- Mariam Koloyan gives us an insight onto the music, life and performance of Polish songwriter Peter J. Birch
With his feet planted in the small town of Wołów but his heart set in the vast plains of the deep South, Polish singer-songwriter Peter J. Birch has two records under his belt and a plethora of loyal fans up his sleeve.
I was first recommended his music by a mutual friend and after checking out the press material and praise on social media, I decided to witness the Birch live experience at Poland’s Open’er Festival. After two days of whirlwind moshpits, trudging through fields, deafening sound systems and drunken ramblings from NME-approved indie runaways; walking into the intimate Alter Klub Tent for an acoustic night was somewhat of a curious change. As the lights dimmed and the crowds’ chatter washed down to a hush, a bearded frontman stepped out on stage, pleasantly introduced himself in Polish and then launched into his folk-laden set in flawless English.
“Well, my name is Piotrek… but I sing in English and play as Peter J. Birch”, he explained. With material from his 2013 country-twinged album When The Sun’s Risin’ Over the Town, Piotrek transported the previously Kings of Leon-ed crowd from a packed concert tent in Gdynia to the backyard swing in Grandma’s porch on a warm Tennessee evening. “Foremost I’m a drummer, so I listen to a lot of heavier music but I wanted something different, something soft. I started listening to a lot of American folk and country music and that was the beginning of everything. I wanted to play and make music like that – and I actually did!”
As the crowd reacted animatedly to material from both the recent album and his 2010 debut EP In My Island, I could see why Birch had attracted over 2,000 fans on Facebook and garnered invitations to festivals and gigs all over Europe at a mere 22 years of age. His singles range from the 50s country dance hall number Claudette, to the darker, alt-folk Nine Horses, more reminiscent of older Leonard Cohen ballads.
Recalling the amount of support in Poland, Birch couldn’t help but flash a sheepish grin as he admitted that “Yep, its been a damn good year. I’ve really been playing a lot of gigs, which is why I’m not at uni at the moment. And I’m really happy; it’s my work, my love, and I hope that after the next album it’ll be even better.” Rather than tweets, pokes and vintage photo filters, his popularity has resulted from a more traditional style of exposure. “Since January I’ve played around 40 or 50 gigs! So when people like my page on Facebook, it’s not because they’ve seen me on TV. I get a lot of messages and comments of support, and that’s really nice”.
Birch and his band also performed quite a few covers that have clearly inspired his work. Classics from Hank Williams and Fugazi both made an appearance that night, displaying Birch’s vocal versatility as he switched between southern twangs, Buckley falsettos and dark Cave mutters whilst interacting with the crowd with his natural soft-spoken charm.
Writing and playing only in English (“writing songs in Polish is a kind of art!”) means that Birch has also landed a few gigs in London. Playing at events here at Goldsmiths such as the Kitchen Sessions NX (a Blogotheque inspired phenomenon where resident musicians play lovely unplugged sets in – you guessed it – a kitchen in New Cross) and with local party monsters Slug Couture, Birch has already acquired his own set of fans this side of the channel and is looking forward to playing more. “I did a sort of gig swap with my friend Daniel Černý [from the London-based band I/M/M/I/G/R/A/N/T/S], where his band played a few gigs here in Poland before I came to London. It felt natural in England, the Kitchen Sessions gig was very cosy, very charming. I want to come back for sure”.
Autumn will see Birch work on a new album that is set to be released in the Spring, he claims the release will bring forth a more dichotic sound. Working with both his main influences (country and soft folk) the 22 year old has already written a number of new tracks that fall quite distinctly into each genre and he even spoke of the possibility of a double album. His Riverboat Band will only join him on tour as in the studio he records most of the instruments himself; the lapsteel and crunch guitar completing the City and Colour/Damien Jurado sounds he is inspired by.
An hour of screaming fans and two encores later the night drew to a close, and as Birch played his last song solo (the endearing Close To You) the hall paired up and swayed serenely like a prom night from the 50s. I was reminded of one of the last things he told me the day before: this “is the dream. I just want to release albums and play gigs.” As I complimented him on his majestic beard during our farewell he added that “since I’ve had my big beard, everything around me has gone really well.” Well crap, I might just try that.