Back in 2012 I came across a song called “Karma Debt” by The Mynabirds and instantly fell in love with it. The sound of Laura Burhenn’s vocals alone was bewitching, equal parts velvety smooth and soulful, but her thought-provoking lyrics about war and debt were what really made my brain light up like a Christmas tree. (“But when the war is done / And we’ve finished all our songs / Will they offset the colossal karma debt?”) No sooner did I listen to the song a second time, I bought the album, Generals, on iTunes and proceeded to play to it day after day after day; it was one of my favorite albums that year. During the years that followed, Burhenn toured as a background vocalist for Bright Eyes and The Postal Service before she started driving around the U.S. and writing her new album. That album is called Lovers Know and it comes out on August 7th on Saddle Creek. Once again, she delivers thoughtful lyrics, although songs like “Believer” and “Shake Your Head Yes” are more than catchy enough that one should be able to appreciate them even if one rarely pays attention to the words. I’ve listened to the album at least twenty times now, so believe me when I say it’s a strong contender for album of the year. If I had to compare it to another album released this year it would be Florence + The Machine’s new record, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. Both feature songs that run the gamut from bare bones and organic to epic and elaborate with deep lyrics and a strong female perspective. To that end, Burhenn ranks right up there with some of the greatest female singer/songwriters of all time. Think Stevie Nicks. Carole King. Kate Bush. During the following interview, conducted via E-mail, we cover everything she’s been up to since Generals, her answers pensive and insightful. Give it a read and check out Lovers Know; she’s a fascinating person and the album is a masterpiece.
I’ve read that you personally are The Mynabirds, that you’re a solo artist who opts to release music under that name, but I’ve also read that The Mynabirds are a band, to which end Wiki lists several members. So, is The Mynabirds meant to be a solo project or a regular band?
The Mynabirds is, in fact, a solo project. When I started writing songs under that moniker, I wanted something that would be able to change with the songs from album to album. And so instead of using my own name, I went with the Mynabirds. I like to joke that it’s way easier to hear someone say, “I love the Mynabirds!” or “I HATE the Mynabirds!” rather than, “I HATE Laura!” Ha!
I’ve been a fan of The Mynabirds from the beginning, but I only recently discovered that you were one half of the duo Georgie James. Are you and John Davis, the other half of the duo, still in touch?
Yeah, John and I are still in touch, for sure. I am a big fan of his, and I’m glad to see that he’s still making music. He’s one of the best drummers I know, and a great songwriter. He’s got a great new record out under the name “Paint Branch” (with his bandmate from Q And Not U, Chris Richards — also a genius IMHO). I do often wish that QANU would do a reunion tour though. I adore those records! I’d definitely go to a show. And if they’d need an opener, you know maybe Georgie James could also do some reunion shows!? Those songs were a big part of my life. I think we all learned a lot writing, recording and touring them.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from the Georgie James years?
No matter what happens, what anyone says, do you and be true. That might sound nebulous, but essentially people are going to assume all kinds of things about you in your life. And some of those assumptions are going to be negative, and you’re not going to please every single person who thinks negative things about you. Don’t waste your time trying to change their mind. Just be nice, and keep doing what you do and being who you are. I remember reading an early review of one of our shows and someone commented that they thought I looked like a heroin addict, that they thought I was pretty, but not attractive. And man, that really cut into me. But finally I thought, “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard! Let ’em think I do loads of drugs. What do I care? And I’m sure as hell not interested in making out with them.” Laugh that shit off. Spend your energy on doing what you can to move forward. I wrote about that in a Mynabirds’ song for the last record, “In the Mouths of Wolves”… “Revenge is in the other cheek / Honey, turn and walk away / Anyone who’s worth a damn will be following.”
It’s been a few years since your sophomore album Generals, but I understand you’ve been quite busy, driving around the U.S. twice and touring South Africa solo. What were some of your favorite places that you saw while venturing around Stateside?
