THE MYNABIRDS interview
by Jaclyn Cohen
Laura Burhenn brings revolution to the summer soundscape with her new album, GENERALS (release date: June 5th), a foot-stomping, trench-crawling, bump n’ grind away from her folkier first record, What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood. GENERALS, recorded with Richard Swift at National Freedom, is both socio-political commentary and a testament to the unique joyfulness of pop music - the medicine and the sugary spoonful. Thanks to friends and good karma, for my first contributory go at music blogging, I had the opportunity to chat with Laura, who was endlessly forgiving of my Encino Man phone behavior, the call-waiting alien interruptions of my borrowed-from-dad office phone, the sickle-toed transitions and awkwardly interrogative, almost-accurate detail injections. Even as I struggled to drop my college webcast fake radio voice, the interview chugged along light-heartedly, full of laughs, mellow as a mid-morning bird song.
JC: GENERALS seems to have been a major shift in sound from your first album, shifting from a folkier, singer-songwriter vibe to, like, a crazy dance-party protest album.
LB: It’s so funny, I just did an interview with someone and they basically said the same thing. When I first finished the record I thought it sounded so different, and then I played it for someone and they were like “Oh, it’s definitely a growth but it still sounds like a Mynabirds record,” and I was like “Oh, OK, that’s cool” - I thought I had really, really shifted gears.
JC: I caught you in Brooklyn last year playing with Bright Eyes, and it seems like you’ve kind of absorbed a little bit of their sorta computer-edge. They do some kinda angry stuff that’s also pretty dancey - do you think that you were influenced by them at all?
LB: Well, I think that being on the road with them for a year certainly influenced me in some way. I’m not really a technical person, not a technical wiz, and so I’ve always shied away from that kind of stuff, just because it’s not my strength, but getting to play some synthesizer and stuff that was a little outside my own personal wheelhouse made me feel a little more comfortable with it. But I think more than that, I wanted it [the first record] to feel old. It was meant to feel comforting, it was meant to feel like an album that had kind of been recorded decades ago and then been forgotten about. It was meant to feel simple and easy. Nothing is modern in the sense that it was just real instruments in a room, you know what I mean? Organ, piano, bass, guitar, drum, that’s kind of it. Horn. For the most part, really simple. For GENERALS, we’re talking about protest and revolution and kind of welcoming a new age, and I don’t think I could do that in an album that sounds comforting . We had to change it up. I went to Richard Swift’s and I was like, I want to do something that people don’t expect, and part of it is because I just wanted to experiment and stretch myself. The thing of it is that there’s just so much music out there and I didn’t necessarily want to make a record that everybody expected. I wanted to keep everybody guessing and I kind of like to keep myself guessing , too. It’s fun to try something new, and one of the things that I particularly loved about being on tour with Bright Eyes was that a lot of the show is really danceable and fun and really fun to play, and I thought “man, that’d be great to make a record that we have fun playing every night.” Not that we didn’t have fun playing the last one, but writing songs that are really upbeat lends to a dance party. When we went out and toured in March around SXSW and were trying out the new songs, it was so exciting to see how it just totally turned into a dance party by the end of the set.
JC: It sounds like it was a fun record to make. Did you ever feel any dissonance, making such a serious album that was so upbeat?
LB: I wanted it to have that feel. On one hand, I wanted it to be enjoyable, very listenable and very fun, and very rhythmically driven. I was really inspired, feeling like pop has such a negative connotation. You think of pop as being shallow or shiny or not necessarily meaningful or approaching deep, difficult subject matter, but you know there is a tradition of political pop song writing, and that’s a really powerful thing.
JC: This is the second album you’ve worked on with Richard Swift. What’s it like working with him?
LB: You know, I was kind of nervous going in to make the second record because we had such a good time making the first one. We’ve since become great friends, he came on tour with the Mynabirds last March, but I’d thought “Oh man, we’re gonna get in the studio, and what if it’s not as fun?” You know, what if it’s not the same magic as we had before? When we got in, it was even better. It was even better that the first one, for sure. It was funny because our touring schedule for Bright Eyes was just so hectic and I was REALLY sick two of the times that we were recording together, so we definitely had our share of whiskey, but we also had our share of juice fasts.
JC: You gotta do what you gotta to do.
LB: Exactly. But it was really fun to go into the studio. I trust Swift a million percent to go in and say “OK, we can do something like the last record, but let’s try something totally crazy.”
JC: Did he have any influence on the sorta African sound you get on on parts of the record?
