Though she’s been heralded for the earnestness and intelligence that exemplifies the best of the local singer-songwriter crowd, Birdie Busch has never quite fit in there.
She’s noisy when she might’ve hushed up, nervy when most are relaxed, funny when others stay forlorn and dressy when she could be buttoned-up.
This is her third year putting on the garish Nashville-themed Philly Opry show, and her new album, Birdie Busch and the Greatest Night, is similarly both opulent and genuinely odd.
She’s a little bit country, and rock ’n’ roll, and folk, and whatever she feels like. “I’m everything, really. I find that I’m happiest when I’m just, to quote Zappa, ‘digging it while it’s happening.’ If this is all done with by tomorrow, I sure as heck-fire want to be doing the things I love,” Busch, 33, says with conviction.
“Can you imagine if Bill Withers, at 32, was like, ‘You know, I can’t take this risk?’ Can you imagine not ever hearing all those Bill Withers songs?”
Busch encourages fellow artists and travelers to be brave and think audaciously. “This is my tribe, a strange band of modern pirates, and apparently I’m one of them,” she says.
On her first album, The Ways We Try, now seven years old, she sang about her then-neighborhood on the warmly humorous “South Philly.” Since then, this restless soul with the quietly quirky arrangements, honey-colored locks and syrupy voice has moved on.
“I remember when I was considering mo-ving to West Philly, I saw Kenn Kwed-er, who jumped in with that kind of Doc-from-Back to the Future urgency and said, ‘Birdie! West Philly has a creative lodestone under the ground beneath it!’” recalls Busch. “Then I went home and had to look up what ‘lode-stone’ meant. Clark Park has a ton of mica everywhere that glints, and you pick it up, and it feels magical.”
When shiny, magical things become a topic of conversation, Busch has to talk up her annual Philly Opry event — one that this year doubles as a release party for The Greatest Night.
The players — and the Johnny Brenda’s stage — will be dressed for the occasion, though Busch won’t spoil the surprise with specifics. It’s a sure thing that the music will be something you can dance to.
Busch created the event with Brandy Hartley (now living in San Fran) to be some-thing loud and flashy.
“We wanted to put together a show that was more than just the regular three-band bill, more curated and intentional, involving visuals and an overall aesthetic,” says Busch.
They wound up with something as much Grand and Ole (think Nudie suits and fringe) as ’70s-era variety show (a la Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher).
“The first year, we made a life-size barn out of chicken wire and cardboard,” she explains. “It’s one of my parents’ favorite shows that I’ve done. All year long they ask when the next Opry is. If you come, my dad will probably include you in a round.”
Don’t let the talk of Oprys, hillbilly hollering and boozing with Birdie’s paw fool you when it comes to her newest work.
She followed up her 2006 debut with two elegantly atmospheric albums: 2007’s Penny Arcade and 2009’s Pattern of Saturn.
Last year, she collaborated with Charlie Hall of Philly rockers War on Drugs in the Lindsey Buckingham Appreciation Society, covering classic Fleetwood Mac tunes from Tusk and Mirage.
She also worked with Fred Knittel of Folkadelphia and Be Frank Records, tackling three originals and a cover of “City of Brotherly Love” by the Soul Survivors on her Everyone Will Take You In EP. Busch loved the stretch.
Yet nothing is as far from her mellow start than the absolutely weird and claustrophobic The Greatest Night, with its prog-rock breaks, creepy psychedelic trips and odd-and-lovely vocal frippery.
Part of it comes down to the new album’s crowd-funding through PledgeMusic and the consistency of its recording.
“My other albums were pieced together like a fledgling construction site over longer spans of time, tracking instruments separately and returning to things after weeks and months,” notes Busch. “This time, by being able to raise funds at once, we were able to isolate a week and cut all the instrumental tracks live. Very reactionary.”
The bigger band sound of The Greatest Night still has that Birdie spaciousness and warmth, but there’s a noisy cold front approaching. The overall tone of the new album — the clattering, Yes-like “Part of Apart,” the cut-and-pasted “Wilderness,” the grouchy girl-group tone of “Body Body” — is stormy and sexy and frenzied.
“Frenzied is apt,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a wildly excited person. As a musician, you aspire to get free enough on your in-st-rument so that you play and improvise without even thinking about it. It’s the same for your voice and lyrics: It starts to go places and reacts to the music. Just as I’ve had to find new routes from here to Fishtown to keep it fresh this past decade, I need that as much as a musician, lyricist and singer.”
The Philly Opry and album release party for Birdie Busch and the Greatest Night, Fri., Jan. 18, doors at 8 p.m., music at 9 p.m. sharp, $12-$15, with Joy Kills Sorrow and Jason Loughlin, Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave., 215-739-9684, johnnybrendas.com, birdie-buschmusic.com.