The frontwoman and driving force behind the Mynabirds doesn't mince words when it comes to her takes on politics, social justice and what's wrong with the world.
This passion is reflected in the Mynabirds' sophomore release Generals, which Saddle Creek Records released in June. The recent work is more outspoken than the band's first effort, 2010's What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood. But while Generals kicks ass and takes names, the album also presents moments of encouragement and uplift. And when not entirely moving, the album simply moves.
Burhenn grew up in a small town in western Maryland and spent 11 years in Washington, D.C., where she released both solo work and was one half of the pop rock duo Georgie James. Following the Georgie James break up, Burhenn needed a change of scenery, hence a move to Omaha, Saddle Creek's home turf. Since the move, she's released two Mynabirds albums, toured with label mates Bright Eyes, launched a website, The NewRevolutionists.org, featuring photos of women, and helped found the Omaha Girls Rock Camp.
The Mynabirds - not to be confused with the mid-'60s Canadian R&B Motown act the Mynah Birds that featured Neil Young and Rick James - was recently on a headlining tour of small venues in support of Generals. The band announced additional dates for later this month supporting Okkervil River.
BLURT met up with Burhenn before a performance at the Satellite in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. At a nearby Thai restaurant, over a plate of yellow curry and papaya salad, Burhenn elaborated on Generals, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Bright Eyes and the possibility of Neil Young knowing who she is.
BLURT: I saw you added some more dates to the end of August recently. Are things going well?
LAURA BURHENN: Things are going great. We're really excited.
I understand you got the title (of the new album) from a photograph. What about that photograph spoke to you?
I was at the Corcoran Museum in Washington, D.C. It was an exhibit of Richard Avedon's work. It was an exhibit called Portraits of Power. One of the photographs in the exhibit was a photograph called "Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution." It's a photo of women who are in that organization, DAR. I am supposedly eligible for that. The women in the photograph are wearing these starch satin gowns and sashes and satin gloves above their wrists and tiaras. It seemed to contradict the title to me. When I think of revolutionary women . . . it didn't really fit. I really started thinking about revolution, about revolutionary figures, and particularly people in our own society now, and even in my own life who I consider revolutionary, and they don't look like that, in my mind. They're not afraid to get their hands dirty. And a lot of them you don't see in the headlines every day. You won't see them in a portrait because they're too busy getting stuff done and they're not necessarily always lauded for the work that they do."
You qualify for DAR?
That's what I've always been told. I've never gone through the process.
What do you get out the organization?
I think it's sort of like a ladies club. It's an old boys club for ladies. Historically they've had some real missteps. They denied Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt found out about it and got pissed and was like, "No, no, no, you're going to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial." I honestly don't know what they're up to now. It's interesting none the less."
I was just curious. Do you get perks, discounts at hotels or something?
If we do then I'm definitely signing up. I'll take a discount on tour, that's for sure.
Generals, is it a political record or protest record? How would you characterize it?
It's definitely a protest record. I would characterize it as a concept record. I hesitate to say that it's political, even though that it deals with politics. I know that's maybe mincing words, but I feel like people shy away from politics a lot. I'm a pacifist through and through. I've been thinking a lot for about 10 years about war and discord. Is it possible to change society? I participated in a lot of protests leading up to the war in Iraq living in D.C. We see tens of thousands of people converge on the National Mall when it doesn't stop anyone from doing anything. So you start to wonder, what affect can I have personally? Do grassroots campaigns actually still work today. And does anyone care because we're all comfortable watching our iPhones and drinking our lattes and this war doesn't affect most people, so who cares, you know? I've been really struggling with that for a decade.
As a pacifist and a vocal person, I really wanted to... answer a lot of questions related to that. One of which is in the opening song "Karma Debt," I basically ask what can I as a musician do? Is it even my role to talk about these things? I'm having this discussion within myself. There's all these terrible things happening. What can I do? Should I even talk about it? Finally, it's like, I don't care what I should do, I'm going to do what I can do, and that's all I know to do.
