From touring the world with Corinne Bailey Rae to running a community recording studio in Otley, Jennifer Birch’s life in music has taken many turns.
On Saturday she steps out as a solo artist – under the name Astraluna – to launch her debut album, The Pass of Storms.
“Me and Corinne were in the Leeds Primary Schools Orchestra at the Town Hall,” she recalls. “We grew up a couple of streets away from each other and our mums went to a single parents’ group together so although we weren’t school friends we hung out a lot as kids. Then we ditched the violins and got guitars because that was slightly cooler.”
Together they formed the indie band Helen. “We got into grunge music, in the 90s we were really into all of that,” says Birch. “We formed Helen when I was 13 or 14 and we played right through until we were at university together in Leeds, trying to make the band work.
“We got close several times but Corinne ended up getting a development deal through our manager at the time who was based in London, and he was her manager up until two years ago, so she kind of just took off, but we were always great friends.”
After university Birch became a school teacher but in 2009 she received a surprise invite to rejoin her old friend on a world tour. “It was on her second album, The Sea, I co-wrote one of the songs on that, called Diving For Hearts, and she asked me if I still wanted to tour,” says Birch.
“At the time I was head of year in a high school in east Leeds. It was a regular job, the guitar was in a case under the bed. I just thought, ‘Oh that was fun when I was younger’ and I never dreamed I would get to do any of the things that I did. I loved working with her and I couldn’t say no to that opportunity, it really taught me a lot about my own musicianship but also what you can achieve if you work hard – and I worked incredibly hard to get my skills up to scratch for that. It’s really intense, playing all over the place, really high pressure performances and all the travelling, it was brilliant. It was extremely hard work but I loved every minute of it.”
When the tour ended in 2011 Birch landed a job at The Woolpack Music Studios in Otley, which runs music projects with young people, learning disabled groups and community groups. Her experiences also inspired her to start writing songs of her own.
“I never had the confidence to do it on my own [before then]. I always thought ‘That’s something that I can’t do, it’s only something that I can do with another person’ and I always thought of that person being Corinne because that’s what I’d done since I was a kid. I’d never really tried it any other way or I’d half-written something but I never really pushed it on because I thought ‘What’s the point?’ But I think after coming back from being on tour and then getting into working in music in Otley, leading different community groups and just seeing how much joy people get out of music, I guess I got my confidence up that way and I thought ‘I feel like I’ve got nothing to lose’.”
The Pass of Storms heavily features her present instrument of choice – the ukulele. “Having played guitar for so long, I always felt like I went back to the same thing and everything I came up with on the guitar I thought ‘It just sounds like it’s been done a million times, it doesn’t feel fresh’, but somehow the ukulele, even though it’s a crazy, tiny, four-string instrument that’s know for being a slightly novelty thing, it’s actually really beautiful and it gave me a way to be more expressive and more experimental. It kind of all happened slightly by accident,” she says.
I loved working with Corinne Bailey Rae and I couldn’t say no to that opportunity, it really taught me a lot about my own musicianship but also what you can achieve if you work hard.
Birch layers ukulele to create a harp-like sound; she adds vocal harmonies and other instruments including bass and percussion. As a solo performer she uses effects pedals and a loop station as well as a drum sampler to enhance the textures in her music. “I’ve gone for that dreamy, ethereal, spacey kind of thing – that’s because of what I’m interested in and what I feel inspired to write about,” she says.
“I think the ukulele, even though it’s from Hawaii via Portugal, it really does have a space here as well. Hopefully people find ‘That’s a bit unexpected, I didn’t think it could sound like that’.”
The CD will be available to buy at her launch gig, at Otley Parish Church, on Saturday. “They’ve started doing more secular events there,” Birch says. “They’ve just had loads of investment in their sound system so the community work that me and Richard [Sabey, who she works with at the Woolpack Music Studios] do, we’ve put on events there in the past so we’ve got a good relationship with them. The sound in there is just incredible and I thought in a moment of madness I thought ‘Can I get enough people in this church for it to not be embarrassing?’ then I thought ‘I’ve just got to go for it’, book it and they will come, to quote Wayne’s World.
“I’m hoping it’s going to be quite magical and mysterious but also I hope it’s going to be good.”
Astraluna plays at Otley Parish Church on Saturday October 15 at 7.30pm, admission is free. For further details visit https://astralunamusic.com/ and http://www.bighooha.co.uk/the-woolpack-studio/