I first encountered Stoke-On-Trent born and currently Staffordshire-based Amy in 2016 as part of prog-folk ensemble The Beatrix Players, since which time they’ve gone their separate ways and she’s assembled this debut solo collection, All That I Am And & All That I Was, which features herself on piano alongside guest contributions from Caroline Lavelle on cello and brothers Steve and John Hackett on classical guitar and flute, respectively, as well as her father Andrew on backing vocals.
Since the elephant in the room is going to be the Kate Bush comparisons, let’s get that out of the way first by saying there are obvious echoes to be heard in her mezzo vocals and melodic arrangements, but then you might also mention Tori Amos as regards the piano colours. However, they are just that, echoes, not duplications.
Birks’ literary and history inclinations figure strongly, the former with the opening number, ‘Jamaica Inn’, a dramatic piano gothic ballad featuring flute and cello and obviously inspired by the Du Maurier novel that shifts from a sedate scene setting opening to balance between the confessional verses and jittery chorus as, backing vocals overlapping, she sings “So if the cold don’t get you/The souls from the sea/All will be awaiting at Jamaica Inn/ And your aunt won’t help you And neither will he”.
Further literary references are to be found with the flamenco-styled ‘I Wish’, which, featuring Hackett’s fine guitar work and Ian Burdge on cello , draws on Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem I Wish I Were A Little Bird, which it quotes as the final verse , for a song about not dwelling on regrets.
Turning to historical matters, two of Henry VIII’s wives provide the subject matter, first up being Catherine of Aragon in the piano and strings arranged ‘Catherine’ which sketches how Henry’s first wife fell from favour because he got tired of waiting for her to produce a living male heir, but how, despite his rejection, “She’ll not be silenced Even if it leads her/To an early grave/Because she loves him so/And will continue to do so/Until her last breath”.
On record as in life, she’s followed by Anne Boleyn, her lady in waiting, in the stately courtly-coloured piano ballad ‘All The Fault Of The Lady Anne’ who “danced La Volta straight into his arms/With her smiling eyes and her decadent charm” only to be sent to the block on trumped up charges (“a tempest of rumours, of poison and deceit”) of, among other things, reason adultery (“the room tempting chastity ‘s hand/Where the temptress lay bare with a morsel of a man”) and incest.
There’s break-up songs too, three in a row, kicking off with the piano backed, cello soloing ‘Unlike The Heart’ addresses an unfulfilled relationship in interesting imagery as she sings “Too much furniture to move around/And it won’t fit through that door/Too soon the help had come to the end of its shift/And I was left feeling scattered/ Just like letters on a step”. Coloured by string arrangement, ‘More’ speaks of “the mess that is to come” but being unable to retreat, while the airy, simple piano and strings ballad ‘Not Every Night’ talks of arguments (“so many blue words/So much crimson in your rage/And too little respect”) and her decision to move on (“You never really asked why/ And I was clearly unhappy/And just had to say goodbye”).
Flute and piano etching the waltzing rhythms, ‘With All That I Am’ also deals with the acrimonious end of a relationship (a divorce perhaps, “Why should, why should I Sign it?” in the wake of adultery (“Tell me/Who is, who is she? You owe me that at least”) and the bitter division of belongings “(why should you keep it? Why be so, why be so mean? You gave that to me”) before giving in (“Take it/Go on, go on/Take it/If that’s how you’ll, that’s how you’ll be”) just to be left in peace.
Then there’s the powerful ‘Say Something’ and its confessional memory of sexual abuse by an older male as a seventeen-year-old model (“It was okay, was it/To touch me like you did?/You took away that pleasure forever”), waltzing music box piano notes accompanied by SoT’s Penkhull Village Brass as she asks “How was it okay then? And how is it okay now?” throwing back the so often heard claim that the victim was asking for it in the line “And it was my fault, was it/ That you did what you did?”
The two remaining tracks connect her to France. ‘Road To Gordes’ is a rippling piano, woodwind and cello adorned ballad that references her getting away to her modest retreat in the south-eastern mountain village, finding calm “amongst the ochre and the olive leaf”, opening and closing on simple, hesitant piano notes. And, finally, the classical piano fluttering ‘Keeps You Guessing’, co-written and played with French keyboardist Romain Thorel, is a song about departures, but not endings (“Our time is running out/And the seas are calling you home…But we have thoughts to hold/ To treasure until the next time I get to see you again”) as, in surely a nod to Leonard Cohen, she sings how “the distance between us/Will not diffuse/It only increases the aperture/To let the light through”.
For all that she was, Birks has long been celebrated by the prog audiences, this album and all that she is now should go a considerable way to opening the ears of the folk fraternity too.
Artist’s website: www.msamybirks.com
‘Jamaica Inn’ – official video: