We may have lost singer/songwriter and DC native Laura Burhenn to the state of Nebraska* a year and a half ago, but she will be back for a visit tonight to perform with her new band the Mynabirds at the Black Cat. I caught up with her on Friday to discuss the new album, entitled What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (out now on Saddle Creek and scoring pretty high in record review circles), as well as her idea of an ideal day back in DC. She’s only back for the night, but I have it on good authority that she should be free between the hours of 3pm and 7pm for reunions. And while you’re waiting in line to say hello you can read all about what she’s been up to these days, thus skipping a lot of the time you’d ordinarily waste asking her to fill you in! Genius!
*I can’t tell you much about Nebraska except that I’m pretty positive that’s where Aunt Becky from Full House was from, but Burhenn assured me that the Cornhusker State is a good place.
BYT: So where are you living now? Nebraska?
LB: Yes, I am in Omaha, Nebraska. I moved here just about a year and a half ago.
How do you like that?
I love it! I mean, I miss DC a ton, and I miss my friends and family, but DC is always going to be home. I lived in New York briefly a long time ago, and so this is really the first time I’ve ever lived away from home. It’s kind of nice just to go out and try something totally new, and there’s such a good community of musicians and artists in Omaha. I love it.
And so you grew up in the DC area?
Basically. I grew up around Hagerstown, Maryland which is about an hour and a half outside of DC, but I lived in DC for the past eleven years.
Now tell me a little bit about the new record…what were your inspirations and what was the recording process like?
After Georgie James broke up I really just wasn’t exactly sure what to do with myself. I had a lot of songs that I’d been playing solo, and I went into the studio and tried to make some demos and tried to record some things, which just wasn’t quite working out. I think they just weren’t the right songs. So my friend Orenda who’s in Azure Ray (but she just had a side project come out called O+S on Saddle Creek) invited me to go out and tour with them in the spring of 2009. So I thought, well, okay, I don’t really have anything else going on, maybe this is a good idea! And it was just nice to sort of get my head outside of myself and just do something completely different. I’d moved to Omaha, and she was in Omaha but then moved to LA, so we went out to LA and toured the West Coast and then went down and did SXSW, and while I was in Austin I ran into Richard Swift. I’m a huge huge fan of his music and I’d been introduced to him through Saddle Creek because they’d released one of his records in Europe a couple of years ago. So we did a shot of tequila and said, “Let’s make a record!” (laughs)
See, that’s the way to go.
Yeah! So I got back and had a couple of things rolling around in my head and I just kind of started over at that point. I basically started the record from scratch, and over last summer Richard and I got together in Oregon and recorded it. And essentially I just wanted to get back to the roots of the music that I love and grew up with that sort of informed who I am as a person. So I think you hear a lot of that in the record, like a lot of soul and Motown and even some gospel stuff. I just wanted it to be simple, you know? Chad Clark, who recorded and produced the Georgie James record, was really encouraging of me and what I was working on, and he kind of kept telling me, you know, there’s strength in simplicity. And so I really took that to heart in recording.
So how long did it take to record?
We basically did it in two and a half weeks. It was two different sessions, but it was basically two and a half weeks.
Wow! Now you said you were in Oregon during that time, but where in Oregon were you?
We were in a little town just south of Eugene. It’s a tiny, tiny town with these big rugged hills in the background, and it’s funny because you think of the Pacific Northwest and you think rainy, grey, cool, but it was a heatwave, like close to a hundred degrees every day, not a cloud in the sky. (laughs) So it was perfect, it was like the only thing you could do was either go swimming or hole up in an air-conditioned studio and make some music.
Well that sounds like fun. I also read somewhere that you guys drank whiskey and listened to records at nighttime.
Yeah, it was a big party. It was a big two and a half week party, and Richard was there with his family and his really close friends. He’s, you know, despite being a public person, being a musician in a bit of the public eye, he has very strong relationships with the people he’s closest to. So it was kind of nice to be in that atmosphere, and everybody in the town was really welcoming. I’d go to the same coffee shop every morning and they’d say, “How’s the record coming?” (laughs) It was just really sweet, like visiting family.
