Photo by Bliss Braoudakis
The Mynabirds’ songwriter and vocalist Laura Burhenn lost and found herself again on the road in the three years between 2012’s GENERALS and the just released album Lovers Know. Though more shimmering and dreamy than her previous efforts it’s also more direct: in traversing the US and drifting from Omaha to London to South Africa, Burhenn found herself in a new vantage point, returning home a changed woman. In loosening her grip on metaphor and charting no course, Burhenn created Lovers Know with no rules, just a color palette in mind to guide her way.
Laura took a few moments before kicking off the Lovers Know tour (which debuts in Seattle September 10 at The Sunset) to chat about her love of PJ Harvey, Cocteau Twins, and what it means to release a record in 2015.
You’ve released two previous albums as The Mynabirds on Saddle Creek: What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood (2010), GENERALS (2012) and this year’s Lovers Know (released August 7). What did you do in the three years between GENERALS and Lovers Know?
Laura Burhenn: At the end of all my GENERALS touring in 2012, I got an email from Ben Gibbard (I’d met him touring with Bright Eyes in 2011) asking me to join an imaginary band. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said, “YES!” It ended up being the Postal Service reunion tour, so I had an amazing 2013, playing around the world with them. When I got back home to Omaha, where I’d been living for 5 years, I was riding this insane high. And then my relationship – the longest I’d ever been in – fell apart. It was like the rug was pulled out from me. I didn’t know what to do or who I was. I felt totally lost. So in an attempt to get more lost (and hopefully eventually found), I put my dog in my car, drove across the US twice, and landed in Los Angeles. I rented a room in a house in Echo Park and started writing. Those songs became Lovers Know, which was eventually recorded over 2014 in Echo Park, Nashville, Joshua Tree, and New Zealand. And somewhere in the middle of all of that, I managed to work in a solo tour of South Africa and my first solo Mynabirds show of London. It was a period of serious wandering.
The atmosphere is somewhat light, dreamy, shimmery…while GENERALS had a bit more swagger. How do you think your albums relate to each other and to your growth as a woman and an artist over the last five years?
LB: Absolutely. I’ve always admired artists like David Bowie and PJ Harvey who are willing to transform their sound album to album as they transform themselves. PJ Harvey even talks about changing the voice she sings with for every record she makes. For me, it’s a very natural progression. I love so many types of music – it’s fun to explore different genres on different records. But for me, my voice is the thing that ties them together, I think. For Lovers Know, I was drawing from a lot of the music I had in my car when I first started driving. So there’s shoegaze, trip-hop, 90s R&B, 80’s synthpop. It’s really all over the place in some ways. But in other ways, it’s just the playlist I had going when I got my license and felt free to wander wherever the road would lead me. I think it’s no unconscious coincidence that all the driving I was doing when I started writing was trying to recall that sense of freedom. And so it makes a lot of sense to me that those sonic references wound up on the record.
There’s a sense of motion and lightness to Lovers Know. It’s got a lovely nomadic feel to it, a sense of allowing the music to unfold without too much thematic pushing or prodding. What inspired you in your writing process and sound this time around?
LB: Well, all of the sonic touchstones I just mentioned had a lot to do with it. But also, I was working with a different producer on this record – Bradley Hanan Carter. When I started explaining what kind of a record I wanted to make, I was speaking in a lot of colors and textures. I tend to think of records like paintings, and I saw this one as a lot of purple and pink and blue watercolors. Very cool colors on white textured paper with some pencil and black ink smudged in. He had no idea what that really meant (ha!), so I made him a playlist of songs and sounds I had in mind. You can listen to it – it’s on the Mynabirds Spotify page: “Ties that Bind.” Everything from PM Dawn to Kate Bush to Portishead to David Bowie to Leonard Cohen. And he managed to make great sense of all of that in one unified sound. I’d say that Bradley was also entirely responsible for getting me to write in a really vulnerable and honest way. I kept coming into the studio with what I thought were some seriously beautiful lyrics, but he’d just shake his head and say, “You’re hiding behind a metaphor! Say exactly what you feel.” There was a whole lot of work that went into making the record sound like there wasn’t too much pushing or prodding!
You just wrapped up a series of dates in Europe…how did that go? (I see you did battle with tube strikes in London, missed trains …the pictures from Scotland you posted on Instagram are stunning, by the way).