The first half of the record is really almost looking at this situation from a birds-eye view. So there is a lot of politics, in "Generals" of course, talking about health insurance and education and war and how we're spending our money as a society and the powers that be, you know? But I think ultimately what I came up with is the most I can do in my own community, be kind to my neighbors. It has to do with self empowerment and empowering those around you. Therefore you kind of bypass politics as a result of that.
I also do think that politics divides us. Just this election year is something that's maddening to me. You see how many millions and millions and millions of dollars are pissed away in ad campaigns that are full of lies. And we talk about how little money we have for education, for health insurance, but yet we manage to find money for this shit? I think in the end I kind of wanted to bypass all of the political bullshit and remind everyone that it's about our interpersonal relationships. So, yes, it's a protest record, yes it's a concept, yes it gets political, but I think ultimately it ends up being kind of like a record of love songs that has moments of dancing. I love that quote, and I forget who said it, 'If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution.' I love that quote."
The title track sounds like a call to arms. "We got strength in numbers/and they're goin' to pay for it." Who or what is that directed at?
I think in my mind I was contrasting the image of the Avedon photo. I'm like calling to the new generation, to the generation that wants something different than the status quo. I knew there was a fine line to walk here. How specific do you get? Or is there some strength in generalities? This is an internal struggle in my mind. As we get older we become comfortable and you kind of become numb to the world around you, you just accept it. In my mind it was this youthful awareness of what's really happening and saying we can have something different. Let's do it. Let's do what we need to do to have that."
Was this at all influenced by the Occupy movement?
That song was written before that. When the Occupy movement came about, I thought, "There really is like a Zeitgeist about this feeling." We feel like the wool has been pulled over our eyes for long enough. After September 11 and a lot of our civil liberties were being eroded in the name of safety and security, it didn't affect people really. You can go to war and people say that's good, that's for our safety, that's for our security, but at the point that we bankrupt a country through doing this and there's no work anymore, people are getting laid off from their jobs, they can't afford their mortgages, and finally it's really hitting everybody. The sad thing to me are the men and women who serve in the military. They go off, and for the most part they're unseen. Your average American has very little understanding of what military families go through. It's heartbreaking to me that that divide even exists. There are whole groups of people that no one has any idea about what their suffering is on a daily basis."
There does seem to be some more uplifting songs, like "Body of Work."
I think that's the arc of the story line. When I say it's a concept record . . . I wanted the record to get personal. I think (the song "Mightier Than the Sword") was a protest in my mind about kids being bullied and particularly people who are discriminated against and bullied to the point of committing suicide for being gay. The fact that that happens in our modern America society, and that it's so prevalent, is truly, truly heartbreaking. That's the point, at the end of that song, "When you forget the words, I will sing them for you." That's the first bit of encouragement. There's a lot of double imagery in the album because I wanted the songs to stand on this very metaphoric level on one hand and on this very personal, easy level on the other hand. "Body of Work" and "Disarm" are very dualistic.
TheNewRevolutionists.org, tell me about this project, why you wanted to do it?
When we did the album, I wanted to do Avedon style portraits of women, and I wanted them to be warrior portraits. They're inspired by some of my favorite black and white photos throughout history, even recent history. Anyone can nominate anyone, and they can nominate someone else and pass it down the line. It's an idea I've had, but it's something that doesn't belong to me. I want it to be really democratic. I feel extremely honored that women like Lizz Winstead, co-creator of the Daily Show, Roseanne Cash and Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go's are part of this, but there's also some really amazing women from my own community. Women who run non-profits. That's the idea. To give women some credit who don't normally get it, and to offer up a new face for what is possible for women to do. You see the women on the magazines in grocery stores, and I just thought it would be nice to present something maybe younger women could look up to. A yearbook of sorts.
You started the Omaha Girls Rock Camp?
I was part of that. Stefanie Drootin, she really is the person who really did the heavy lifting of that. The second year of the camp is happening right now, so I'm really sad I'm not there for it.
