Laura Burhenn: Lovers Know Extended Interview
In the big wild world of modern music—so presently overcrowded with equal parts would-be artists and sub-genres—it is often the truly talented that get buried and overlooked. Dig past those in it for a quick cash grab or simply the notoriety and you will find the passionate artists: the poets, the dreamers and the musician’s musicians—those who live and breathe their music. So, here’s the deal: Laura Burhenn is the real thing. With her poet’s heart firmly intact, her latest offering as The Mynabirds, the much-anticipated Lovers Know, is something of a small miracle: an accessible, highly memorable sing-along declaration. Preparing to present her diverse third album—produced under the skilled hands of Bradley Hanan Carter (Black English)—to the world, SLUG had the pleasure of speaking with her about the new record and upcoming tour, which stops in Salt Lake on Sept 14.
SLUG: Congratulations, I am so in love with this record.
Laura Burhenn: Thank you so much!
SLUG: You’re welcome! You’ve blown me away each and every time and it’s as though you’ve landed on a whole different sphere with sound and these incredible background vocals, and all of these intricate little touches and flourishes. I’ve been driving around the streets of Salt Lake City blasting this record, just loving every minute of it. I wanted to say what a sing-along quality these songs have. I felt that on Fire you were kind of confessing and bearing your soul, and Generals was kind of a call to arms and more political, whereas with this, wow, there’s so many songs to sing along with and they just get stuck in your head. I mean, it’s really brilliant!
Burhenn: Well, thank you so much! You know, it definitely was a a road record, I wrote it on the road.
SLUG: Yes, so you took some time off after touring with the Postal Service and then you went to South Africa and Europe? So after the tour, you sort of had taken a sabbatical. It that correct?
Burhenn: Yes, after the Postal Service [tour]. It’s funny, I was on the road for a whole year and we traveled all over the world. But there’s something about traveling by bus where you don’t feel like you’ve driven anywhere. You’ve kind of a just “arrived,” and you wake up every morning in a new city. So there was something I really missed about just driving—there’s something that’s so cathartic about it. So after the Postal Service tour I got in my car and drove across the US, twice, just kind of writing and figuring out what I was trying to say, what words I wanted to say next. I made a playlist of some of my favorite songs I wanted to go back to.
I imagine for every record I’ve tried to reinvent myself, follow the trail of different artists that have inspired me and my life—I love people like David Bowie and PJ Harvey who reinvent themselves with every record. I really wanted to do that, get back to some things sonically I hadn’t quite explored: like Kate Bush in the ‘90s, when R&B hip-hop was the world, you know?
SLUG: Yeah, exactly, and it shows! It’s so successful that way!
Burhenn: Thanks! I think this time I really decided to just go deep into writing love songs. Just like, “you can’t run away from this anymore.” I think with my other records I thought, “well, I’m just not going to write love songs”—so trite—and then finally I was like, “wait, we’re all human. These are all struggles that we all have, we all want to love, we fail at love, we succeed at love. So that’s really what this record is about. It’s about relationships and when they’re good and when they’re bad. It’s the universal struggle and so I wanted them to be songs that people could sing along with, because as much as they’re my songs, I think they’re everyone’s songs. So I love that you said it, that it’s easy to sing along to the songs and you like driving and listening to it, ’cause that’s what I wanted it to be: a good driving record.
SLUG: It’s fantastic for that! I always have that “one” song and from the first album it is obviously “Numbers Don’t Lie” and so for here for me right now—like every other day I’m like “Oh my gosh!” and right now obsessed with “Wildfire”—but I think that one song for me on Lovers Know is “One Foot.”
And those kinda buried-sounding male vocals in the background, where they kinda sound like they’ve reverbed backwards, kinda like they’re underwater almost? So brilliant!
SLUG: So can you tell me about Bradley and how you hooked up with him and how you did you know you could trust him?
Burhenn: Well, you know, it’s funny we met through a mutual friend. She’d been the publicist for my band, Georgie James way back in the day, and we actually went to college together briefly. But she was publicist for Bradley’s band, then called NO, and now Black English, and we met in Los Angeles and we just started talking. And so we just kept in touch. And then I had posted the lyrics to “Suzanne,” the Leonard Cohen song, on my Instagram account while I was on tour with Postal Service and he commented on it: “Hey, we should cover that song together.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure!”
SLUG: And I love your cover!
Burhenn: Yes, and you know it’s one of my favorite songs, and when he commented on the photo, I was like “Yeah, sure, let’s do that,” thinking that nobody really does anything they say they’re going to do, so that’s probably not going to happen, but I liked the idea! [laughs] And then it wasn’t more than a few weeks or a month later he sent me this track that his band had recorded and he’s like, “Here it is, here is the song, here are my vocals and let’s figure out what you want to say.”