LB: I feel like there’s like thirty tracks in my Garageband, demos with just me, my hands and feet, just sort of stomping and clapping. When I did the “Body of Work” demo I hadn’t even figured out the chords or the notes, it was just truly rhythm and voice, and so I came in [the studio] like “I don’t know, this might be a little bit outside of what we’re doing,” and Swift was like “No, no, no, it’s perfect, let’s make this happen.” In a song like “Disaster” I would give him credit for it being really hip-hop. I mean we approached recording it like a hip-hop song. I recorded the piano parts and then we cut ‘em up and brought them back in, almost like samples even though they’re played live, and the drums are played live, but we kind of cut them up and pieced them back together like a hip hop song. It was a lot of fun.
JC: You just finished touring and now you’re back on the road in June. Do you have a favorite show experience that you have from the last tour?
LB: Ooh. Um, let me see. That’s always so tough. LA was fun, it’d been a long time since we’d been to the West Coast. Of course playing Omaha is always fun, it’s really great to come home and have a homecoming show here. Playing SXSW, that’s always a crazy situation, and you never know what you’re gonna get, but I feel like the shows we played down there were fun. It’s always the small towns that surprise me. Salt Lake City was a ton of fun. I can’t wait for this next tour, to get back to DC, which is sort of a hometown show and always good.
JC: You launched The New Revolutionists Project* alongside the new record, a female empowerment campaign that operates through this kind of amoeba-esque growth and webbing out from woman to woman. The inner-web that’s growing right now seems to be mostly writers and musicians and creative people. So, what is it about creative expression that is so fundamental in a movement like this?
LB: I think that creative expression is often times the way that we culturally express ourselves. I mean, I had a really difficult time for a long time calling myself a musician. I felt like I was something other than that because I never felt that I was necessarily that world’s greatest piano player or vocalist, but I feel like what I can contribute is this ability to take in what’s going on around me and give it voice. So I try to be this voice that represents what people are doing universally, and you know, I’m saying this and I don’t want to have it come across in an arrogant way. I think there are a lot of creative people who have kind of tapped in; it’s not just about their own personal experience, it’s about reflecting what’s going on in other people’s lives. It’s like, the poets are often times the ones who are trying to make sense. The doctors and the newscasters and the teachers who are down in the trenches and doing the dirty work, making things happen every day, these are people who are definitely included in the Revolutionists Project. I think it started with me, and I just know a lot of artists and musicians, and these are the people that I look to, that inspire me on a daily basis, so I think as it grows, the project will definitely become more diverse in terms of who is included. Each person in inspired by a whole different set of people. I don’t know if I answered your question very well. It’s a huge question, you know? It’s a great question! But it’s one of those things, like, let’s sit down and talk for an hour over lunch.
JC: So. Have you been watching American Idol?
LB: I haven’t! You know, I’m not very good with TV. I’m totally a TV addict, which is why I can’t have cable. I’ll tell someone like “I don’t have cable,” and it’s not really a righteous thing, it’s more like, I know myself and I’ll drool on myself for four hours every day. So yeah! No, I’m not caught up.
JC: Oh man, well you missed a great season.
JC: I mean I just watched the last couple of episodes with my mom. Phil Phillips is cute, though. Do you have anything else you want to say, any rumors you want to spread about yourself for tabloids?
LB: I wish. Carl always used to do this thing anytime something would happen that seemed slightly scandalous - he wasn’t so into social media but every once in a while he’d play around with it and sing “Let’s givvum something to blog aboouut.” But the only thing I’d want to add is that I’m really excited to see The New Revolutionists Project grow, and nominations are open for anyone to nominate, so if you want to nominate anyone, please do. I had this idea, and the more people I talked to, they were like “yes, yes, lets do it!” I think the one thing that’s really exciting to me is that a lot of people don’t think they’re doing anything revolutionary in their lives, and sometimes you get so mired in what you’re doing in your own world, particularly teachers and mothers and you know, people that don’t see themselves in magazine pages. It’s easy to feel like you’re doing thankless work, and I love the fact that the project has a tool where you can send someone a letter that says, “You inspire me every day, and I think you’re a revolutionary in your own right, and keep doing what you’re doing.”
* Reader, you are my Father, and this is my confession : I actually said “New Revolutionary” in the interview. I am embarrassed, and I only bring it up now as an excuse to mention the project again, because it’s actually awesome. Please go check it out while I say my Hail Marys.
New Revolutionists Project: http://thenewrevolutionists.org/