[25 August 2010]
As disarming as it may be when you initially hear Laura Burhenn’s sultry, commanding voice emanating from her petite frame, it becomes readily apparent after listening to the Mynabirds’ debut album—What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood—that no other sound would make sense informing her powerful, self-assuring ruminations on life, love and rebirth. Fielding questions on the front steps of the Bell House in Brooklyn on a cool early summer’s night, the woman at the heart of the record’s songs displays a natural, unaffected grace while absorbing the reception of the night’s show. As a stream of fans and attendees trickle out of the dimly lit bar, a healthy portion pause before heading home to let Burhenn know what a wonderful record she’s just unleashed on an unsuspecting music scene and what an intimately empowering performance she’s just given every one of them. Accepting each token of gratitude with the humility and patience of a grade school teacher, it isn’t difficult to see the qualities that keep the heavy themes in her music from sinking under their own weight: Burhenn completely owns the emotions she conveys with not just a steady assertiveness but an unassuming candor and perceptive optimism that’s crucial to their success.
Following an already volatile career as both a solo artist and a member of the D.C.-based indie pop outfit Georgie James, Burhenn’s veteran status in the indie music business belies common misconceptions about youth and wisdom. Containing within her a wealth of both and a demeanor admirably void of the entitlements too often possessed by rising blog bands, the Mynabirds frontwoman takes none of her past experiences for granted and wastes no time pronouncing her struggles with an open-hearted honesty that’s as refreshing today as it is rare. Concocting a reverential formula of soul, garage rock, country twang, girl group pop and hymnal folk, What We Lose in the Fire… manages, through its creator’s perseverance and determination of will, to construct a sound and a spirit all its own. After polishing off a few Jack and Cokes and cozying up beneath an obstruction from a little NY rain—her loveliness accentuated by her post-performance glow—Burhenn divulges with PopMatters on coming to terms with being a good person through her music, working with the enigmatic Richard Swift, and why Ringo Starr is so misunderstood.
So, you’re from DC and you’ve recently relocated to Omaha, but you recorded the album in Oregon?
Yeah, we recorded it in this tiny town south of Eugene, Oregon—this amazing, amazing little town where everybody knows everybody, and I’d go to the same coffee shop every morning, and they’d ask me, “how’s the record going?” and say “hey, it’s good to see you!” So it was really nice because I felt like I was going to see family, even though I went there knowing no one. It was just really a wonderful experience.
Do you feel like that helped with recording at all, since it felt like such a familial environment?
Oh, absolutely. I was terrified, really terrified. I had just been on tour with O + S and Orenda Fink, who’s in Azure Ray. We went down to SXSW and I met Richard [Swift, musician and producer of the record] in person for the first time. I e-mailed with him a bunch and told him I was a big fan of his work and we talked about maybe collaborating in the future, and finally said, “okay, let’s possibly do it, but let’s meet up in Austin.” We were in Austin and we did a shot of tequila and said, “okay, let’s make a record!” So I finished up the O + S tour and I was getting ready to get on a plane, and the night before I sat down with Orenda, and was like, “oh my God, what am I doing? I’m going to make a record—which is the most intensely personal thing I’ve ever done—with someone I don’t know.” I mean, I’ve e-mailed with him a bunch and I’m a huge fan of his music, but suddenly I’m thinking, “what if he’s insane? What if he’s a serial killer? What if he’s mean?” I mean, to me that’s the worst thing in the world, if you’re working with someone who doesn’t let you be yourself and is highly critical of what you’re doing.
I think the day before he picked me up, he called me up and he said, “um, have you booked a hotel?” and I was like, “uh, no, I didn’t know I needed to—I thought maybe I could stay in the studio or you had some space or something?” He was like, “uh, there’s a couch in there, you’ll probably be okay—dudes stay there all the time, but it’s kind of like a man-cave, and I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, but it’ll probably be cool.” So when I got off the plane, I was kind of terrified, and he picked me up in this van and we’re talking on the way back, and I had no idea he had a family, and we started talking about his family and he’s telling me about how much he loves them, and we started talking about music and we get back and we became really fast friends. He’s just such a good-hearted person, we had so much fun making the record. I can’t think of anyone—there’s no one who could have done it better.