And I was like, wow, I’m really impressed and I loved the way that he had reimagined “Suzanne” you know? It was very much in the style of his band and I found out he had pretty much self-produced their record and I was really impressed with the way it sounded and given all of the musical space I wanted to take the new record into, I thought, “You know, it seems like what he’s doing could be really perfect for the sound of the record.”
So, after we did that cover, I moved out to LA to do some writing, and he was there. I was kind of bouncing ideas off of them, as far as songs, and we just continued this conversation. And finally he said, “let me demo a song or two up for you and then you can figure out who’s going to produce the record,” ‘cause I still wasn’t sure. And we started recording some and I’m like, “What am I doing? This is exactly the sound I want for the record! I think he should just produce it,” and I think both of us had some reservations, you know he’d never produced anything but his own songs really, so he’s like, “I want you to be happy with what you get for your next record,” and I kinda always like betting on the underdog, the wildcard, so we did it and I think it turned out exactly the right way. I’m really proud of it and I think it’s beautiful.
SLUG: Absolutely! I was just saying how accessible it is and it’s almost like you’re stepping into different genres, and yet your voice—you sound so lovely. Delving really quickly into the ballads, like “Velveteen,” it’s so heart-breaking in parts and then “Orion,” oh my God, that’s so epic! It almost starts like a ballad and then it turns into something else, it’s just so powerful. And so yeah, your connection with him and your instincts have totally paid off!
Burhenn: Thanks! I mean I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life! He’s a perfectionist and I’m sorta prone to being like, “Let’s just throw it—oh wait, it’s on tape! Great, we’ve got the song!” [laughs] So we really pushed each other, I think, to get the perfect recording, which I’ve never done. I mean I worked with Swift on the last two records, and I adore and think he’s a genius, and his style is very much like “Alright, let’s get on, let’s try this for sound, great, OK we’re done, on to the next thing,” and that’s why he’s so prolific, ‘cause he works that way. But it was nice for this record to say, “OK, let’s pay attention to every space, to every note and make sure that everything that’s on there matters and creates the emotional sensation that it should.”
SLUG: Yeah! So I envision you and I seem to recall the last time we talked that when you were with Richard Swift, that you were in his own studio, so in a way you’re kind “cocooned” in that kind of environment?
Did the bulk of Lovers Know get recorded in one specific place or is it all broken up? I mean did you do your vocals … did you finish a song where you started a song? Can you elaborate a little bit about that?
Burhenn: Sure! The bulk of it was recorded in Bradley’s home studio in Echo Park, in Los Angeles. But when we started recording, his home studio was tiny and so we didn’t have space to do drums and Patrick Damphier.
SLUG: Yes, from Field Days!
Burhenn: Exactly, yeah, from Field Days, and he’s also played in my band and he has this really amazing studio space in Nashville, so we actually went to Nashville first, and recorded bass and drums and some synthesizer and piano parts. So that became the base for the record and when we recorded it, its was almost like R&B, almost like mix-tapey. The drums, we weren’t even really sure what all the drum parts were going to be, or how the songs were going to go, but we had ideas for what the drums, what the rhythm should be for different pieces. So we recorded it piecemeal, and then we took it back to LA, and we finally figured out what the structure was going to be for the songs, and we pieced it together and we added in electronic drums with it. You know, it recalled a very hip-hop-like production for these super-indie pop songs, you know?
SLUG: Yeah. Your description of that just gave me a little chill, ‘cause wow, the drumming, some of the drums, they’re just right there and it’s one of the highlights, as well as those male vocals.
SLUG: And can you tell me about the male vocals. Is that Bradley, is that Patrick, is that other people? They’re so distorted in parts.
Burhenn: All the male vocals are Bradley, yes. It was a really great experience. Bradley sang on it and then my bandmates who’ve toured with me in Mynabirds’—’cause you know Mynabirds is really just a solo project for the last two records—it was just me and Richard Swift in the studio, with occasionally people putting in some horn arrangements or something after the fact. But it’s really just me and Richard just making those records. So it was nice for this record, Nico [Nicole Miller]—who played drums with the Mynabirds for years—she played drums on this record and Rebecca Miller—she sang backing vocals and I flew her down to LA, and Patrick played on it as well and it was sort of nice to feel like it was a big, collective effort.
SLUG: Well, I think that will translate when you take it on the road.
Burhenn: Yeah, absolutely. I’m really excited to play it live. And I’m so excited we’re getting back to Salt Lake! Salt Lake is one of my favorite cities to be in!
SLUG: Can you tell me where you heard that Faulkner quote that you use, “You cannot swim for new horizons [until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.]?” Or when you first came upon it?
Burhenn: I don’t remember where exactly, where I heard it, but I just remember, I’ve been doing this thing for a few years now where instead of making a bunch of resolutions for a new year, I give the year a name. It’s a really fun practice, you kinda dig deep and you think about what is your intention for the year? Ultimately it helps you kinda make decisions, instead of making a bunch of resolutions, you look at each place you get through the year, and you’re like, “Wait, what’s my intention for year? What do I want to make happen,” you know?
And so I can’t remember, but sometime around New Year’s of 2014 I stumbled upon that quote. ‘Cause I remember thinking “I want my year to have something to do with that,” or planning my year with something like “The Year of Walking Bravely Into the Wild!” My friend called me up and said, “Hey, would you wanna come on tour in South Africa?” and I kind of thought, “OK, what sounds so amazing and exciting” is also slightly terrifying to be on my own, you know?
Burhenn: And then I thought, “Oh wait, what am I supposed to do this year?” It’s like, OK, just go, say “yes.” But that quote definitely inspired me. Not only following sort of where I’d ventured that year, but also musically or lyrically where I let myself go, into places I’d never been before in songwriting. It’s interesting how much a musician can hide behind a metaphor.[laughs]
Burhenn: You know like it’s really easy to guard who you are and what you’re feeling by talking about, I don’t know, talking about the leaves on the trees or something and instead, like working with Bradley, he really encouraged me to say “No, wait: say exactly how you feel! Say exactly what’s in a room with you, make it be very virtual, make it be real and honest.” And it was really uncomfortable!
Burhenn: There were times where I was like, “I can’t make this record! I’m not doing it! I’m giving up!” [laughs]
SLUG: But just stepping behind and away from things we are comfortable with is so freeing in a way?
Burhenn: Yeah, yeah!
SLUG: And can bring out better things and stuff. And really quickly, speaking of Africa, like in “Omaha,” you seem to reference when you talk about, and please forgive me lyrically, I have all of these songs constantly going through my head right now as I’m trying to sift through my questions here so, but I think you mention like a jewel and is that part of that journey is reflected in “Omaha?” And what a beautiful homage to your adopted city!
Burhenn: Yeah, I never really thought of it as having to do with South Africa, but I’m sure that it does you know. The chorus: “Omaha will you still call me darling?/Omaha will I still be your girl?…If I never bring you back a single lion/The ruby-throated riches of the world,” and I think I’ve felt that way. It’s interesting, when I was living in Omaha, I finally felt free to be able to tour and really, really live my life as a musician. And I also felt this real responsibility to bring something back to my family and my community there, you know?
Burhenn: And musically speaking, I think every musician struggles with that—touring musician—kind of being thrown back into your real life once you get back from the road and then wait, are you making people proud? Are you bringing people back something that’s worthwhile and are you doing that for yourself, you know?
Burhenn: And that’s a really hard question to ask yourself. You’re so exhausted when you come back home.
SLUG: Oh, yeah.
Burhenn: And you feel—it’s such a contrast—because you feel this amazing connection with people all over the world that you’ve met and you’ve interacted with and you’ve had these brief, fleeting, deep connections with at shows, or coffee shops, wherever you are on the road, and then you come home and then you also feel so incredibly far away from the people you should feel closest to. It’s a weird re-entry, like astronauts must feel a little like that coming back from space!
SLUG: Yes, that’s a very great description of that and stuff. And then one of my favorite songs is “Shake Your Head Yes,” and I love how fun and experimental [it is] and the vocal on that like at the very, very, very end you kind of like laugh, just slightly, so tell me all about the recording of that!
Burhenn: So that was a song I wrote right before I went on tour in South Africa. And I ended up playing that song at every show.
Burhenn: But it was just me and the piano and I was sorta playing it in this really like ballad-y way and everybody loved it at the end of the set, that was the one that people would come to me and say, “Oh, I love that song so much! Where can I hear it?” And I was like, “I haven”t even recorded it yet!” [both laugh] And so I got back from South Africa and we were kinda finishing up the recording of the record and I think we kinda hit a wall, so we decided to go to Joshua Tree. And we rented this dome home and we took all the studio stuff there and set up there.
And we were working on this song and it was kind of like, I was doing it in this slow ballad-y way and Bradley was unimpressed with it, and I was like, “But you don’t understand! People in South Africa they LOVE this song! This is their favorite song!” [both laugh] And we were really fighting over what this song was supposed to be and finally we just kinda like started messing around with these vintage Casio keyboards which are all over the record.
