Revolution and Motown: The Sweet Fiery Sounds of Laura Burhenn's Project
Laura Burhenn, the rising artist who goes by The Mynabirds, was happy, but definitely hung over, when we spoke over the phone one recent afternoon.
“We celebrated last night at this great bar in Omaha where they have champagne on tap. So that and tequila, and maybe whiskey…,” she giggled, recovering at home.
It was the day after the release of The Mynabirds’ triumphant soul-meets-folk album GENERALS, an event definitely worth commemorating.
Laura aptly describes GENERALS as “Motown meets Neil Young,” for the way its groovy energy undergirds a fiery message of protest, and the album is a creative leap forward from The Mynabirds’ 2010 debut, What We Lose In the Fire, We Gain In the Flood. That was inward-looking soul and country, but GENERALS is an orchestral pop battle cry.
Washes of female gospel harmonies, taut percussion, jangly, echoey piano chords, weird noise triggers, wah-wah guitar licks, and new wave synth stabs — the musical diversity keeps you guessing despite the songs’ soul-folk DNA. Yes, comparisons to Feist, Cat Power, or Anna Calvi all apply – intense, rich female vocals and songwriting vision.
Except that Laura’s meditated on a purpose, and now she’s got a mission.
“I’m a pacifist. When we think about a world at war, how do you make sense of your anger and frustration without punching someone in the face?” she said.
What makes The Mynabirds a project to watch is how Laura, without sacrificing the sonics, is tackling morality in her music. In a post-Occupy cultural landscape, her music’s righteous swing touches on the grassroots zeitgeist, haters notwithstanding.
“It annoys some people. They say, ‘That person is just an entertainer, she should shut up.’ But music is a really powerful thing. And to try to use it to make your own corner of the world better or make the world better is important!”
And you can hear that ambition in almost every line of the album: Get your black boots on/Beat your marching drum/We’re gonna get ‘em on the run, she growls on the title track, to all the generals, daughters, and new revolutionists out there.
Her role models for unifying kickass music with social purpose include the recently passed away MCA of the Beastie Boys, who, in addition to penning lines likes Like a lemon to a lime, a lime to a lemon/I sip the def ale with all the fly women, spent his career advocating for human rights causes, like organizing the Tibetan Freedom Concerts in the late nineties.
“You can sing, ‘Fight for your right to party!’ and you can turn around and fight for other people rights because they need us”
Like other solo acts that seem like they might also be bands, like St. Vincent or Cat Power, The Mynabirds is Laura’s own creative project, though she tours with a band (whom she flies into Omaha for week-long rehearsals they’ve nicknamed Mynabird camp).
She also has a fruitful collaboration with with Richard Swift, who produced Mynabirds records. Still, it’s Laura’s artistic vision that rules.
“I write all the songs and they’re my lyrics. It was my concept.”
She drew a lot of inspiration from Tori Amos, whose 1994 album Under the Pink was on heavy rotation during the recording process.
“Do you know the song “Waitress”? It has this line I wanna kill this waitress/But I believe in peace, bitch! That’s kind of how I feel.”
Tori wasn’t the only awesome female vocalist/songwriter that influenced The Mynabirds.
“I revisited a lot of my nineties loves: PJ Harvey, and making peace with the fact that I’m really into Ani Difranco,” she laughed.
What sparked the theme of this album most directly, though, was a Richard Avedon’s photo, “The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” a portrait of a flock of elderly white women in ballgowns and sashes Laura peeped at the National Gallery. The image clashed with her own vision of an American revolution and led her to wonder: “What do current American revolutionaries look like? Often they’re not women who make headlines.”
And what started out as a photo shoot for her album art has turned into The New Revolutionists, a continuing online photo project of what Laura calls “warrior portraits.” Initially Laura’s friends, the subjects have branched out to people nominated by strangers, people who quietly make a difference in their own communities, like one woman from a Christian organization who travels around the world to rescue girls from sex trafficking. Including people from religious organizations has actually forced her to re-examine her own prejudices.
“I was raised in a conserative Christian family and I’m not that, I’m not christian and I’m not conservative. So it took me a long time to make peace…if you want to talk about being open-minded, really, it talkes a lot from you to work through.”
But she has one Christian role model – her mom. She still plays piano for her local gospel choir, where Laura discovered her love of gospel music, and her mother has always supported Laura’s music career:
“At 17, I recorded my first solo album, and she helped me set up my own record label. She filled out all the LLP paperwork, manufactured a thousand copies. I’m still there’s still a lot of copies in my mom’s basement!” she laughed.
Two solo albums, several collaborative albums and now on her second album as The Mynabirds, Laura’s hitting her stride and then some. She’s looking forward to touring for the rest of the year, which is a time that she’ll also be sub-consciously collecting ideas for her next record. But she’s got another project coming up:
“As we get closer to election time, I’ll find myself more and more involved in that,” she said.
“I tell my friends, ‘Remember that time that Gore won the election and then Bush became president? And then he went to war with the world?’”
So there’s work to be done, through her music or not: “We have to remind people, it totally matters. There’s not as much of a difference between Obama and Romney as we might want, but we have to remember that it matters.”