NEW YORK – Diane Birch had just finished singing the title track from her new album when she had a little chat onstage. The show, in a dimly lit supper club here called City Winery, was airing live on WFUV Radio, and host Carmel Holt was riffing on the name of the song Birch had just sung.
“Very nice. Speak a little louder,” Holt said. “It’s been a little while. Where you been, Diane?”
“I’ve been trying to speak louder,” Birch shot back with a laugh. “I’ve been working on my volume, is what I’ve been doing.”
It was a casual exchange that played well on radio, but it also signaled a prominent change in the direction of Birch’s music. Her acclaimed debut, 2009’s “Bible Belt,” had presented her as a Laurel Canyon dweller, courting comparisons to Carole King and other female singer-songwriters of that ilk. In reality, it was closer in spirit to soulful 1970s musicians such as Phoebe Snow and Laura Nyro (particularly “Gonna Take a Miracle,” the sensual 1971 album Nyro recorded with Labelle).
“‘Bible Belt’ was definitely authentic, and I was proud of the music I had written,” Birch says a few weeks later over a cup of tea in SoHo. “But for me it has always been a struggle because I’ve always been influenced by so many different things that are contrary to each other.”
“Listening to ‘Bible Belt,’ nobody would have known that I grew up listening to [Goth-rock bands] Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy and wearing floor-length black velvet capes,” she adds. “I was really hardcore. I would have given Lady Gaga a run for her money.”
Birch comes into sharper focus on “Speak a Little Louder,” her new sophomore album, which comes out on Tuesday, the same day she plays at the Sinclair as the opening act for Kodaline. It pushes Birch well beyond the singer-songwriter idiom and into more brooding territory, more R&B and dance-oriented.
“I wasn’t trying to make a dark record, but I wanted to make something that showed a few other sides,” she says. “‘Bible Belt’ really only showed a few sides,” she says. “My melancholy side is a lot more prominent [than people realize]. There was a lot of darker stuff that didn’t make it on the first abum.”
The same could not be said for “Speak a Little Louder.” Darkness becomes Birch, from the down tempos to the doom and gloom lurking in the chords. The recent death of her father, with whom she was close, also informs the tone of the record, giving songs like “Lighthouse” an added poignancy.
With an assist from Homer Steinweiss, the Dap-Kings drummer turned producer, other songs have a lift and drive that was largely absent before. Steinweiss, who produced eight of the album’s songs and played drums and occasional guitar, says the album as a step forward.
“I think Diane has a really heavy, mystical Stevie Nicks vibe,” he says. “For that first record, all the reviews said it sounded like a Carole King record, but her full personality wasn’t coming through. She has this whole other side to her. I think this record more fully represents her personality as a musician.”
Birch is 30 and admits she’s in a little bit of a hurry to express all the shades of what she does. She can channel the mellow gold of ’70s soft-rock, but she makes it compelling with a voice full of husk and elasticity. Most everything she sings sounds like a kiss-off, particularly on her new album. The sweet sass of “Bible Belt” has given way to more scorching moments. Birch is not the one to be messed with on “All the Love You Got,” which presumably dresses down a former lover:
I sit and wonder where you’ve gone
Have you found a head to crown
That stays under when you push it down
I sit and ponder what went wrong
Was I too emotional,
Too many puzzles for your simple soul?
The chorus hinges on a clever twist of words. You think it’s going to be tender but instead is an indictment: “Does she know that’s all the love you got?”
Birch could have included songs like that on her debut, but she realized that for the sake of consistency, she needed to commit to a cohesive sound and collection of songs. There would be time to make other records. There would be life after “Bible Belt.”
“In a lot of ways, I felt misunderstood,” she says. “As much as I was so honored and flattered by all the comparisons, I thought, ‘You guys don’t really know who I am.’ Even listening to this record, I thought, ‘Oh, they don’t know that I want to make a droney Brian Eno record!’ I want to make house music and rap beats.”
“I’m really trying to be present but also acknowledge that there’s a lot of pressure I’ve placed on myself,” she adds. “But all these artists I’ve loved – from David Bowie to Stevie Nicks – they’ve all evolved over time. I just have to be patient and keep making music.”