Did you participate last year at all?
I created a class. The history of women in rock. I was on tour with Bright Eyes last year, and flew in from Europe the night of the showcase and got to go and watch them all play their songs. The girls, they were amazing."
Did you ever go to a camp like that growing up?
No. I wish one had existed. I grew up in a tiny town in Western Maryland called Boonsboro. I was lucky to have some really great teachers. When I went to my piano teacher and told her I wanted to start writing songs instead of playing Chopin, she said OK, show me what you've got. It goes a long way. I really believe in the power of music to save kids lives.
How did you end up in Omaha?
You grew up in Western Maryland, and I know you lived in D.C. for a number of years. Now Omaha's home base?
Absolutely. I've basically been around D.C. my whole life and D.C. proper for 11 years, and I love it. It's always going to be home to me in some way or another. After Georgie James, my old band, broke up, I had gone through a really difficult personal beak up as well, and need something new. I had made friends with a lot of people from Saddle Creek and a lot of people in Omaha from having worked with Saddle Creek before. I just thought, why not? It seemed crazy on one hand, but it felt right. There's a really great community of artists and musicians out there who are really, really supportive. I'm really happy there.
It seems like a lot of musicians in D.C take off for New York or Nashville.
I was considering that. I was like, I think I'm going to move to L.A. You can't really beat the sunshine and the ocean and the desert and the mountains and everything that's right here. Luckily I get to tour through a bunch and have good friends I come to visit. I got out in Joshua Tree in February. It's so amazing out there.
You mentioned you toured with Bright Eyes. What did you take away from that experience?
I learned a lot. It was really great watching a band at a much different level than I am and just seeing how they do things. I love Connor and Nate and Mike and the rest of the band and the crew involved in making that whole thing happen. They're truly kind and generous people. Which is really funny. People always ask me, "So tell me how that was." Not that you're trying to do that.
But some people ask, like, they want dirt or something?
Yeah. But we got to play Radio City and Royal Albert Hall and I got to learn to surf in Australia and made a bunch of new friends. It was really great for other people to be in charge.
Is being in charge difficult, or is the responsibility?
I'm totally OCD and worry about everything. Like all the tiny details, and the big picture, and I want everyone to be happy. It's just so much to keep track of. Luckily I play with some really amazing people who keep me sane. They talk me down when I get out of control (laughs). We do fun things. We'll just go and get fireworks. Go late night swimming.
The name of the band, what does it mean, where does it come from, the Mynabirds?
I'd made the first record with Richard Swift, and I wasn't sure how I was going to release it. I didn't know if it should be a solo record or a band name. A friend of mine, her sister was having a baby. Her father asked them names of female charters in James Joyce novels. One of them was Mina. For some reason I thought Mina, Myna, Mynabirds, I like that.
When I was talking with Swift, I said I want to do a record that sounds like Neil Young doing Motown. That guided us making the first Mynabirds record. When I Googled it, and found out that it was Neil Young and Rick James on Motown, I was like, I have to take this. It was really, really serendipitous.
This past year for Record Store Day, the original Mynah Birds put out a seven inch, or Motown put it out. So I like to think, I like to hope, we had something in helping aid a revival.
You reached Neil Young.
If Neil Young would know who I was, I would die a happy woman.
You never know. Maybe he's around. Maybe he's going to come out tonight and check out these other Mynabirds.
Could he please?
What's next for you?
I've been thinking about what kind of record I want to make next. I feel like this record kind of surprised some people. They weren't expecting it. It's different from the old record. I'm always curious musically. I feel like my voice stays the same, but everything around I like to switch it up. I've really been thinking about making a make-out record.
A make-out record?
Yeah, like in the vein of Portishead or My Bloody Valentine. I've been thinking a lot about how to make a make-out record. It seems like the right record to follow a big protest record. Just about love.
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3
LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3
LP / MP3
7" / MP3