I think I started messing around with the beat…being really silly with it, because I was just like so over it and kind of annoyed and frustrated, so this moment of silliness and he stopped me and was like “That’s it!” He’s like “that’s the feeling. That’s what this song should be!” And I’m like, “What?! I’m just messing around!” And he’s like, “Exactly, that’s the joy!” So that’s how that song all came together and we ended up piecing it together and cutting it apart, and that’s why it has those sorta weird jumpy overlaps. And it feels really fun, and I think that tends to happen with a lot of the songs that are “right” on all of my records, which are, like “Numbers Don’t Lie” was like that when I recorded it with Richard, that was the last song we recorded for What We Lose In The Fire…the first record. And you get to this point of total emotional exhaustion and you’re like, “But I have this one really meaningful song I need to add to the list” and it’s like no one wants to hear that last one really meaningful track or song. So you just kinda find your joy in it, and have fun with it and then it’s right. [laughs]
SLUG: And it’s really right, wow! I keep going back to it, it’s almost like you’re talking to yourself, like when the vocals overlap like that, and I love the line about “classic cinema.” I mean your lyrics—you’re such a brilliant lyricist anyway—but I think they’re just so confessional and you’re just hitting on so much of the emotion and stuff and it is about love, isn’t it? It’s about all shades of love and all shades of relationships, and I mean I really, really love it!
Burhenn: Thank you so much! Yeah, I think with “Shake Your Head Yes” it was the sonic conversation with myself! It was definitely all the voices in my head kinda talking over each other. But I think that that was ultimately, that’s kind of the key to the whole record, you know—the record’s called Lovers Know—and to me that’s a reference of this sort of secret language that we all speak but it’s not spoken in words necessarily?
So the idea of “shaking your head yes,” like I said about going to South Africa and the William Faulkner quote, about just saying yes, when people ask or the universe asks you “Do you want to do this?” It’s like “Yes!” It will probably break my heart, but I want to do it because that’s everything there is in living, you know what I mean?
Burhenn: And then loving and all of that.
SLUG: Absolutely! And that sort of reminded me where Lovers Know the title comes from on “Say Something,” where you talk about the needle skipping your favorite words and, ahhhh, I don’t think there’s a single track that I don’t think is brilliant!
I know I use that word a lot and I hope it doesn’t sound clichéd, but I’ve had so much time to absorb and be intimate with this album and I’m in such a lucky position that I get promos so early sometimes and it’s like I can’t wait for everyone to hear this! And that’s why I drive around with it, just blaring from my car speakers, like “just listen to this, everyone!”
SLUG: And people turn their heads and I imagine that they’re like, “What’s that?! What’s this great sound?” And that’s what’s so great about it and stuff. Can you tell me a little about the “Hanged Man” song? And just the origins of that—and how pretty it is—and where was that recorded?
Burhenn: That again was recorded mostly, again the drums, the bass and the piano were recorded in Nashville, but some of it was recorded in LA, in this little home studio. And that does have Rebecca Miller in the background, as vocalist, and her voice is really amped up, and it’s just like the voice of an angel, you know?
But yeah, that song, a friend of mine sent me this text and just said something about August, something sort of about the fleeting time, kinda sent me a text August 2013. I hadn’t talked to him in months and months and just came out of the blue. And then I was like “That’s such a beautiful thought and I appreciate that,” and then I was in the middle of the Postal Service tour and I really thought about that very thing: I felt so lucky to be doing that tour and I was having such an amazing time and it was going to be over really soon, you know? That was kinda like, I think, maybe the final weeks of that and it was so bittersweet: getting to play in all of these venues that I hadn’t played—and might never play again with the Mynabirds—who knows? Maybe I will, but…
To be doing this really epic thing and just wanting to be there for it. And also I kinda got into tarot cards, and I kept pulling this card, the Hanged Man.
And the whole point of that card is just being still and knowing that, just like the Postal Service song says, “Everything will change.” You know, change is the only constant in our lives and you have to let things come and you have to let things go. And try to make peace with it the best you can. It’s not always easy!
SLUG: Oh, I love that song! And the harmonizing on it! When you’re writing the song—and obviously you had mentioned with “Shake Your Head Yes,” when you said it was ballad-y—so when you were writing that did you know, do you know that the vocals are going to go this way? Or do you wait until you’re with Bradley and you’re kinda fleshing them out? Like “Semantics,” did you know that that’s the way you wanted it to sound, do you hear that in your head already? I’m kinda asking you 20 things at once there!
Burhenn: [laughs] Yeah, I do. I think I write a lot of them, knowing as I’m writing, that some of them could end up changing or be mixed around when you’re actually recording it, but I’ll have a pretty specific idea. Like “Velveteen,” is one of the songs if you go back and listen to the demo I made, before we went into the studio, that one sounds most like the final version of the song. I had all of those vocal layers together in the demo and that was my idea, was having these almost symphonic bed of voices for the bed of the song.
SLUG: Heartbreaking beautiful! I just love it!
SLUG: Well, I am so honored to talk to you again. You’re one of my favorite musicians and people, and I’m so thrilled.
I feel great things for this record and can’t wait to see you in September and see you guys live and thank you so much!
Burhenn: Thank you so much! I can’t wait to see you in September as well, it’s going to be really great to be back in Salt Lake! I love it there and can’t wait to see you and everybody else!