Photo by Lincoln Lute
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches,” Robert Frost once wrote. Birch trees are at once both delicate and resilient; not only are they beautiful, with their papery trunks blemished by the peeling of aesthetically-pleasing bark, but they are sturdy, able to bend towards the ground with the icy winds of winter storms, as if bending an ear from their lofts to listen to the earth’s whisper. Birch trees are poetic in their contradiction: simultaneously graceful and stark, flourishing and calm.
It is no wonder, then, that Michelle Birsky, who spent much of her childhood in Vermont, saw fit to name her Brooklyn-based band after this buoyant tree. “Birch is a big part of my upbringing,” Birksy told me when we met in mid-May. “And I liked the idea that I was doing this very electronic, pop sound, in a city, in a metropolis, and I come from nature.”
The irony of the fact that we were having this conversation in a corner bar in the West Village, a neighborhood synonymous with urban culture and the fast pace that accompanies it, just days before I was to move back home to Mississippi – back to a life of back porches, sweet tea, and even stronger heat waves than those known to ambush Manhattan – was not lost on me. The multifaceted relationship between New York City and the natural world is one with which I am deeply familiar, as are many other NYC transplants. This part of Birsky resonates with me, as I am sure it does with other listeners as well, this electric connection to New York’s gleam and grime, complemented by an intimate kinship with and devotion to nature.
Photo by Lincoln Lute
Birsky is clearly a complex woman, a woman well-acquainted with her strengths, weaknesses, and privileges, which she hopes to address in her new album to be released this fall. Birsky says that her primary intent in this album is representation. “I’m coming as a white woman, so I have another sense of privilege that other women of color do not, and there are less women of color in music… but I still don’t necessarily feel like I’ve seen myself in a lot of our culture,” she says.
Birsky has been paying attention – processing recent occurrences in politics and in the media through lenses of varying magnitudes – first through her personal experiences in both childhood and adulthood, then through the lives of women in her family, and ultimately the lives of women throughout history. “I’ve had a lot of lightbulbs going off the last couple of years when it comes to this stuff. I think a lot of people have,” she says.
Birsky recognizes that her experiences don’t exist in a vacuum and that they are a part of a greater conversation, and the ideas in her album express this, ranging from Birsky’s first experience with sexism to the experiences of her ancestors. Both of her great grandmothers were institutionalized, one as a result of brain damage inflicted by her abusive husband and the other due to post-partum depression, which was treated with electric shock therapy. These intense stories of persecution and trauma have informed Birsky’s work. “It’s interesting because I was raised in such a wonderful environment, but if you look back a generation, things are completely different.” Birsky describes her mother as hardcore business woman. “She was kind of in the era in the 90s when we were like ‘we don’t really need feminism now; we’re fine! Everything’s fine! And now it’s this new wave of feminism that’s like, ‘yes!’ Things have changed but in order for us to really get to an equal playing field we need a female president and we need women at the head of government.”
It’s this “new wave” of feminism to which Birsky seeks to contribute. While the album is primarily a case study of Birsky’s personal experiences with sexism and feminism, it would be wrong to say that the album was not inspired in part by the 2016 presidential election. Birsky says, “If you’re watching Hillary Clinton struggle, in this way over the whole span of the election from start to finish, that was kind of what fueled my whole album, and it was kind of what fueled me to look at my whole female-ness and those around me and really start to like unpack the stories… which are not fun to unpack, and they’re scary.”
For Birsky, these stories range from the harrowing to the elementary. Of the album’s , “One song on the album is about falling in love with my boyfriend after being sexually assaulted in the past, and it’s just… that’s not fun to do, but it’s also extremely therapeutic.” Other stories are even more fundamental to the female experience, such as the first time a girl experiences the sexualization of her body. For Birsky, this realization occurred at eight years old. “A librarian told me – I bent over and my back showed, and she goes ‘Your back is showing! Pull down your shirt… don’t distract the boys!’ I was like eight! It’s only now that I realize how wrong that is.”
Photo by Lincoln Lute
The album also considers the greater implications of these interactions on her current career trajectory. “It wasn’t until I moved to New York and started looking into the industry, seeing who was at the top of all industries and hearing from my friends about their experiences in the work place… and that was kind of just when I realized that the world does not love women, and they do not respect women as equal members of society. This album is me doing a deep dive into this concept.”
Perhaps that is what makes it so striking. In the midst of the me too movement, these stories that women once perceived as unique and singular have become a resounding chorus of trauma, heartbreak, and, ultimately, resilience. In this album, rather than be another victim, Birsky seeks to create something meaningful and relatable for all women, as well as provide an opportunity for other women to reflect on their own experiences. “I see this album as a piece of art that is for women and male allies who are interested in talking about this, interested in learning,” Birsky says. “It’s for people who feel like they haven’t been seen in our culture. They feel like they have been searching for themselves in movies, in tv shows, and even music, and just haven’t felt like they are seeing themselves portrayed… And my hope is that people will listen to it and feel like oh yes, me too... And I kind of just want to fuel the fire of the discussion that’s already happening right now, and keep it moving, and keep going forward.”
Birsky hopes that bringing her own experiences to light will shine yet another light on what women have to endure on a daily basis. “I want to let my music be used by anyone who needs to use it to help tell their story, helping tell other female, and other non-binary stories. There just needs to be more! And there needs to be more representation. And I think that my music is one of the only things I have to offer, and so I just kind of want to offer it to people, and friends, and to anyone who is trying to elevate the female voice.”
Indeed, one could do worse than be a swinger of birches – swinging away from the earth for a while, then gently alighting back on the ground, refreshed and ready to shake up the conversation.