The majority of our generation finds discomfort in being alone; some may even call it a fear. How many times have you been by yourself, maybe while waiting to meet a friend, and automatically became glued to your phone? We’re often so inundated with breaking news and status updates and likes on our posts, consumed with the need to know what’s happening 24/7, that we never really confront these feelings of loneliness or take a step back to wonder why we require such constant contact. There’s one artist, however, who is exploring those questions and seeking explanations through her music.
Enter Michelle Birsky. With a smile that lights up a room and a personality to match, it was easy to spot her pastel blue hair as she walked into a crowded Williamsburg coffee shop to meet me. The 24-year-old lead singer of Birch is a Connecticut native, a graduate of Kenyon College, and currently a Brooklyn dweller. Though her band’s sound is something she’s yet to officially sum up, there’s no question of where she draws her musical inspiration from and what the meaning behind her first single, “Halfway”, was:
The narrative of the first verse came from when I spent two weeks in Vermont, completely silent and alone. I was hiking up a mountain by myself, realized how utterly alone I was, and ran back down, terrified. I was just scared of being so alone, and I had been alone for so long at that point. I went home and started reflecting and thought, “Why am I so terrified of these feelings of solitude?” And that’s where it all started. It’s like, why are we so dependent on the people around us? The whole song deals with that concept, and also how I felt when I was up there by myself versus how I feel here in this metropolis. How I present myself versus what I actually feel. It can be two very different things.
Birsky brings those reflective elements into her music as she tries to understand the influence of technology, among other things, on herself and on society. She attempts to find meaning in the chaos; to find answers to questions people are too afraid to ask. That, and the fact that her song will be on repeat in your head for days, is why this girl is going far.
the Lala: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in music?
Birsky: I’ve been writing songs since I’ve been very young. I went to Kenyon college to study English but realized that’s not what I wanted to do, so I studied classical composition there. It kind of culminated in this abroad experience in London where I studied song writing. So when I graduated college I didn’t really want to admit to myself I wanted to be in a band; I wanted a more sustainable career as a college grad. I tried jingle writing and interning for a film composer but realized what I really wanted to do was make my own music. At a certain point you have to realize you don’t have a plan B, and it’s scary but it’s powerful.
Where do you draw your influences for your music?
I think a lot of my inspiration comes from the world around me and experiences that I’ve witnessed and experiences that I’ve had. Most songs are a combination of autobiographical and biographical stories. I like to have narratives in my songs but they can be very vague, so unless you’re in my head you may not totally understand that narrative, but it’s about the emotion I’m trying to evoke; that’s the important thing. I try to write about what it’s like to be a millennial and what it’s like to grow up in this age. A lot of it is about the influence of technology and that experience of growing up and being completely consumed by your iPhone – how to have that human contact still while undergoing all of theses changes in our short lifetime.
What about influences from other bands or musicians?
A lot of my roots were singer/songwriters from the past, like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, lyricism-wise. Musically, I listen to a lot of St. Vincent, I think she’s brilliant – she melds rock with electronics with an interesting performance aspect. I’ve listened to Sufjan Stevens my whole life. I really like La Roux and Grimes – I like women who are super powerful with electronic sounds.
How would you describe Birch’s sound?
That’s a hard one. It’s an indie-pop rock sound, with some singer/songwriter and electronic aspects. It’s not sugar pop, but it’s not hard rock, it’s something in between.
What was the inspiration behind your single “Halfway”?
I’ve had some vocal chord issues, so I decided go to my parents house by myself in Vermont for two weeks to be silent and try to heal. I had been in New York for a year and I needed to just get out of the city. I wanted to write and start this band. So I set up all my synths and guitars and didn’t bring a microphone – I spent two weeks just walking around Vermont not speaking. It was very strange. That song came from that place of where your mind goes when you’re alone and all the dark things that arise. It turned into a song of how you present yourself to the world versus how you are inside.
Your first EP is coming out at the end of August. What are you most excited about?
I’m excited to just finally have it out there. I started writing these songs this time last year and it’s been a very laborious process. A lot of things have changed – it used to be just me and now I have a band, I’ve had musicians come and go, there are a lot of different elements that have come and gone. Putting out a single felt amazing. Presenting myself and being there and being part of this world and not just in my head anymore is really freeing.
What is the music culture like in Brooklyn?
It’s an interesting place because it’s incredibly over-saturated. There are so many bands, its hard to get people to bat an eyelash when you tell them you have a show. It’s the place to be, I think, if you want to do this. There are so many venues and it’s a great environment, but it’s difficult. It’s full of opportunity but it takes an enormous amount of hustle and thick skin.
Would you say that’s the hardest thing? Getting your foot in the door?
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s also just sticking it out long enough. It’s not easy. I’m in the middle of it. You have to fight and you have to work your ass off, and you’re not going to be able to support yourself off your music yet. You have to work a day job, and then you have to go to practice afterwards, and then you have to find time to write, and you also have to email music blogs, and book your own shows, and get people to pay attention to you. That’s the hard part. Getting people to listen to you.
Do you have any advice for girls trying to get into the music industry?
Talk to as many people as you can. [My mom] taught me how to write a good email and network, and it’s so necessary if you’re going to try to do anything off the beaten path. You can’t do it on your own. The only way is to reach out, don’t be scared, be obnoxious, and get in people’s faces.
What is your favorite part about being in music?
I love practicing and I love being with my band. The other night, for example, I had an idea for a song and I brought it to them and together we worked it out. We made it from this idea to a complete package of a beautiful song that worked and made sense. It’s just that feeling of creating something and being able to see that through into the recording process – being able to express yourself in a way that you can’t do with words. I’ve always believed that songwriting is the ultimate form of storytelling, and being able to tell my story, someone else’s story, our collective story, it’s just a really powerful thing. It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing, and I’m happy with where I’m at.
Listen to “Halfway” and watch the music video below. Stay tuned for Birch’s EP release on August 28th!