LB: Thanks! Yeah, it was an epic first trip to Europe for the Mynabirds. I can’t believe we’re 3 records in, and this was our first European trip. But you’ve got to start sometime, right? I think it was pretty appropriate that we celebrated the release of a record of so much traveling overseas. And especially hilarious that I just threw a trip for my Mom’s birthday to Scotland into the mix. What the hell. We can do it all! It’ll just be a little exhausting. But who’s not exhausted? Even when you stay home and fall into whatever routine, it’s still exhausting. We had some pretty hilarious transportation mishaps. And I don’t even think I mentioned the fact that I almost missed my flight from Berlin home because the airline had confirmed a flight, but never ticketed it out. I would’ve cried if it wasn’t so perfectly, hilariously fitting for the whole trip – especially when we made the decision to stay out all night and go to a dance party to get back on LA time. Try sorting out a missing plane ticket in a foreign country on zero sleep at 5 in the morning and slightly drunk. It’s character building!
Musical comparisons can be so random and subjective (yet people keep on doing them). In your new song “Semantics” you voice sounds momentarily like Elizabeth Fraser of Cocteau Twins to me. Are you a fan? What did you grow up listening to?
LB: Aaaah!!! THANK YOU. I am a huge Cocteau Twins fan and that is an enormous compliment. I definitely listened to my fair share of Cocteau Twins. And funny – they were in my mind when I made this record (their music is so purple and watercolor!), but I didn’t put any of their songs on my playlist. God, I listened to so many different things growing up. I loved jazz and standards (Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Astrud Gilberto), but also all of the classic songwriter and pop stuff (Carole King, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Lou Reed). In my teens, my holy trinity was PJ Harvey, Bjork and Tori Amos. But I also have a love for R&B, Soul, Motown (my first ever concert was the Temptations), heavy pop (I’m talking Madonna and Boy George here), all the Indie stuff, Classical, and punk – from the dark Ian Curtis edges to Operation Ivy. I love so much music. But above all, I love a good song. I don’t care what genre it’s dressed up in: a good song is a good song.
What has been in rotation while you’ve been on tour recently?
LB: Well, the tour has just begun, so that’ll unfold on the road. That’s actually my favorite part of touring – that different people take turns DJing and you learn so many new songs and new artists. Touring with John Davis back in the Georgie James days was great for that. He knows music.
You founded your own record label, Laboratory Records, in Washington DC in 1999. What do you think about the current musical climate for getting music out there these days? Does it feel like a different world?
LB: Ha. How do you even start to talk about this? Well, I don’t know how much sense it makes to start an actual record label these days. Who still buys records?? But I don’t really think that’s a problem. It’s a changing economy and business model, and the music industry is still very much figuring it out. I think there’s something beautiful about owning a physical record, holding it in my hands, flipping the side, poring over the lyric sheet. But there’s also something really poetic about the fact that music can exist in this cloud that follows us everywhere we go, so we don’t have to be weighed down by the possession of it. I just wish we could figure out the economics of it all. It pisses me off when you’ve got streaming services touting that their pay for play is greater than radio, because streaming services aren’t replacing radio, they’re replacing physical album sales. So yes, artists are absolutely losing money on sales these days. It’s all about finding new ways to make money. And I’ll be happy once the industry figures that out, cause I just want to make art. And pay my bills.
You’re about to traverse the country in support of Lovers Know. What helps to keep you sane on the road and makes each show interesting to you?
LB: The best part about touring is getting to see my friends and family along the way. So I look forward to each stop in each city for that reason. We’ve built in some stays with family, so that’ll help. It’s also fun to actually turn the songs into a show. I love performing every night. I’ve been working on some stage design stuff, too, to create a real Lovers Know universe at every stop. Can’t wait for you to see it!
In all the places your music has taken you over the years, what sticks out to you as the most surreal or memorable experiences you’ve had?
LB: Wow. There are so many, it’s hard to pick. But my solo tour of South Africa last year was really incredible. I played in this tiny town on the eastern Indian Ocean coast called Port St. Johns at a backpackers lodge where there was a pet donkey named Lisway, and the owners did loads of outreach work with the kids in the neighboring township. These young girls who opened the show that night came out in these beautiful costumes and sang and danced all of these traditional Zulu dances, and I’ve never seen such gorgeous faces, so full of joy. It was one of those moments when I was brought face to face with what I love so much about making music – that opportunity to deeply connect across time, space, and culture, and remember how much more alike (than different) we truly are.