Writer Megan Treacy / Photographer Erin Connolly
In Birmingham centre the streets are nearly vacant this Thursday night, but in Digbeth Centrala is comfortably full.
Tonight’s location for this sold out Sofar Sounds event, Centrala, is familiar to the city’s art-goers as a canal-adjacent café and exhibition space. However for visitors untrained to the network of samey industrial buildings this side of the railway bridge, it can feel like a mission to find.
Vigilant of lost travellers, friendly Sofar faces beacon the front gates of the Minerva Works complex and direct us to the event space where the majority of the audience have already arranged themselves on the floor.
Running a few minutes late, the last drinks orders are made and attention draws to the stage: warm purple light illuminates the leaves of a few plants which frame a sofa elevated only slightly above the crowd, and fairy lights twine around the microphone stand.
Our host for the evening is Holly, a growing musician herself who performs under the moniker Eliza May and recently supported Kate Nash at her Birmingham show last June. Holly enters the stage beaming. She scouts the audience for Sofar newcomers, like myself, and returnees — identifiable by their blanket/cushion setups — before introducing the first artist.
Birmingham-based singer Philippa Zawe seats herself on the sofa with a smile, an acoustic guitar across her lap.
Performing songs from her upcoming EP Shudder Pt.1 (launching at Midlands Arts Centre 24 March), she opens with an exclusive track ‘Shoulder To Shoulder’, singing of finding strength when “looking for a shoulder to cry on” over gentle folk-infused strumming.
‘Drive All Night’ follows, a song which Zawe shares was written originally in response to the loss of her father but has grown in meaning to express a more universal feeling of “wanting to be around people who are gone”.
Zawe’s sincere and emotional lyrics are enhanced by Centrala’s intimate setting — a characteristic feature of Sofar Sounds. As she performs recently released single ‘Would You Lean’, it feels almost wrong to record in a crowd so present and attentive.
Where videos are taken, phones are lifted hesitantly and not too high, unwilling to break the reverent atmosphere of the performance
To finish her set, Zawe performs what she terms a “Brummie lullaby”, noting that the studio recording features other Birmingham musicians on saxophone and cello. But tonight she sings about the “concrete seas” of the city with her guitar alone, foregrounding the amazing control of her voice.
A small interval ensues, however the enchantment of the crowd soon resumes as singer Michael Bird (also Birmingham based) and his red Telecaster take the sofa.
Without speaking, Bird delves into ‘Eyes For You’, which opens with the lyrics “If I said that I only had eyes for you I’d be lying”, though they are crooned in such a way that the melody seems to overpower the meaning.
Bird lengthens this short opener with a transition into ‘Ladies That Lunch’, continuing to charm the crowd with a powerful vocal display consisting of effortless runs and energetic delivery.
Before his third song, ‘Better’, Bird addresses the audience, introducing us to his EP Bloom, released last year, from which he takes his setlist.
‘Better’ is a track of faster tempo and powerful, gravelly notes. Towards its end, Bird demonstrates the incredible breadth of his vocal range with an impressive sequence of notes which seem to rise endlessly in pitch, gaining an appreciative response from the crowd.
On his final track, Bird enlists the audience to sing the hook — “hold out for a little bit longer” — a request met with no resistance as the room fills with sound, satisfyingly complimenting a moment of acappella from the artist ending his set on a soft note.
Closing the event is singer-songwriter Evie Joy, who we are told has travelled from her hometown of New York.
Upon taking the microphone, Evie Joy immediately promotes her in-progress docuseries Rewriting Romance, which she has been filming across the US and Canada and now continues in Europe — “I was in Amsterdam at 5am this morning and now I’m here” — encouraging donations to her Kickstarter in exchange for some temporary pineapple tattoos.
Moving on, she explains that love and romance are also the predominant themes of her songs, however we are warned that she makes “politically incorrect music”.
Unsure expectations turn into laughter and disbelief as Evie Joy’s first song derails us from the tender and sentimental tone set by Zawe and Bird.
‘Roll up, the Canadian Border Patrol Song’ is a comedy track about a lust felt for a Canadian Border Patrol officer while being questioned for weed possession, featuring lyrics such as “you pulled out a glove and some Vaseline, and I’m hoping I know just what you mean”.
Despite her comedic nature, Evie Joy’s musical talent is genuine, belting her lyrics commandingly as she fervently strums her ukulele. This talent is further displayed in ‘Happy’, a more serious song which evinces her ability to move as well as entertain.
The jokes return with ‘Since You’ve Been Gay’, which she preludes with the statement that she is part of the LGBTQ+ community, the necessity of which is revealed as she begins a song about a previous lover who turned out to be gay.
She reels off a list of ill wishes such as “I hope you order Uber Eats and it never arrives”.
For her final song, ‘I Confess, the Priest Song’, she live loops a backing track using her voice (mimicking the sound of the shakers she forgot to bring) over which she garners her last laughs and groans from the crowd with a pun-filled, Fleabag-esque love song to a priest.
Sofar Sounds ends with a synchronised stretching of legs and a promise of several eagerly anticipated Birmingham gigs.
For more from Philippa Zawe go to: www.philippazawe.bandcamp.com
For more from Michael Bird go to: www.michaelbirdmusic.bandcamp.com
For more from Evie Joy go to: www.eviejoymusic.com
For more from Eliza May go to: www.elizamaymusic.com