It’s really tangible on the record—you can feel the unity between you two. You guys play mostly everything on the album, right?
Except for some horns and a couple backing vocals and a pedal steel, yeah.
His backing vocals on “LA Rain” are great.
Yeah, he’s brilliant. The thing is, he’s known for playing piano and singing—that’s really what he’s known for—but he’s an amazing drummer. Just right in the pocket. Simple, perfect licks. A little behind the beat—which, to me, is what I love—and really heavy in the kick-drum, not afraid to just snap the snare. I was telling him, I said, “my God, you’re an amazing drummer,” and he just, you know, doesn’t have an ego about it. Very modest, he said, “oh, no, I’m terrible, I’m not very good.” To me, it’s Ringo Starr-playing, and I think the majority of the people are always looking for a Ringo-like drummer…
Right, musicians love Ringo’s drumming, but he’s become a punch line to a lot of people, which is really upsetting.
Yeah, I actually had a conversation with someone recently who just said he’s a terrible drummer and they didn’t like him as a musician, and to me [his drumming] was great because it stayed out of the way and he let the songs stay loose.
He came up with such unique, complementary parts for each song.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I’ve had a little bit of whiskey so the song name is totally escaping me, but it’s the one that Aerosmith covered—“Come Together”! I don’t know why it had to come to me that way—but, you know, “Come Together,” I think the drums on that are just so inventive. We don’t think of it now as being an inventive drum part, but when it was recorded, it really was…
If you listen to the drums in “Rain,” it’s just amazing. And for those people who say he’s a “technically limited” drummer, listen to the solo in “The End.” I mean, he had the skill, he just knew how to exercise restraint—that’s half of being a musician.
Oh, absolutely. I think that’s definitely what makes the parts, the restraint—like, when you want it.
Right. Restraint, to me, is more important than technical prowess.
Oh, it’s starting to rain a little.
Really? A little NY rain? [laughs] Bad joke, sorry.
I just got it a second after you said it. So you were previously in Georgie James, and also had some solo records out, but it feels like you’ve really come into your own on the Mynabirds album. Do you feel like you approached the material differently?
Yeah, a million percent. I produced my last solo record, which was a terrible idea—I’m not a producer, I’m not an engineer, I’m not a tech-head. It’s better for me to stay out of the way of that sort of thing. Although, with songwriting, I feel like in the past I was probably writing more for other people. Just kind of listening to what other people were doing and being inspired by what’s current—and you know, there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s so much great music now, and even when I was making music back in the early 2000s—but with this one, I just sort of went back to the things I love and the things I know, and I said “I’m going to make a record that I love, and if nobody else loves it, that’s okay.” I just wanted to make the purest expression of who I am and what it is I do.
I don’t think of myself—I’m not a great piano player. I spent a semester as a piano performance major in college, and then a semester as a composer, and I kind of failed at both of those things. [laughs] I’ve sung in choirs my whole life—sorry, I’m going off on a tangent—but then I ended up getting a degree in English and I write. I don’t do any of those things exceptionally well, but I think there’s something about saying, “okay, I’m going to take what it is I do okay and put it all together and just do whatever it is I do.” And that’s what I did, and it was reaffirming for me, and I think when people sort of just follow who they are, it leads them to what they’re supposed to do.
As an extension of that, do you feel like you’re distancing yourself from your past work?