Wow. I really saw so much! It was crazy. I couldn’t sit still. Touring South Africa solo was one of my favorite experiences of my whole life. It’s such an incredible country. It feels like America’s wilder cousin. There’s so much political turmoil still, and a lot of work to be done in race relations. But wow, the way songs can break down barriers and tie us to each other. Such a powerful experience. Port Saint John’s was probably my favorite. I played this show at a backpackers hostel and these girls from the local township (which overlooks the most dangerous, shark-infested ocean — and it’s just the most gorgeous, wild place I’ve ever seen — such a contrast of richness in natural beauty and yet not much money lining anyone’s pockets) performed all of these traditional African dances. It was such an incredibly diverse group of people, all coming together for song and dance. Really special.
What was touring South Africa like? What were the most inspiring things there? What parts stick out to you the most now?
Ha! I guess I just answered that. Truly one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. My favorite part was getting to sing with these three beautiful African women (they joined me to sing backing vocals), who were from very diverse backgrounds. One had been doing pop singing for years (joining the likes of Josh Groban onstage when he toured through SA), another was Zulu, and another a devout Muslim, and we were touring during Ramadan. We all learned so much from each other. And most of all, I was SO IMPRESSED with the diversity of their voices — each rich in their own ways, and so incredibly powerful, whether it was Lana’s bluesy growl, Ayesha’s Erica Badu-style whispers, or Vuyo’s I-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings effortless gliding, like wings on the wind. I’d really love to go back. I made some incredible friends, and only got to scratch the surface of the beautiful landscapes and cultural diversities.
I understand Lovers Know was recorded in studios in Los Angeles, Nashville, Joshua Tree and Auckland, New Zealand. What was the biggest reason you changed locations so often?
I spent so much time on the road writing the record, I felt like the recording process should mirror it. So we started in Los Angeles, but then went to my bassist’s studio in Nashville to record drums and bass tracks. We ended up treating them like R&B samples, cutting the drums together after the fact and adding in a lot of electronic samples. I wanted to make this record that felt like a collage, a collage of being on the road, taking snapshots and then pasting them into one giant memory book. So that’s how we recorded. A bit in LA, some in Nashville, the wide open and starkness of the desert in Joshua Tree (and in a dome home, which was really inspiring). The final bits were recorded and mixed in New Zealand, a place I’d never been before. I’d been holding this Faulkner quote close to my chest while I was writing: “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” And so finishing the record in a place I’d never been felt absolutely poetic and perfect.
Although you recorded in four different places, I understand all of Lovers Know was produced by Bradley Hanan Carter of Black English. Are you and he good friends? Did you know each other prior to working on the record?
Bradley and I met through a mutual friend who was Black English’s (formerly NO) publicist at the time. I had later posted some of the lyrics of “Suzanne,” the Leonard Cohen song, on my Instagram, and he commented that we should cover the song together. I adore that song. It’s one of my very favorites. I commented back, “Yeah, sure!” thinking that no one ever does anything they say they’re going to do on the internet. But a few weeks later, he sent me a fully recorded version waiting for my parts to sing. So the next time I went through LA (I was touring with the Postal Service at the time), I stopped in and recorded my vocals. I was starting to think about how I wanted to produce my next Mynabirds record, and I thought the way he had produced “Suzanne” and the other Black English songs really fit. When I moved to LA to write, he helped me demo a few songs, and in those demos I realized that he was the right person to produce the record. He had really only produced that Black English record, and I kind of liked the idea of working with him for that reason — again, coming back to that Faulkner quote and being excited to try sailing through something totally unchartered. I like to bet on the underdogs and the wildcards.
How much of Lovers Know was written during your travels? Was it easier or more difficult to write on the road?
