Erstwhile Georgie James vocalist Laura
Burhenn steps out as a solo artist – for the second time.
BY LAVINIA JONES
serendipity surrounded the making of the ebullient D.C. soul songbird, and former
Georgie James frontwoman, Laura Burhenn’s debut record, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (Saddle Creek), that
you have to wonder what she did to get the universe so firmly on her team. Just a few moments of conversation
with her answers that question. Burhenn
is what my grandfather would call “a real doll.” She’s got the sweet nature, the looks, and
the voice of a retro angel, and to top it all off, the lady is sharp.
When she named
her band The Mynabirds, she accidentally struck on some serious coincidence
gold. Intending for her band to sound
like ‘60s soul music with a dash of Neil Young, she unknowingly gave her new
musical outfit a name very similar to an early Neil Young combo fronted by Rick
James, The Mynah Birds. Burhenn’s Mynabirds are a rapturous and rich blend of
and soul with touches of gospel and early rock ‘n’ roll. Recorded in a small town of Oregon with singer-songwriter and producer
Richard Swift plus the help of members of Azure Ray, These United States and
Bright Eyes, songs like “Numbers Don’t Lie,” “We Made A Mountain” and the
album’s title track jump with Motown horns, Burhenn’s ecstatic piano, and
soaring, throaty melodies. And
discussing them with her from her new home in Omaha, Blurt discovered that Burhenn is something of a musical Zen master. Needless to say, she charmed us.
BLURT: The title of your album feels like
something that’s been said before, but apparently you’re the first to coin the
phrase! Isn’t it amazing that there are
still universal truisms that haven’t been said and new ways to say them?
exactly! It’s funny to me, these common threads of human experience. That’s
really what I wanted to write a record about, just a very simple idea of loss
and recovery. It is something that
everybody experiences in one way another.
Thinking on these Eastern themes seemed like the way to put it out to
the Human Experience, with capital letters.
It seems like that’s what’s missing from
Pop music today – the art of songwriting – the unique ways that soul and pop
songwriters of the ‘60s explored simple universal truisms. Is that one of the ways that ‘60s music
influenced your writing?
interesting, because when I was on tour with Georgie James we went to the Stax Museum
down in Memphis.
I had this absolutely eye-opening experience. You walk into the museum through
a rebuilt church. I don’t think it was
where Aretha Franklin’s father was a Preacher, just a church they found in Tennessee that they
brought in to replicate it. Up in the pulpit area they’ve got a TV with him
preaching these sermons on film, and it made me remember how I came to music,
which was through the church. I quit going when I was 13 because [of
intolerance] but it made me remember what it is about music that I love, and it
started with [God]. Something really simple that people pass down, an oral
tradition, for generations and generations.
The idea of slaves working in fields, singing songs to get through this
hardship. That’s why I love music: it’s
the thing that connects us, the thing that pulls us up from our dark times, an
How does loss affect your ability to
write songs? Do you work well when
things are in turmoil?
writing because that was my best means of communication. My parents got
divorced when I was 10 so I turned to music. I had the best piano teacher; I
came in and said, “I want to write my own song, can you teach me how to notate
it?” And she said, sure, or “Do you want to learn a Beatles song?” She was
always encouraging of whatever I wanted to do. I think there’s nothing better
for kids when they’re learning how to express themselves, than that. Going back
to the question: I have to wait and process things, and it takes me a while. I
had personally gone through a couple of losses in life before I felt like I
could write about it in a song. I didn’t want to write a diary, I wanted to get
far enough away from it so that I was making sense of my experience rather than
just saying whatever was coming to mind.
You’re not a newcomer to music, but this
record is being presented as your debut.
Does that feel strange?
No, it actually
feels really liberating. I had released
two solo records before Georgie James, on my label called laboratory
records. I’m proud that I did that, but
I’ve grown so much as a musician and a person since then, that I feel very
liberated by the fact that people are seeing [What We Lose…] as a debut.
When you were writing, did you have an
entire album in mind, or was it on a song-by-song basis?
James had broken up, I felt like I needed to be writing a record; I needed to
be doing the next thing. I went on tour
and had a really great time, and when I came back I felt really inspired. I wrote basically between March and June last
year. I was thinking on an album basis, I wanted to write an album in a way
that someone would write a novel; I wanted each song to feel like a chapter in
a book. There are lyrical themes and
imagery that repeat throughout, I hope.
I was really inspired by Jesse [Elliot] of These United States. Their first record, A Picture of the Three Of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden,
each song really relates to the next, being a whole story. I was really inspired by that.
How was it recording with Richard Swift?
It was amazing.
He’s just such a brilliant musician and an incredible producer. More than that
he’s such a nice guy. He lives in a small town, so I got to meet everybody. I
went to the same coffee shop every morning to get my coffee and croissant, and
they would say, “Hey, Laura, how’s the record coming?”
I did the piano and some of the
percussion, he did bass and synthesizer parts and we did all the vocals
together. We drank a lot of whisky! He pushed me a lot to get the performance out
of me. I would love to work on another
record with him in the future.
Is there a specific track on the record
that sums up the sound and the theme?
I have to say
the song that’s come out as my favorite is “Give It Time.” That song starts slow and dark – it’s in a
minor key. I just have a lot of fun
singing it. It’s nice when you write a song, and you get the feeling that your
voice just fits into this. But that song, I think, has a lot of the themes from
the record: giving it time and silence. Sometimes things work themselves out; you
just have to give it time.