Reviews

What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood

Author: Lavinia Jones Wright
05/07/2010 | Blurt | www.blurt-online.com | Feature
So much 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. But after 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 pop, Americana 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?
BURHENN: Yes, 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?
That's 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 absolute epiphany.

How does loss affect your ability to write songs? Do you work well when things are in turmoil?
I started 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?
After Georgie 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.


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