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Minnie Birch

Venue: Watford Museum
Town: Watford, Herts
Date: 11/11/17

It doesn't matter how much music you see or listen to, how ever many new acts you are introduced to, there will inevitably be the favourites you will always return to whenever you get the opportunity. Minnie Birch (no relation) is firmly in that category so I leapt at the chance to both attend the launch of her second album, “Tethered”, and then write about the experience.

Minnie's songs, as she describes them herself, are heartbreak songs to mend a broken heart so as soon as I heard the album title I was intrigued. Tethered is a word which can have very different meanings, depending on the circumstances, so I wondered which direction the album would go in. If there is a theme to the album that reflects the title then it is that people can find themselves in a situation where they have little control over the outcome. In this way they are not so much tied down, but tied in although it is not the security of a boat firmly tethered to a mooring and ready to ride out a coming storm. There will be more about the songs later.

Watford Museum is not, perhaps, the obvious place to launch an album but it actually works very well. It's a museum that tries to link the past with the present and so music and art make natural bedfellows and there are regular exhibitions, classes and performances. The launch was held in one of the main galleries and I occasionally looked up at the portraits of 18th Century Lords and Ladies to see if they were enjoying the show.

The evening was a good mix, with two support acts. First up was London based musician Emily Aldrich who has decided to be leader in her chosen genre by inventing a new one she describes a “existential mope folk”. It can probably be best summed up by a song she couldn't play on the night, as she didn't have her ukulele with her, called “I'm Not Depressed”. One song we did hear was on the subject of unrequited love and she observed that people who have never suffered from it have probably been the cause of it. What makes Emily so good is not only the quality of her writing, combined with a fine voice, but the sparkling self-depreciating humour she has when introducing her next piece. The songs are actually not at all gloomy, but quietly observant. An EP is being recorded.

Following Emily was a east London based poet, Cecilia Knapp. Like many in the audience I've not paid that much attention to poetry in the past but by the end of her set I was firmly hooked. Talking to people during the interval we decided that poetry doesn't belong in a book as that’s rather like reading a set of lyrics without knowing the tune. Cecilia brought the poems, mostly autobiographical, to life with a performance of real energy and passion. Each piece was lived to the full and it was as much dance as words. The packed audience were spellbound listening to her.

Of course the main event was Minnie herself, but this was to be no mere playing of the album. Indeed, only half the tracks were played on the night. Starting the set was the album opener “Lo and Behold”, which explores the theme of somebody who is in a situation they cannot escape from even if they wanted to, although it isn't clear if they do.

“Juniper Tree” returns to a theme that Minnie has used before, of turning children's stories into song, this time the basis being The Little Match Girl. However, in this case the visions are of a man who has promised much but it turned out to be a lie and as she strikes her last match, waiting for the snow to claim her, she utters the lament that so many women must have used through the ages “But oh, oh, oh, what a fool you've made of me.” This is the kind of song that Minnie does so well with her delicate, almost plaintive, voice reaching out to tug the heartstrings of her listeners and get them completely on her side.

But, she can also write songs that make the listener empathise with those who are not perhaps the first choice for sympathy and with these she becomes a social commentator with a message to be heard, and a message that comes from first hand experience. “Sangatte” is one such, and was the first single from the album. It's the story of the people in “The Jungle” camps around Calais but Minnie isn't the sort of person who would write a song such as this from other people's experience or what she's seen in the press. She went there, she worked there, and got to know the people who were living this hand-to-mouth experience with no clear end in sight. As she discovered “The people who are made in this mud and in stone, are equal to me until I chose to go home.” I won't tell you story of how she became an English teacher in the camp, you can find out for yourself by going to one of her gigs, but it will make you cry and laugh in equal measure. The song is one the finest I've ever heard and certainly the best on this subject. Minnie, outside of music, is a Chartered Librarian so she knows the language and knows how to use it to make a point. She has no need for over-blown lines and hyperbole. It's the very sparseness of the lyrics that gives this song its power. “Lend them your heart, they do not need your shoes”.

Minnie can also write poetry very well and gave us an example on the night. It was again autobiographical, about a friend she's known for years from a time when they thought that 30 was old, and they've stuck together ever since helping each other out when help was needed and just being there when it wasn't. Big friendship doesn't have to be big drama to make a beautiful story.

We were also treated to songs that cover Minnie's life in music, from “Glitter” and “Settled” which goes right back to the first EP, to a new interest in her life that marks her out as a true folk historian. Inspired by Megson's “The Longshot”, and discovering an interest in football, she's exploring possibly the richest seam of traditional songs that the 20th Century has to offer; the songs that come from the terraces up and down the country as well as the people who sing them. We heard a song that is so new that it doesn't have a title yet and is based on a true story of a man who realised his marriage and his team's performance were similar in many ways. His wife had picked the wrong person just as his club had picked the wrong manager and both sides would be better off with somebody else. It was a song that could so easily become bitter or cynical and yet was told with such sorrow and no finger pointing or assigning blame. It just didn't work out.

The evening fairly buzzed past and the guests Minnie invited to join her were a big part of that. Minnie is a part of the youngest Supergroup in history; The Company of Players and it was a totally unexpected delight to see three of them (Chris Cleverley, Kelly Oliver and Daria Kulesh) joining her for the song she brought to the collaboration. “Up and Down” is based on the mischievous Puck, dabbling in people's loves lives whether they want it or not. This song brings another side of Minnie to the fore. Behind these stories of lost, sometimes doomed, love and human suffering is a person who has a wicked sense of humour and a smile that can light up a room. Minnie the commentator can also be Minnie the Minx.

Also joining her on stage was Lauren Deakin-Davies who co-produced, recorded and mixed the album. Lauren is gaining a growing reputation as a producer who can get people to move beyond their comfort zone. Combining that with the way Minnie pushed herself to raise her game for The Company of Player has resulted in an album that lifts the standard of Minnie's music to a whole new level without losing the essential character of her work. Musically it's more advanced, yet uses only the bare minimum of sound necessary to support the words because Minnie Birch is essentially a story teller.

The packed audience, we were referred to on more than one occasion as looking like rather hot sardines, ended the evening fully aware that we had been present at one of those shows that will stay in the memory for ever. Having eaten all the cake, and drunk the bar dry, we went home knowing we had been part of something special.

The album is now released and is absolutely beautiful. There isn't one average song on it and I would strongly recommend buying it. Get the CD version because it comes with the hauntingly beautiful artwork of David Jacques who can interpret her work so well. It's not surprising, really; he is her Dad! The album can be purchased through her bandcamp page which is accessible via the website.

Words & photos: Tony Birch

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