When any artist finds their defining sound it is a moment of revelation as much as it is a celebration. There really isn’t any such thing as an “overnight success story”—even for the most successful artists—and most working bands will tell you of their repeated attempts and struggles to find their audience. It takes some years and years to do so, but few are lucky enough to find their real voices in the process. Laura Burhenn, singer/songwriter extraordinaire and one of the hardest working artists in recent memory seems to have found both in her great and critically acclaimed project The Mynabirds, and the world is musically a better place for it.
Of course it is no secret to anyone that knows me that I’ve become quite enamored of The Mynabirds and especially of their glorious debut What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood (for the uninitiated, please read my online review: http://www.slugmag.com/exclusives/2187/Mynabirds-What-We-Lose-In-The-Fire-Review.html) and in the span of a few months, it has become my most played album. I simply cannot stop listening to it and am humbled by the new things that manifest themselves upon my repeated listenings. Knowing I was going to have the opportunity to interview Burhenn when her band came to town, I purposely put the album away for a bit and only very recently took it out again. I got goosebumps when I took that first spin again: the gospel-like beauty of “What We Gained In The Fire”, the Motown meets Stax sound of “Let The Record Go,” the rapturous brilliance of “Numbers Don’t Lie” (still my most played song on the album), the utter thrill of “LA Rain” all revealed themselves again.
Laura Burhenn is stunningly beautiful in person; especially her pretty blue eyes. She is also rather petite. To discover that such a soulful, powerful singing voice comes out of such a small frame isn’t too surprising—as most of my favorite singer/songwriters seem to share this distinction—but it is always slightly disarming the first time I’ve seen a singer in person or, as in this case, had the honor of actually meeting them. This disbelief (which would become most evident when she took the stage later on and started singing) is quickly replaced through her charm and candor—not to mention her endless patience with this oddly obsessive fan here to interview her—as we began to speak on the back patio of the Urban Lounge. Kevin Hart (my oldest friend in the world, that I first met in kindergarten) and a fellow fan joined me. I start by confessing exactly how many times I’ve listened to the album by sharing with her a printout of my iTunes playlist.
Laura Burhenn: I think you might know this record better than I do at this point [laughter from all]...I’m afraid to sing these songs in front of you because I’ve been known to forget some lyrics every once in a while. [more laughter]
I explained how the album jumped out at me from my promo stack—especially the religious imagery of the cover art--and how I was initially so impressed with it but then absolutely blown away as I encountered what has become my favorite song.
SLUG: ...but then the “Numbers Don’t Lie,” I mean I think obviously from my play list count, that it is one of my favorite things. I was really surprised to learn that it was written late and was that intended to be on the album or you weren’t sure it was going to be on the album?
LB: I wasn’t sure...I honestly thought that it wasn’t that great of a song. Bare bones, as far as the chords go, it reminded me of some of the songs I had written before in my solo work. It’s got a little bit of “Long Week,” I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Georgie James, but it’s got a little similar flavor of this sort of riff that maybe I’ve been working on for my whole life, it seems like. When I played it I thought, I don’t know if this is too jokey for the rest of the album, the album is pretty serious and I thought it was too playful. And I kept coming back to it...that chorus was just stuck in my head...and I was just singing it to myself, and you know people would say, what are you singing? And I’d say, well it’s this song and I’ve been writing it and working on it and I don’t know if I should finish it. I took it to Richard [Swift] at the end of our recording sessions and I said you know I’ve got one last song and I’m not sure, I’m not really finished with the lyrics, but what do you think? And it was the end of these beautiful recording sessions that we had...and fun...we had so much fun making this record...and at that point it was the perfect time to have ‘fun’ with the record. And so I sat down at the tack piano and we had such a good rapport at that point that we just had so much fun with it. But what’s really funny in the second verse...I’ll have to think about the lyrics for a second but I agonized over this one single line--one line--it’s the line: “even if you think it’s more.” That line took us a good three hours! And I said, “You know I’ve got, this is the second verse, this is what I’ve got, what do you think about this?” And I said “There’s got to be a perfect line here”...we bounced things off each other and then we got silly...and then we took a break and then we came back, and had a drink and then thought about it and it just sort of came to us. And we thought, wow that was easy...that should have been exactly what came to us in the very beginning so...
We discussed the creative process and how the initial batch of demo/songs Burhenn had created in D.C. with Georgie James’ producer Chad Clark (Beauty Pill) were completely abandoned and she started from scratch due to the honest advice of a dear friend of hers:
LB: Shervin [Lainez, Georgie James’ tour manager/photographer] said “Laura, this is good, but you’re not writing from your heart.” And that’s what you need to do. And things were just not working and I just ended up tossing almost everything out. They’re still around and who knows, maybe they’ll be on the next record.
