(Burhenn was interviewed for, and is quoted in, various articles in our Protest Issue, including articles on the music of the Occupy movement and the challenges of writing protest songs. This is a bonus web-exclusive interview, featuring portions of the interview not included in the print magazine. For more of our interview with Burhenn pick up The Protest Issue. You can buy a copy directly from us here. Or you can download the digital version for iPads, Macs, PCs, and Android devices here.)
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Given the political nature of the songwriting on this record, did you have any expectations for how it would be received? Did you think it could be polarizing to listeners?
Laura Burhenn: It's funny, but I didn't, which is probably naïve [laughs]. I tried to take the approach that I wanted to focus on the things that unite us rather than divide us, and because I wanted to start from this place of frustration and anger and disappointment—which I think is the feeling that is generally held despite where you are in the political spectrum—and I wanted to take that intense energy and transform it into something positive. To me, that's not polarizing in and of itself. There might be some pieces of my politics that are polarizing which I forget about. I forget that gay marriage is very much a hot button issue or that people would oppose spending more money on education and health care than war and destruction. To me, those ideas are like, "Oh, of course everyone thinks that," which I guess is not always the case.
At what point in the writing of this record did you know it was going to have such pointed political undertones?
I think it's been brewing in my subconscious for a long time. Living in D.C. before Sept. 11 all the way up through Barack Obama's inauguration—those were some really intense years politically in America and worldwide. So to have been a part of the protest leading up to the Iraq War and the 2000 election was crazy enough that I think about it now and I can't believe it, like, "Do you remember when Gore actually won the election and Bush was president for eight years?" We forget about those things. They are very easy to forget about. But I feel like it has been growing in my subconscious for a long time, and it finally feels like it was the right time. It's almost like I needed enough space to have perspective on it. It's almost like history keeps repeating itself. There has been a lot of forward momentum, don't get me wrong. And there have been a lot of little steps along the way. But in a lot of ways it almost feels like we are spinning our wheels.
Did most of these songs predate the emergence of the Occupy movement?
Absolutely. Some of the lyrics for this record date back to right after Sept. 11, and some versions of those songs I performed before Georgie James even existed as a band. So, I started to write this record before I wrote [The Mynabirds' debut] What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, and I had all these political songs, and I played them for my friend Shervin [Lainez], who actually shot the album cover for this record, and he said, "These are good songs, but they don't have any heart." So I went back and ended up writing What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood. And I think having done that record first helped me come back to the form of a protest song and the idea of a protest record and approach it with more heart, because it's easy to be angry but at some point you have to transform that into something positive, in my opinion anyway. You can't keep spinning your wheels forever; you've got to move forward.
What do you think he heard in those original songs that made him say they didn't have any heart?
Well, I think I was in a difficult position. I had gone through a tough personal breakup, and Georgia James had just broken up, and I was writing from a very clinical place because I don't think I could deal with my own heart. So it was important to go figure it out first. But I think on another level it's a really tricky matter to write a good protest song or to write a concept record that doesn't get lost in the sort of outline and the plan and all of the left brain pieces of it. At the end of it, it still has to be human and meaningful. So I really tried to do that, and I think, particularly, the song "Mightier Than the Sword" as the song that divides the record in half, and it's very personal. It's very much about my relationship with one specific person and that conversation. I think before that the record is more general, and I'm talking about things from a broader sense. I had this idea in my mind of this consciousness that each song on the record is speaking from, and it funnels down from this huge overarching consciousness down to one-on-one ideas.
Were there any political or protest records that served as an inspiration for this one?
I think I took a little bit from a lot of different records, and I had a hard time identifying some of them. For example, I've always been really inspired by Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder and their songs that deal with the Civil Rights movement. Nina Simone's version of "Strange Fruit" is heartbreaking. And I think some of John Lennon's songs. Obviously, "Imagine" is the quintessential. I think that is one of those songs that gets over-covered, but it is so brilliant in the sense that it takes all these huge ideas and turns them into just one person's hope for something better. I think there's a wide range of successful or unsuccessful protest songs. I think if you get too general or too generic—which is part of naming the record GENERALS—it's not meaningful anymore. So you still have to have that human element or story that is about one person, ultimately. I think, for me, I needed it to be about my relationships with my friends and family and neighbors, because that's where it all starts. It's not about fixing the world. It's about fixing yourself and then moving up from there.
Given that so many political songs have a limited shelf life because they are so associated with one issue or one moment in time, did you think about that as a songwriter?
That's an interesting question. It's hard to make something timeless. I've always tried lyrically to write in a way that words are used in jazz standards. Simple words that you can combine together to have the most timeless impact. So I think definitely you can make something too specific. It's interesting when you're trying to capture the spirit of the moment and make a zeitgeist record, but you also want it to be timeless. It's a fine line to walk. I specifically didn't write an Occupy song, even though there were pieces of the record written after the Occupy movement had taken shape.
As a songwriter, it must be difficult to be specific enough that your song as contextual meaning but not so specific that it can't be understood outside of that context.
That's the catch-22 about protest songs. You wish that they'd feel old and their time is up, but the fact is that history keeps repeating itself and all these old protest songs have a new life. It's almost like I wish that this record would be like, "Oh, remember that protest record from 2012? Man, haven't we moved past that!" It's interesting, because I grew up listening to a lot of PJ Harvey, and her songs aren't particularly protest songs, but she has some serious songs about feminism, and in their own way they are a kind of protest. Songs like "Man-Size" and "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig"—it's pretty amazing, and it's kind of hidden. It's not like, "I'm writing this feminist protest record," but there are elements of protest in there. And I definitely listen to a lot of Operation Ivy, which I will still occasionally put on in the van when we're on tour. It's still fun. They are still relevant, those songs.
Do you feel like, as an artist, it's your responsibility to use the platform you have to make change?
I personally think it is. I am really involved here in Omaha in a group called Voice, and it's a grassroots organization that tries to get people involved in local politics. I'm on the steering committee for that. Through that I became really, really involved in getting an equal employment ordinance passed in Omaha, and that ordinance was just so that LGBTQ people won't be fired for being gay or for their general identity or sexual preference. And, surprisingly, that was a big fight, one of those things that was like, "Wait. This is going to take energy to get this passed." And it was a matter of human dignity, basic human dignity. But I do feel a responsibility as a person who has some sort of public profile and people look to me; I feel responsible to use my voice for good. We have to take care of the people who have the least; that's our job. I wish that everyone felt that way, but I think some people get so tired of all of it that they just check out, which I understand.
Overall, what do you hope this record accomplishes?
I think I'm a pacifist through and through, and I say that because I have never been faced with anything that seemed like it would require war. And Gandhi and Martin Luther King are the political thinkers who have resonated with me the most, and they're the ones who focused on our humanity. So I've always felt that that's the way to be most effective. It's not to say "C'mon! Let's get pissed off!" That creates this kind of scary mob mentality. I don't want to face a mob, that's for damn sure. I think I try to be pretty even, personally. I try to be pretty measured, like, "Let's get pissed off, but let's not forget that we're all people here." In writing a protest record, I didn't want to write something that incited people to riot because all of a sudden they felt this fire in their souls. It was like, "Let's get to that point, and then let's do something that's going to be progressive and positive."
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LP / Deluxe LP / CD / MP3
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7" / MP3