Absolutely. I wasn’t afraid to try something new, and quite frankly, I threw mostly everything away. I’d been writing songs for years—solo songs, especially even when I was in Georgie James, I was still writing and it was material that didn’t fit Georgie James, and I thought, “well, I’ll release that at some point as a side project.” I mean, I didn’t know Georgie James was going to break up, and I thought, “well, maybe I’ll release a solo project in the midst of doing Georgie James.” After Georgie James broke up, I really wasn’t inspired to play any of those songs that I’d been writing, so I threw it all away, and I thought, “I’m going to start over,” and there’s nothing wrong with starting over. It was really freeing.
I think you can really feel that on the album too. There’s a heavy sense of Zen-like optimism and recovery that permeates the songs. Was that a preconceived theme? Did you go into it with that idea, or was it something that was more subconscious?
It was subconscious. It just became what I was writing about: where I was, and I just decided to embrace it. I’m not a very prolific writer—I feel like I write in spurts—so after learning that about myself, I used to get really frustrated and think, “oh my God, I don’t write enough.” You know, you think of amazing songwriters, like Bob Dylan—who’s written so many songs and so many amazing albums over his lifetime—and to think that I’ve only written a handful of songs, and maybe I’m critical of myself because of that? But I guess I’ve gotten over that, in a sense, and just realized that that’s my process, and I just try to have faith in my subconscious of working things out, even when I’m not writing. So I think that that was sort of the process—just throwing things away and starting over was just saying, okay, I’m going to let what’s really going on come out, if that makes sense.
I think it makes sense. This is a really cliché question, and it probably answers itself, but was that therapeutic for you?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. I mean, after Georgie James broke up, and I had gone through a different personal break-up before that, I just wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t sure that I was a good person, I wasn’t sure what I was doing in my life. So writing the record was really a process of figuring out who I am in my core and what I believe in my core, and I think that it was just a really amazing process. So yeah, it was therapeutic in that sense, to feel like I found out that—I don’t know—hey, I’m not a bad person and I have something to say and I have a purpose here and I’m just going to do what I think I’m supposed to do.
There are a lot of garage rock, country and soul strands on the record—which are pretty disparate sounds, yet they’re blended pretty seamlessly. Who and what are some of your influences, both musically and non-musically?
Oh, that’s such a tough question. I kind of hate this question, to be honest, just because I guess I’ve been worried over the years that if I say who I’m influenced by, people are going to judge me and pigeonhole me and say “oh, I hear that!” I feel like I grew up around a lot of different songs—most of them just really simple, strong classic pop at the core. I’d include Billie Holiday, Louie Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Carole King, Neil Young. Some of them are just amazing songwriters, some of them are just amazing performers—but the delivery is so effortless, in what they do, that’s always what’s inspired me. The Beatles are a huge, huge influence. When I was writing this record, I was listening to…I feel in the past I’ve sort of been a Paul McCartney girl—I’m not one of those people who can say, “this is my favorite Beatle,” but I think I sort of leaned towards Paul’s style—but in writing this record I listened to a lot of George Harrison and a lot of John Lennon…
I can really hear that in the songs.
Yeah. It’s interesting, after the Beatles broke up, you have George writing these beautiful sort of Zen-like songs, influenced by Eastern philosophy—it’s beautiful. All Things Must Pass—it’s sort of like “Right Place,” I think I probably just took it straight from George Harrison, you know? I thought, “okay, I’m just going to continue with what he was saying.” Then you also have John Lennon singing, you know, “how do you sleep at night?” This sort of cathartic anger. I wanted to find something in between that. I wanted it to feel like I was really struggling, because I was, trying to figure out what to do with myself, how to make sense of my situation, so I hope that translated.
I think it did. You really feel a lot of what went into the record.
Yeah, and as far as the rest of your question—the non-musical—I tend to get really inspired by going to art museums, just walking around. I’m a very visual person. I subscribe to the New Yorker—their articles are so rich, I’m a big fan. You know, I’m not one of those people who says, I’m just inspired by this. You can get inspired by a good movie or a great book or sitting down with a fellow artist who’s trying something or going to a lecture on physics. I don’t know, I like to sort of keep my options as broad as I possibly can.