“Good Heart,” the beautiful ballad that closes the record was written for Clark who was experiencing a physical heart malady at the time. We then discuss LA Rain and earlier that day it came to me that the “Elizabeth” she makes reference to in the second verse is the American poet Elizabeth Bishop: “And Elizabeth said just lose yourself/It’s an easy art for you to master.” Now I’ve read a lot of Burhenn online and especially her literary references and know I’ve read things where she has mentioned Bishop before, but I honestly never connected the two until the day of the show. I was hesitant to inquire about this, since it could be a personal reference, but Burhenn is touched when I ask this.
LB: That just warms my heart that you even took note of that and figured it out. It means a lot.
SLUG: It’s such a pretty line!
LB: Well, that song was literally a “day in the life.” I went to LA, I was going through a really tough personal breakup, I was playing a solo show and I was just driving around like you know you do in LA, drive around on these endless highways and sit in traffic...
SLUG: And you get lost
LB: And you get lost and you’re stuck in traffic for a long time...and I ended up at The Getty that day and it was raining and I thought God it’s so beautiful and it’s raining but it was only raining right over that little range of hills. And then out of the ocean the sun was pouring down, like honey, and I thought of Leonard Cohen of course. Anyway, and then I ended up in Los Feliz, that’s where I was playing the show and there’s a little book shop there. And I just felt like I was at a total loss, just personally, and I was going through the poetry books and just pulled a book off the shelf and it was Elizabeth Bishop. A dear friend of mine years before had e-mailed me a copy of “One Art.” You know that poem?
It is here that I have to confess I actually don’t know the poem at all, but that my darling little sister had given me a book of Bishop’s poetry years before, which now, naturally, I promise to check out.
LB: You have to read the poem One Art and it’s about the art of losing. She just talks about how, and I can’t remember the exact lines, but she basically talks about her first home and she sort of goes through these different things that she’s lost through her life and she’s like “I’ve lost this and I’ve lost whole continents,” I think she says, and sort of like: “it’s no disaster, the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” I think that’s the line. So that was sort of the story of how the song began and that was one of those first songs that I had started writing and working out with Chad and I threw it away. I was like I’m not going to do this. And then last spring I was on tour with Orenda Fink and O+S and we were in LA and there was actually a small earthquake when I was there. [we all laugh] And I started thinking again, being back in LA, and thinking about the song, and thought I’ll bet there’s a way I can save this song. So here it is!
We spoke briefly about how long she’s been singing and more importantly, when did she realize she was actually good.
LB: You know, I just always loved singing so much and it became sort of my primary means of communication—or my means of best, most honest communication. I grew up singing in choirs and in the church, and just around the house. My mom always jokes that I could sing before I could speak. We used to do this thing were we would make these little “ooo’s” and match pitches...we’d kinda howl at each other. So it just was always something I loved doing. And I remember laying in bed being 5, 7, 8 years old and imaging what I wanted my stage show to look like! It’s just something I always felt that I was supposed to be doing.
We then spoke of how she came to work with producer/musician Richard Swift.
SLUG: Did you hire him? Did the record label come into play yet?
LB: Well, it’s kind of funny. I fell in love, like head over heels in love with his album Dressed Up For The Letdown, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.
SLUG: I’m not, and I’ve just been checking him out really slowly because obviously he’s so talented and I don’t know that much about him...
LB: He’s amazing! A lot of people will say The Novelist, which is a much older album, is their favorite, but I first heard him when Dressed Up For The Letdown came out which was in 2007, right before the Georgie James record came out. And as it happened, one of the guys from Saddle Creek came to D.C. to see Georgie James play and we were driving around town and I put in this CD into my stereo and I said you have to hear this record, it’s my favorite record right now, it’s so beautiful, it’s this guy, and I press play and the guy from the label laughs and he’s like “that’s hilarious. That’s Richard Swift isn’t it?” And I said: yeah, isn’t he amazing and you know this record? And he laughed and said “Saddle Creek is putting that record out over in Europe.” So I got in touch with Richard back then just to say hi and I’m a huge fan and I love this album and to keep doing what you’re doing and hope to meet you sometime and, hey, if we could ever collaborate that would be the best. [we all laugh] But you know, let’s just throw that out there...so there were a couple of people I was thinking of working with for this album, but I just wasn’t sure and once I started writing these songs I thought Richard is the person. After going through a couple of rough personal years the one thing I’ve learned is that you’ve always gotta trust your gut...just go with it...trust your intuition. And so my intuition said Richard is the person. And I got in touch with him again and we met up in Austin, Texas at South By Southwest that Spring...we did a shot of tequila and I said: so you still want to make this record? And he said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And so I flew out to Oregon and had only met him once in person, I’d been sending him my demos, [which] consist of a Fender Rhodes and me singing into GarageBand. I just don’t have the patience to make actual [demos]...