A lot of it was written in the car. I started writing in early 2013 and just let most of it percolate in my subconscious while I was on tour with the Postal Service and then as I was driving across the US a couple of times. So much of the record started in voice memos on my phone, written at stoplights or on long stretches of highway, or walking down some random downtown (I recall Boise specifically), letting my walking stride keep time as my boots struck the pavement. I write mostly like that. GENERALS was written primarily in the shower. There’s something about turning off to turn on. If you can really let your mind go, you can tap into all the power and wisdom it’s got buried in there. That said, a lot of the songs didn’t fully form until I was in the studio recording them. I’ve never done that before, at least not to the extent I did this time — gone into the studio with unfinished lyrics or ideas. But I think that became more powerful in the end. I forced my subconscious to open up and give up these really raw, imperfect emotions and ideas. And I think it resulted in the most honest record I’ve ever made. I didn’t give myself time to edit or tidy or or try and make it (i.e. me) all look better from the outside.
Speaking of on the road, were your Stateside travels at all inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road?
Absolutely! I adore Jack Kerouac. And there was something about his stream of consciousness writing that worked its way into this record, for sure, for all the reasons I just mentioned. I wrote like a fiend sitting in front of a typewriter with one long scroll of paper. And some of his words shine through in “Semantics” (“You know I always feel half crazy / A roman candle at the water’s edge / I played with fire / Keeps me warm”) and “Wildfire.” I was definitely thinking of his quote from On The Road when I was singing, “Into the Night / We’re Burning / Into the Night / Into the Night”… Yes, that song is an ode to the crazy ones I adore who inspire me endlessly to live life to the fullest:
“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” [Jack Kerouac, On The Road]
If so, I’m curious about whether or not you visited Keroac’s birthplace, Lowell, Massachusetts, being that my town borders Lowell.
I haven’t! And I need to. You should tell me all the Lowell secrets to dig into and uncover…
In 2013 you toured as a backing vocalist for The Postal Service along with Jenny Lewis. Did the two of you know each other prior to this?
I originally met Jenny in DC after a Rilo Kiley show at the 9:30 Club through mutual Saddle Creek friends. It was like 2008, I think, and I had this brick of a phone (pre-iPhone!). It was super late and we were marveling at the mural on the ceiling backstage and she was like, “We should call the guy who painted this thing and tell him he’s a genius!” And so I picked up my phone-brick and opened up Internet Explorer (yes, it was a PC phone) and we found his name and phone number and called it up. Jenny got his answering machine, and said something like, “Hi my name is Jenny Lewis and I’m in a band called Rilo Kiley. I really like your work.” And then she left her number and asked him to call her back so they could talk. I’ve wondered to this day if he believed that it was actually Jenny Lewis who left the message (or if he’d even heard of her and her band) and if he ever called her back. I always forget to ask her that! We saw each other a bunch more after that through music and mutual friends and I got to know her better when I was touring with Bright Eyes and Jenny & Johnny (her band with Johnathan Rice) were opening. She’s the best. A true gem in the world. To know that she grew up in the entertainment industry and spent her life in LA and remains one of the truest, most genuine (and funny!) people you’ll ever meet — she’s pretty much a miracle.
What is your most vivid memory from touring with Bright Eyes?
Yeah, I was lucky enough to tour as a member of Bright Eyes when they put out their last record. The whole thing was so much fun, it’s hard to pick a favorite memory. We did so much! And I got to play all of these stages I always dreamed of playing, but never thought I’d play (Radio City, Royal Albert Hall, Glastonbury, Coachella, Lollapalooza). Learning to surf in Australia with TV On The Radio was really rad. And that time we were playing ACL in Austin and we got to film some scenes with Christian Bale for a Terrence Malick film — that was pretty vivid…
What plans to tour behind Lovers Know do you have?
I’ll be touring Europe and all over the US this fall. And I assume there’ll be more touring in 2016, too. If the way the record was written and recorded is any indication, I’ll be “on the road” for quite some time!
The Mynabirds new album, Lovers Know, will be released on August 7th via Saddle Creek.
Thanks to Laura for taking the time to do this and to Abby at Girlie Action Media for arranging things!