So you feel like passion is the derivation of most inspiration, not a specific type of art?
Oh, absolutely. I want to sort of move my brain in a different way, and that to me is what’s inspiring. A lot of this record I didn’t write at the piano because, like I said I’m not a great pianist, and you know, you rely on muscle memory in your fingers, so you go to play the chords you know or the progressions that your hands have learned over the years. I didn’t want to do that, so I tried to work outside of that as much as I could, which may have just included me in my dining room with a tambourine and my neighbors looking at me thinking I was crazy, and that’s okay. So I think I approach trying to find creative inspiration in the same way, you know? I don’t want to just go to what it is I know. You can find inspiration everywhere.
On that note, since we’re discussing different kinds of fellow artists who’ve had an inspiration on you, and obviously even Richard Swift who was clearly such a big part of the record—is there anybody in mind that you’d like to collaborate with in the future?
Oh, that’s such a big question. There’s such a wide range.
Well, we can start off with people who are on a realistic level at the moment, and then people who are kind of dream partners you’d work with if you had the choice.
That’s tough. I want to make another record with Richard, and we’ve already talked about it, and it’s just sort of when the time is right. We just sort of felt like, we did something good, let’s do something even better—that’s our general feeling about it. There’s so many people I’d just love to sit down in a room with. I’m so inspired by Sharon Jones. She’s amazing, I saw her perform in Austin, and I’ve been a fan of her music for a while, but to see her perform—she’s such a bad ass. Here’s this woman in her fifties who can dance better than I can, and who looks so fucking sexy on stage. It was so inspiring to watch her perform and think, “okay, maybe I’m just getting started! That’s okay, there’s a lot of time left.” I mean, I’d love to make music with Carole King, Neil Young—I mean, I would die. On a more realistic level, I have some musical friends I’d love to work with. Tom Hnatow from These United States played pedal steel on this record, and I love that band. They’re just such smart, good-hearted people. That’s my critera: good-hearted, fun, interested…interested and interesting!
It’s a good dichotomy. As a closing question—and this is something I ask to cap off all of my interviews, and you can take your time with it, if you’d like—what are your all-time, top 5 favorite records?
[pause] That’s a tough one. Neil Young’s Harvest is definitely up there. The Beatles’ White Album—that’s my favorite Beatles record, and I just think it’s such an American record, which is so impressive to me. You listen to it and don’t think about them being British at all—they’ve sort of mastered this voice of America, it blows my mind.
It’s kind of like the first indie rock album.
Yeah. Yeah! Yeah, it’s so brilliant.
I actually think Dressed Up for the Letdown [by Richard Swift] takes a lot from that record.
Yeah, I could put that in my top 5. Carole King’s Tapestry, I’m going to say. I want to put a Nina Simone record in the top 5, but she has so many releases and I feel like the first record I ever got was one of the best-of collections, and you get a lot of those, so I feel terrible in saying I couldn’t put a specific record for the list, but I’d want to put Nina Simone up there. The idea of a record is a really interesting question, because it’s not who you like, it’s the record. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass—I’m gonna put that on the top, that’s a fucking album. [looking through her iPod] Sorry, I’m looking. Dusty in Memphis [by Dusty Springfield].
You know what? Every time I recommend your album to somebody, I tell them it sounds like Dusty Springfield fronting Crazy Horse.
Thank you! That is the best comparison I could ever ask for. [continuing through her iPod] Um, oh God—Nick Drake.
Pink Moon is one of my top 10 favorites.
Pink Moon is amazing. I’d put him up there. I’m having a real hard time right now. I got two more for you that are going to go off on the side: PJ Harvey, Rid of Me—fucking love that record—and Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation. I feel like those—oh, oh!! Stevie Wonder!! Like, seriously? I’ve been really heavily influenced by him, for sure. That’s more than 5, I think I gave you a lot. [laughs] You can pick the best ones.