So what’s it like for you to be in a band vs. working solo?
Well it’s interesting, because this writing process was something I was sort of able to direct completely. And so I felt like I was really able to immerse myself in the subject and the story of the record and put it together. I wanted it to be a whole work of art and wanted each song to feel like a chapter in a book, and so that was a lot of fun for me to feel like I was creating this whole story. And at the same time there’s still an element of collaboration because Richard and I worked together to produce the record. He just has such great musical ideas, it was kind of nice to take these bare bones to him and have him put his print on the music as well. So it was sort of a little bit of both worlds.
Cool. So did you always want to pursue music as a career, then? Or was there ever anything else you saw yourself doing?
Well, I always wanted to do music. (laughs) It’s one of those things…I feel like when I was five years old I was laying awake in bed thinking about what kind of stage show I wanted to have. I started writing songs when I was seven, had a band in fifth grade called Black Leather Red Roses (we were pretty awesome), and you know, it’s just something I’ve always always wanted to do. I was always drawn to writing and performing. And if I wasn’t doing this I’d love to open a nonprofit organization for disadvantaged kids. I don’t know, I feel like music is in me.
Understandable. I mean, it’s pretty great you had a solid idea of what you wanted to do with your life as early as age five, though. I think I wanted to be a farmer at age five. I don’t foresee that panning out. At least I hope not, anyway. Now, what do you do in your spare time when you’re not making music?
Well it’s been crazy, I’ve just been doing music nonstop. With this record I put a whole lot into it, and we did some really special packaging things. For example, we made hand-stamped journals that are hand-embossed and contain hand-written lyrics, and they contain a download card of the album that has been refashioned into a bookmark. And all of those pieces require handmade time. (laughs) So I’ve been spending a lot of time doing things like that, you know, and silk screening vintage ties and scarves as part of our merch. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s just really time consuming. We don’t have a manager or anything like that right now, so it’s sort of putting together all the tour information, making spreadsheets for budgets…it’s just really boring. But also really rewarding at the same time.
But that’s cool, you guys get to craft a little bit…
Yes, yes. Exactly. I mean, I really enjoy working with my hands, so it’s good to do that too.
Now as far as DC goes, you’re only going to be here for the night, right?
Yeah, it’s not enough time at all. I wish we had days to be in DC, because I’m just not going to get a chance to catch up with everybody. It’s funny, I’ve been having all these tour anxiety dreams and I dreamt I went to the Black Cat but it had been completely remodeled and I didn’t really recognize anybody. I was looking around the room and I was seeing people I know, but as I was looking at them their faces were changing and they were becoming different people. And then I was looking at the stage and suddenly Vicki from the Black Cat was playing bass, and I had one of the members of the Dum Dum Girls playing drums, and I was like, “Shit, is anybody even going to know these songs? What’s happening?” (laughs) So it’s one of those things where I’m really excited to be home but also stressed out because I don’t have more time.
Well let’s say that theoretically you had enough time to hit all your favorite places. Or maybe you do have enough time to hit the main spots, I don’t know.
Sadly I don’t have enough. You know, it’s one of those things where it’s just like you want a day in the life back. It doesn’t have to be anything outstanding, it’s just sort of like, to be able to wake up at the house where I lived in Columbia Heights and walk and get a coffee at Tryst and then walk down to Crooked Beat to look at the records. And then you run into a bunch of people you know, and then someone asks if you want to go get a drink or get some food somewhere or go for a walk in Rock Creek Park. You know, it’s just that feeling of being at home, and home to me is the people just as much as the place. More than the place, really. So the perfect idea would be a really awesome, huge party where everybody can get together and I get a chance to catch up with everybody. That’d be ideal.
Well maybe the concert will be that huge party, hopefully.