I briefly interrupt her to assure her that I’m certain they’re beautiful as I’ve seen an online clip of her just singing and playing piano and was blown away. I wax on for a minute about how it was the ‘sound’ of this record that got me hooked and that it was relatively new to me and yet she must have been building up to it for years.
LB: Well, I’ve got to say, you know, I feel like it’s been a real...trek...it really has, it’s been a journey. I think this is really the first time when I felt like I had found my voice, I found my sound and I found who I am as a person and as a songwriter and what it is that I felt I could contribute in an honest way. And that meant going back to the roots of how I came to music. And a lot of that had to do with [going] to the Stax Museum when I was on tour with Georgie James, and you walk in through this rebuilt church and they’re talking about the Stax ‘sound’ and where did that come from and they talk about hymns and gospel and bluegrass and blues and country and folk and all these roots and I thought wait a second, that’s how I know music. And you know my friend Shervin sitting me down and saying “you need to write from your heart...don’t do anything but that.” To have someone sit you down and say that is sort of the most reaffirming thing that someone could say to you, which is “you are good, you have something to say, just say it!” And I was really just reassured by that. And I went out and paid for the record to be made myself...
SLUG: Oh wow!
LB: Yeah, and I contacted Richard. And I had gone to Saddle Creek and said I want to make a solo record...I know you guys have put out solo projects from people who have been in bands before...how do you do that? And their advice to me was “go out and make the record that you want to make. And then we’ll figure out if it’s right for us to work together.” Which I think was the best advice that anyone could have given to me.
SLUG: Cause you’re not trying to please the record label or be rejected.
LB: Right, exactly! And you know, in that sense, it’s really great to be out on the road...touring...you know, driving nine-plus hours a day, however long it takes you to get to a different city and playing these songs that mean something...and I don’t know, I feel like the ideas of sort of “loss and recovery” are universal...and I hope...I mean I hope that when people hear it they feel it and make the songs their own.
SLUG: I agree...wow...that’s awesome!
We briefly discussed the possibility of them touring England (because the album would really be appreciated there) and how the slow build up of a presence is needed in order to accomplish that goal and then her decision to put the record out under the pseudonym “Mynabirds” versus under her own. But even though The Mynabirds is really just Laura Burhenn, she has been backed by some pretty amazing people both on the record and on the road, especially Swift.
SLUG: It says it’s “made by” you two which I think is really cool!
LB: You know, it’s so sweet...Richard is such an amazing person. Besides being such a gifted and talented musician, he has such a good heart...he really does. And I love that that’s his attitude...his attitude is that he’s not an author of anything or he’s not even the director of the film that we’re making together...we’re sort of working together to work it out...on a stage, or something.
SLUG: Like a “true” collaboration.
LB: Absolutely...so I basically decided I didn’t want to to put it out under my own name—people can’t figure out how to pronounce it, how to spell it, people weren’t sure what to do with it...and I really wanted to have a break from any solo work I’d done before, cos I knew it was something totally different.
SLUG: There’s something very tempting about [using] the name I’m sure...kinda of an anonymity in a way?
LB: Oh absolutely! It’s really nice if someone were to say “I really don’t like The Mynabirds.” That rolls right off your back. [all laugh] If someone says “I don’t like Laura Burhenn,” then you go sit in your bedroom and cry for all night. Even though you’re not supposed to, but...you’re not supposed to give a shit what anybody thinks...BUT!
SLUG: But it does affect us as people!
LB: Absolutely and that was part of it, but more than anything I had always said I wanted, when I was starting to write the songs and when I approached Richard, I sat down and I thought if I could only make one more record in my entire life...let’s say worst case scenario: I’ve only got one chance...what would it be? I thought I would love to make a record like sounds like Neil Young doing Motown...I love Neil Young. I love Motown. If I could sort of mix up the raw simplicity of Neil Young with the sweet sounds of Motown.
SLUG: That sound, that beat and that rhythm...
LB: the beat and the horns and all the lush harmonies and that would be it, that would be it! And so we made this record and I came home and I had the record, it was done and trying to figure out what to do and a friend of mine sent me a list of names--female names--that her father sent to her sister who was pregnant and expecting a baby girl. And they were lists...they were names of James Joyce characters and one of them was “Mina.” M -I-N-A. And for whatever reasons I thought “mina...myna...Mynabirds...or...Mynabird.” I love the way that sounds. And I looked it up and when you look it up in Wikipedia—Mynahbirds is a band that was Neil Young and Rick James, signed to Motown.
SLUG: That just trips me out!
LB: My mind...my jaw was on the floor when I found that out! I made like three calls and went “Oh my God, you’ll never believe it!” And I sort of sat with the name “Mynabirds” or “Mynabird” is it going to be an alter ego...is it a band name...what’s it going to be...and I went ahead and immediately registered any sort of name that was related to this online...and it was available as a domain name, which, hey, it’s googleable, it’s available online, it’s got this great backstory. And I was in D.C. and I ran into Ian Svenonius...do you know him? He was in The Make-Up—he’s been in a million bands—anyway, great, amazing musician, and a writer, he wrote this book called The Psychic Soviet. It’s a small pink book of essays, they’re really amazing, he’s sort of brilliant. Anyway and so I ran into him on the street and said “hey, I’m working on this new record and this is sort of the sound and what do you think about this: ‘Mynabird’ or ‘The Mynabirds’ or something” And he was like “oh I like that...The Mynabirds...it’s like ‘old soul’...I can see it on a seven inch.” And I thought, that’s it. And the more I thought about it...that’s it!
We then briefly discussed her unique and downright fun videos for Let The Record Go and Numbers Don’t Lie and if she’ll use the name again.
LB: Oh absolutely! [With] Mynabirds I feel like I’ve finally found what I’m supposed to be doing with my life...
SLUG: Great, that makes me so happy!
LB: Yeah, it’s interesting, I did an interview with someone the other day and they said, “Well is it going to sound just like this? Is it gonna be this sort of 60’s girl group? Are all the records going to sound like this?” But the thing I think is great about the fact that it’s “The Mynabirds” is that there’s actually a lot of room to play around with the sound. I’m hoping to do something a little more fierce next album. You know it’s a lot of fun, I love these songs, I love playing them on tour, but...after you play them every night, you kind of want to throw in some fast, loud, fun songs. Not that these aren’t, but you know.
I do know indeed! She mentioned that there were additional songs recorded for the album, but that she felt interrupted the flow of the story she was trying to tell and that these should hopefully be released as digital b-sides down the road, which is good news for everyone.
As Kevin and I were waiting for their late set to commence, I was struck by the notion that indie artists are really amongst the hardest working of all musicians; mainly because they have to basically do everything for themselves. They have to make and pay for all of their own travel arrangements, including their mode of transportation. They have to book all of the venues and negotiate the cost. They have to hire and pay for their backing musicians, including their accommodations and meals, and make sure they arrive at each destination on time. When they arrive, they have to set up their own equipment and have a sound check, fit in any interviews and meals, change for the show and then they actually have to perform. Afterwards, they have to break down all of their own equipment, find accommodations and maybe some sleep or hit the road immediately again, and basically do it all over again. It seems a grueling and often thankless endeavor.
This gives me a new found appreciation of the sacrifices these artists and bands make to bring shows to us and get their name out there, when Burhenn and her touring Mynabirds finally get on stage. The crowd has diminished slightly after the second opening act (and she confesses before they go on to us that they weren’t told there’d be two bands ahead of her) finished and it is nearly midnight. But in the tradition of all great artistes, Burhenn immediately culled the energy from the small crowd and channels it into a riveting performance. I was captivated as she indeed seems to be working a Neil Young by way of Motown vibe and when the first words come out of her mouth on set opener What We Gained In The Fire so is the crowd. I’m in heaven as the unmistakable melody of LA Rain starts (for obvious reasons) and she wisely holds back from playing Numbers Don’t Lie and Let The Record Go immediately and instead disperses them near the middle and end of the short set. And the crowd clearly loves them. Burhenn is charming, witty and extremely hypnotic to watch live.
Like the album, each song fits well into the set and tells a story of loss and recovery. It is near impossible to be disappointed, as the entire thing is presented. But mainly it is experiencing that gorgeous voice in person and hearing it live is thrilling. Burhenn generously gave props to the two opening bands and jokingly references the fact that her album is available for purchase tonight in any format you’d like. The crowd is really showing their love of this talented artist and her music and when true talent is in front of you, it knows how to give that right back to the crowd, like a perfect cycle of give and take. The set truly seems perfectly timed, just as the album is; it is neither too long nor too short. The plaintive album closer Good Heart rounds out the regular set, but we clearly want more and she comes back (first with her fine backing band and then just with her lovely background vocalist) for two encores, including a pretty cover of Lemon Tree. The gospel according to Laura Burhenn and The Mynabirds in person has truly been a phenomenal experience and one I’m not likely to forget. Especially hearing Burhenn’s big, warm, mesmerizing voice live that has completely won me over: it simply speaks the truth.