Ms Amy Birks
Amy Birks is a singer songwriter from Stoke-On-Trent, West Midlands, possibly better known in the Rock world as former lyricist, co-composer and lead vocalist of the 2017 Prog magazine Limelight Award winners Beatrix Players. Birks released her self-produced debut solo album 'All That I Am & All That I Was' on MAB Records on 3rdApril 2020. The album was produced and mixed by Birks, except 'I Wish' which was produced by Nick Wollage - famed for his engineering on the soundtracks to dozens of major motion pictures including 'Atonement', he also worked on Tony Banks' 'Seven (A Suite For Orchestra)' - engineered by Wollage and mastered by Nick Robbins of Sound Mastering. The album artwork is by Birks with sleeve photography by Richard Shakespeare. The album features an array of musicians including Oliver Day (guitar and mandolin), John Hackett (flute), Caroline Lavelle (cello), Maria Kroon (violin), and Emanuela Monni (drums). Guests on the album including Steve Hackett (guitar) on 'I Wish', Callum Greenaway (piano) on 'I Wish', Ian Burdge (cello) also on 'I Wish', Romain Thorel (piano) on 'Keep Me Guessing', Penkhull Village Brass on 'Say Something', and Birks father Andrew Birks (backing vocals) on 'Jamaica Inn' and 'Say Something'. A tantalising Progressive, classically-influenced Chamber-Pop infused album.
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. During this time, Birks became managed by a photographer who was friends with Brian Tatler, frontman and guitarist with Heavy Metal band Diamond Head. “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!”
Whilst studying at University, Birks formed the Beatrix Players, with friends Tom Manning and Helena Dove, and by 2006 they relocated to London. 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. By 2013 the group metamorphosised into a different trio all together, Birks leading the ensemble vocally, and completed by Jess Kennedy (piano, backing vocals) and Amanda Alvarez (cello). Their arresting blend of Chamber music, Folk song and Progressive style was soon compared to Tori Amos and Kate Bush with the release of their debut EP 'Words In Lemon Juice'.
Gathering momentum in the Progressive scene, and championed in particular by Prog Magazine, when debut album 'Magnified' emerged in 2017, the group came to wider notice, going on to win the Limelight (best new band) award that year at the Prog Awards. 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. Sadly due to creative differences within the group, they decided to spit up. Having amassed many self-penned songs, Birks decided to forge ahead and release them as a solo album.
Writing, producing and arranging the album that would become 'All That I Am & All That I Was' took Birks to George Martin’s AIR Studios in Hampstead, No. 50 England’s Lane and the floating steel ship studios, Soup in East London’s Trinity Wharf. Her 11-song collection takes the listener on an emotional roller-coaster ride, but will definitely make you feel uplifted and refreshed by the end. The opening song 'Jamaica Inn' transports the listener to a character-led drama with a Cornish coast-themed (“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.”). A delicate, slow and moody opening that gently builds to an intense and catchy chorus “So if the cold don't get you, the souls from the sea, all will be awaiting at Jamaica Inn”. 'Unlike The Heart' is a sparse and spacious sweeping, beautifully melodic, sad heart-wrenching ballad with superbulous emotionally wrought vocals, “Unlike the heart, there's no quick start for the mind, unlike the heart, some things are hard to find”. The song is about a friend of Amy's, who sadly had taken their own life. Graceful cello and piano accompaniment add to beguiling atmosphere.
'More' is another mid-tempo, reflective and intensely emotional song about failed relationships. “And the battle for now is won, but the war it whittles on for me, though it lessens by and by, still I'm sobered by its soul and stride”. 'Not Every Night' continues on similar themes from the previous two songs, again mid-tempo with emotionally poignant and reflective lyrics. “So much crimson in your rage, and too little respect, for the memories that we made”. Powerful and affecting performances.
'With All That I Am' has an insistent longing and foreboding vulnerable quality with expressive plaintive vocal delivery. “With all that I am, cannot be what you want me to be, so I bid you farewell, but please let me leave in peace”. Emotionally intense, with disconcerting feelings of disquiet. 'Say Something' carries the heaviest message of all, relating to Birks’ time as a teenage model and the older male who took advantage. “It was okay, was it, to touch me like you did? You took away that pleasure, forever.” A deeply personal song with intensely harrowing lyrics. Darkly haunting and powerfully moving vocal performance from Birks.
The next two songs 'Catherine' and 'All The Fault Of The Lady Anne' veer towards a more historic storytelling angle with tales from the court of Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon being King Henry's first wife whom he divorced as she didn't provide him with a surviving son, and also by the fact that he was infatuated with Anne Boleyn! “He woke up today, with a hate for Catherine, grown tired of waiting, tired of negotiating, starts a war of hearts” a mellifluously sparkling and poetically entrancing vocal performance with spaciously generous and classically colourful regal musical accompaniment. 'All The Fault Of The Lady Anne' takes on the story of the King's second wife's downfall! The King's eventual marriage to Anne Boleyn didn't go too well and she was subsequently arrested, accused of treasonous adultery and incest! She was, of course, executed for such crimes! “For it was all the fault of the Lady Anne, and the moon doth shine as bright as it can, down into the room tempting chastity's hand, where the temptress lay bare with a morsel of a man.” Silvery laced piano delicately tinkles and spirals setting the melodious progression. Birks' mezzo-soprano voice emotes the sorrowful tale with magisterial elegance.
The gentle ballad 'Road To Gordes' has lyrical connections with France, signposting Birks’ future relocation to the South Eastern mountain village. Quite clearly a place where she has experienced great healing and inner peace, “For on the road to Gordes, I find my peace, amongst the ochre and the olive leaf, and it is here that I remember to say, be kind to yourself.” Light and airy diaphanous vocals shimmer and glide over the elegantly sweeping silken strings with fluid grace.
Off to Latin America with the Flamenco spark of 'I Wish' with lyrics based on the words of Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem 'I Wish I Was A Little Bird'. Christina Rossetti is a poet, activist and the subject of some of the most famous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The track features Prog Rock legend Steve Hackett on acoustic guitar. The single is accompanied by a video featuring Amy and a mysterious Flamenco guitarist each represented in stunning origami stop motion piece, created by Susan Raybould (Origami Om) and pushed the boundaries of traditional origami design. “I wrote this song during a trip to Colombia where I was influenced by the classical guitar and percussive sounds of Bambuco. The Rossetti poem works perfectly as this is a dark lyric about the fragility of the mind and how the past can so very easily come back to tease and torment”. “Quicker I forgive and forget, the less time I spend inside my head, the more I live without regrets.”
For the final song we are transported back to France with the sparkling piano-led album closer 'Keeps You Guessing', co-written with French band Lazuli’s keyboard player Romain Thorel. A romantic love story of a long distant relationship; “And the distance between us, will not diffuse, it only increases the aperture, to let the light through.” Flooding piano washes over the track like a majestically flowing river meandering towards the sea, with eloquently evocative vocals wrapping around the expressive lyrical syncopation like a warm glove to cold hands.
Throughout the album, Birks’ beautifully enunciated modern mezzo voice is notable, by turns vulnerable, playful and powerful, her storytelling coming vibrantly to life with each track. This album will move you, empower you and revitalise you.
Steven C. Gilbert