Yeah, exactly. That’s the hope. You know, I think that’s maybe part of the reason I became a musician, because it’s a good excuse for all of your friends to get together and hang out in one place. (laughs)
This seems like a good time to listen to some songs from the record now, in Laura’s own words:
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
Sometimes there are songs I start to write and worry they’re too simple, too open, too cliched. And “Numbers Don’t Lie” was one of them. It almost didn’t make the record. If it weren’t for that nagging chorus melody, it might’ve been lost forever. But there was something about that melody that kept me coming back. By the time I’d hummed it enough around other people and they began asking what song it was, I figured I should put some good work into it. When I showed up in Oregon to record with Richard Swift, it was the very last song we worked on. I hadn’t finished all of the lyrics (which is a rarity — I obsess over lyrics and want them drawn to perfection). But we got the tack piano down, all the laughs and shoe scuffles live on tape, and just really had a ton of fun with it. I agonized over a line in the second verse. Richard and I sat down and mulled it over for probably 2 hours. No joke. And eventually the simplest thing was the right answer. As it always is. This is a song about laying blame — letting someone lay it on you if it makes them feel better. Sometimes the path of least resistance really is the easiest way. And someone somewhere is keeping score. So who’s “right” will wash out in the end. No need to worry about the math in the here and now. Karma’s keeping watch.
LET THE RECORD GO
I wrote a lot of this record in the shower. And stomping around my dining room with just a tambourine. My neighbors must’ve thought I was crazy. Fine by me. This record needed some life. “Let the Record Go” is where it started. I loved the play on the phrase “let the record show” — like two parties arguing their case before a judge. In the end it really doesn’t matter. Another one of those instances where history (the future history as it is drawn up in retrospect) judges the present. It doesn’t help to worry about a thing in the moment. Let the record show? No. Let it go. Give it time. Wash it out. There are a whole lot of songs on this record about moving on, giving up the fight. I was honestly thinking about Ghandi when I wrote these lyrics: “Four black eyes, some sticks and stones. Chalk the numbers up and let the record go.” Just like he said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Ultimately this album is about loss and recovery. And what better to help you recover than your nearest and dearest friends, the ones who pull you from the brink of total disaster and set you straight. The record plays in two cycles (which coincide with two sides of the LP): loss and then recovery in a sweet and simple love song. The first recovery happens in “Ways of Looking” at the end of Side A. And the whole record ends with “Good Heart” — the simplest song of all of them. I was really looking back to my grandmother’s record collection — simple country songs, hymns, an echo of bluegrass. And I was thinking about everyone who’s helped me through the darkest hours. That’s why I was really grateful to have Tom Hnatow (of These United States) playing pedal steel and Orenda Fink (who I toured with in the spring of 2009) on backing vocals. But beyond the players, there’s really a whole lot that goes into the metaphor. Here’s one specific piece I’ll share:
After Georgie James split, Chad Clark (brilliant musician in Beauty Pill and producer extraordinaire) really encouraged me to keep writing. Then, following the last Georgie James European tour, I got an email from him. I was in Oslo and he was scheduled to have open heart surgery the next morning. He was lying awake late into the night, looking back on his life, trying to craft the perfect note to his friends to let them know if he went on to his next great adventure, it would all be worthwhile. And while I was so far away, all I could think about was his heart — not just his literal heart, but also his figurative heart. How strong it was. How terrible it was he was going through this thing with his physical heart. How I would love to lift him up (as he did for me) at that very moment. So this song is really about that — that complex exchange between you and the people you love. How you lift each other up, pick up where the other leaves off. How we could not possibly exist without our loves pulling us through the shit.
Want more? Check out The Mynabirds with Black Telephone tonight at the Black Cat, Backstage @ 9:00 PM. Tickets are still available for $10. I have faith that we can make this show into a huge party, what about you?
BONUS: Check out all sorts of awesome stories we did with Laura back when she lived in DC: