SXSW 2010 INTERVIEWS: Sally Seltmann, Zola Jesus, The Ettes, Marianne Dissard, Frightened Rabbit, Mynabirds, Jukebox the Ghost

by | Apr 30, 2010 | MUSIC

Mynabirds

I met with Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds at yet another Asian restaurant – Austin apparently eats three things — fish tacos, barbecue and Asian anything.
After getting our food we were able to find a quiet table in the back.
Burhenn is originally from Hagerstown, Maryland and attended Catholic University in DC. She started playing the piano at age five, but quit for a couple of years after she broke her arm when she was thirteen. “I am not verbally well spoken, but am truthful in lyrics, poetry – it’s the best way I know to say things,” she says. It was for these reasons that she began playing again. While attending Catholic she started performing at open mike nights at local cafes. “My first album was self released, and I’m not ashamed to say it, but it was heavily influenced by Tori Amos.” Later she would play shows at smaller venues in DC, it wasn’t until she paired up with John Davis of Q and not U fame to form Georgie James that she would gain national recognition. While Georgie James was short lived, she speaks positively of the experience, “It was an equal partnership, both writing and performing.” They made their television debut on The Late Show with Conan O’Brien. This was towards the end of Georgie James and it was a bittersweet moment for her. They had reached a pinnacle during a very tense time. They broke up Fall of 2008, much to Burhenn’s dismay.

Mynabirds

I met with Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds at yet another Asian restaurant – Austin apparently eats three things — fish tacos, barbecue and Asian anything.
After getting our food we were able to find a quiet table in the back.
Burhenn is originally from Hagerstown, Maryland and attended Catholic University in DC. She started playing the piano at age five, but quit for a couple of years after she broke her arm when she was thirteen. “I am not verbally well spoken, but am truthful in lyrics, poetry – it’s the best way I know to say things,” she says. It was for these reasons that she began playing again. While attending Catholic she started performing at open mike nights at local cafes. “My first album was self released, and I’m not ashamed to say it, but it was heavily influenced by Tori Amos.” Later she would play shows at smaller venues in DC, it wasn’t until she paired up with John Davis of Q and not U fame to form Georgie James that she would gain national recognition. While Georgie James was short lived, she speaks positively of the experience, “It was an equal partnership, both writing and performing.” They made their television debut on The Late Show with Conan O’Brien. This was towards the end of Georgie James and it was a bittersweet moment for her. They had reached a pinnacle during a very tense time. They broke up Fall of 2008, much to Burhenn’s dismay.
After announcing their break up to their label, Saddle Creek, she came to a crossroads. She could stay in DC, or she could move to Omaha. She moved to Omaha where she had made friends through Saddle Creek, and had the support to start another band, what would become The Mynabirds. The title of their debut album, What We Lose In The Fire, We Gain In The Flood,” comes from her desire to “make peace with a lot of things.” “You have this great loss, but a great gain; it’s about the flood putting out the destruction left by the fire.” She had spent a lot of time writing about loss and recovery and then with the election of Barack Obama, and her experiences with friends who have been to the Middle East, one of which died. His death she said made her realize that, “we treat these people badly, but it has made me see both sides.” She recalls attending anti-war rallies and feeling ardently against war that she had not ever considered the reasoning behind war and appreciate what they were fighting for. The new album she says is more about the politics of human relations than political in the traditional sense.
The first Mynabirds single, “Number Don’t Lie” maintains political undertones, but embraces the brighter side of moving on. It’s free to download on the bands Web site. Another song off the album, “Let the Record Show” continues the theme of learning and growing and coming out better. All encompass a Motown feel. “I wanted to write songs like hymns, they’re deep at the core, but so simple…in the end it feels like Neil Young doing Motown.” Her soulful voice carries this hope into reality.

