Meet Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds
The Mynabirds I Photo by Lisa Boggs
Sometimes the stars align when you least expect them to. After Laura Burhenn's previous band Georgie James broke up, the singer picked up from her native Washington D.C. and headed west to Omaha. The goal: creating an album that sounded like Neil Young if he had been put out on Motown. And then while looking for a name a sign arrived. "My friend who was pregnant sent me a list of names and I went from Mina to Myna to Mynabird," Burhenn explained. "When I went to check if that name had been used it turns out that Neil Young and Rick James were in a band that came out on Motown in the sixties called The Mynah Birds. And I thought "That's it!"
We caught up with Burhenn over the weekend to discuss The Mynabirds' debut album The Things We Lost In The Fire We Gain in the Flood. Here is some of what was said.The Mynabirds - "Numbers Don't Lie"
When did you first pick up an instrument?
I think I started piano when I was five. There are cute baby photos of me on my mom's lap playing the piano. My mom was a minister daughter and played piano all her life.
Oh, is that related in anyway to the church imagery in your press release photos?
(laughs) No, it's not related at all. Those photos were based on that blue dress. I found it at the Salvation Army in Iowa and thought, "I have to wear this dress!" It was like a strange version of a wedding dress that Dolly Parton might have worn. There was something really formal and special about it. I wanted to do the photos in D.C. proper and so we did them at St. Stephens Episcopal Church. They put on a lot of punk shows there and Georgie James had played there a number of times. It's just a really nice community center. I never even thought about it as a religious place. I just liked the image of a woman sitting in the church pews for the cover. It's very mysterious. She looks like someone who's contemplating something deep. It's been drawn to my attention that people might think of it as a religious record, but I think it's beautiful.
The Mynabirds I Photo by Lisa Boggs
Why did you move from DC to Nebraska?
Well it's where Saddle Creek is which is the label that Georgie James was on and so I had tons of friends in that town. After that band broke up I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with myself. I had lived in D.C. my entire life and thought I should try something else. I thought about New York or L.A. but then I thought, "Omaha! No one would expect that!"What's your writing process like?
It really depends. I wrote a lot of this record in the shower. It's a very symbiotic process for me. Melodies suggest lyrics and then I tend to build the story around those lyrics.
What inspired "Numbers Don't Lie"? Is it about a specific incident?
Years ago I had this revelation when people get really upset, it doesn't really matter who was right in the situation. As long as someone apologizes, it almost doesn't matter. As soon as someone says, "Okay you're right." You immediately feel better even if you still think they're wrong. Besides the universe is keeping score. (laughs) The song about someone taking the high road, but they're not really taking the high road.
Where does the name What We Lost in the Fire We Gain in the Flood come from?
It's just something that came to me. I was thinking about the title track "What We Gained in the Fire" with regards to cycles of loss and recovery. It just seemed like an ancient proverb. I still think I might have read it somewhere or heard it, but as far as I can tell I came up with it. There's something about it that feels very old and familiar.
How did you get Richard Swift to produce your album? How did you know he was the producer for you?
I met him years ago. I was a huge fan of his record Dressed Up for the Letdown and Saddle Creek was putting it out in the U.K. and so I got his email address from them. So I sent him an email just telling him how much I loved his record and that I was a huge fan and we started emailing on and off for a couple years. Then when I started making this record, I just knew he'd be the perfect person to produce it. And he said yes!
Is it harder to write a solo album without people to bounce ideas off of?
Yeah, it is. That was one of the great things about writing with John Davis, my partner in Georgie James, he was really good about helping me edit things. However when I was writing this album it's like I could hear his voice over my shoulder editing things out. (laughs) I could almost see his face clenching up and saying "You can't do that, Laura!" Besides I wasn't completely alone. Richard is a great editor. He was really great in making it sound natural and stopped me from over complicating anything.
When did you write "L.A. Rain"?
That song really happened. It's almost a day in the life. I wrote that song after a really personal break up. I was out in L.A. playing a solo show and I somehow ended up at the Getty by myself. I could see this string of clouds and rain coming over the mountains and I thought "Wow, it never rains in L.A." I just sort of realized that the personal break up was like L.A. rain. It'll pass soon enough. I can't wait to play it in L.A.
Were you worried about translating the recorded sound live?
Yeah, I was. It's a really lush record, so I had lots of concerns about that. However there's also a real garage-y element to the record. A lot of the notes aren't perfect, so I think the live show really brings that out. I mean I want to have string players and horns, but it's not going to happen in my budget right now. So the live show is very different than the record.
What's the best thing about touring?
Getting to see your friends all over the country. Touring is a really fun process for me because my dad was a merchant marine and so he traveled all over the world by himself. So when I was touring Europe I realized that my dad was my age when he was traveling around Europe and I wonder what he was thinking then.
What's the worst thing about touring?
Being away from your friends and family. Oh! And being away from my bed! If I could take my bed on tour I would.
What's the most under appreciated album?
Richard Swift's Dressed Up for the Letdown. I just think he's brilliant and that time will show him as one of the great song writers of our generation.
So what's up for you next?
I'm going to try and write a new record next summer after this tour is over.
Are you going to let any of your new band mates have input?
You know we have definitely talked about that. I like the idea that The Mynabirds can turn into whatever it wants to turn into. If someone else writes a really great song that fits with the music then we'll totally put it on the album. I'm open to everything.
Well thanks so much for talking with us!