibility there, but I’m like, ‘Come on, inject your personality in there’, and they have. There’s a lot of collaboration on this record.

Ms Amy Birks onstage with guitarist Tom Manning

I’ve basically written all the piano parts and then sent the majority to Moray Macdonald to rerecord properly. Because, like I say, I can play the piano, but I don’t wish to say that I’m a pianist. But I do love to write piano. And Nicole Reynolds, who has quite different style actually, she played on Hold On and In our Souls. But she’s a busy lady and also for the for the live tracks now I’ve decided to move away from the piano, because I really enjoy what the guitar brings to the sound, so all of the live gigs we’ll be doing are two guitars instead of piano. And so all the live stuff I’ve rewritten, rearranged, added, taken away things. So basically I had to rewrite the album again, so that’s tested me. But yes, a big group of wonderful musicians on this record here.

Ms Amy Birks will be performing at the Green Note on July 19 and at The Forum, Darlington (opening for John Hackett) on October 21. In Our Souls is out now.