Jukebox the Ghost

I met with Jukebox the Ghost on a street corner a few blocks south of the Convention Center. It was quieter there, and the weather was beautiful and they had just finished a series of interviews inside. It was at this point that my tape recorder conveniently decided to die, without warning. It worked when I tested it an hour earlier in my hotel room. Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day, was not my day.
Jukebox the Ghost met while attending George Washington University in Washington, DC. They first formed under the moniker The Sunday Mail, it wasn’t until 2006 that they became Jukebox the Ghost. They moved to Philadelphia a couple years ago because it was cheaper than living in DC and have had a difficult time gaining the fanbase in a town they now call home. It’s been two years since their debut album was released, and they say that while they have maintained their signature upbeat, quirky sound, they have toned it down to produce something more mature. Producing the album is Peter Katis who has worked with Interpol and Mates of State among others.
Since moving to Philly, they live together but don’t play together often. “We don’t practice regularly, we’ll hole up for weeks and play eight hours a day then and not play for weeks after that,” frontman and pianist Ben Thornewill said.
This past November Tommy, who is originally from Richmond, had vocal nogels removed from his vocal chords. They recorded their album before his surgery in anticipation of his recovery. During the recording process they would record half a song a day and he would write comments on a board. Post-surgery he had to go two weeks without speaking, after that he could make noise, but only for short periods of time. This was while the record was being mixed, and again the board came in handy.
This past February they went on tour in Europe, opening for Adam Green who is better known for being half of the Moldy Peaches stateside. To save money, Ben drove for the entirety of the tour. “It was cheaper to ensure one driver and so I drove everywhere. On the Autobahn, I was going 115 Km, but of course still being passed.”
For piano-rock with a kick, these guys have it figured out.

Frightened Rabbit“>Frightened Rabbit

I had tried to set up an interview with Frightened Rabbit prior to going to the festival, but was not able to set anything up. After their set I made my way to the merchandise table where a young blond chick with a Scottish name I couldn’t pronounce told me that if I bought a shirt and a poster that she would take me backstage to “have a go at it.” I paid twenty bucks for an interview.
Backstage, I was able to briefly speak with Scott Hutchinson, the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit. Their latest was more impersonal than the previous Midnight Organ Fight, “Yeah, it was. I was in a relationship for seven years, it was like a marriage,” Scott said. After being on tour for Midnight Organ Fight he needed healing, and moved to the coastal town of Crail where he only knew one person. It was there that he was able to return to a calmer and happier place as there was less going on, and it was the sea that became the theme throughout Mixed Drinks. The first song written for the album, and his favorite, is the album opener ‘Things.’ From there writing became more ambiguous and less personal. When asked if his ex has heard ‘Nothing Like You’ he says that they don’t talk, but acknowledges that it was a nod to moving on not only from her, but from Midnight Organ Fight, an album that was so obviously written about their break-up. He seemed positive and optimistic for his and his band’s future.
I made my way back to the Brooklyn Vegan showcase where Serena Maneesh of Norway were about to take stage. The audience has shrunk since The Middle East had played, but those that had stuck around were anxious for the psychedelic-rock troupe to play. The lead singer took the stage in a glittery poncho and headband while a towering blond chick in leather followed. “Thanks for sacrificing good ole sleep to be here,” he said. They broke into their set with vigor, but it didn’t last. They moved in slow motion while the audience remained at a stand-still. “Norwegians, we dance inside,” he said in response to the lack of energy in the space. Don’t think that it was dull, it wasn’t. It was just short and sweet and the sound bolstered from every surface. It was loud and similar to what My Bloody Valentine does, but on a much smaller scale, and performed by the fashion conscious. In the end the crowd seemed disappointed that their set ended so soon, but the band was friendly and quick to greet the crowd off-stage.

Marianne Dissard

This was her first official performance at the festival. She had been once before, but this time was invited, though she says,” we don’t really have the power of the money to make an impact.” She was there for the music, not for the industry. Each performer or band has the option to take $250 or get and an artist wristband. She took the money, because like the previous night had proved, what she was there for wasn’t an organized showcase. But that doesn’t mean that she’s one to bawk at an opportunity for more exposure.
When she was sixteen her father took a job in Tucson, Arizona with Motorolla. So, she moved from the South of France to the Southwest of America. The culture was different, but she liked it. “There was no ‘Little France’ the way there are ‘Little Italy’s’ and ‘Little Chinas’.” She prefers this. “The French are afraid of change, America embraces it, they take chances. In France, their first response to most things is ‘It’s impossible,’ here, Americans make it happen. The French don’t move away from France to be around other French people, that’s what they wanted to get away from.” Her voice bumbles up and down and she sighs in relief.
She was once a documentary director and she started writing lyrics ten years ago, but for other performers including Amor Bellhah Du, of which she later married Amor. They met in Paris at a film festival where one of her films was featured, they fell in love and he moved to Tuscon for her. They were married for thirteen years, but as she began to perform and focus more on her career things became tense and they divorced. “It’s nice,” she says of her divorce,”it was a long time, and now it’s nice to have a crush on someone, someone else to fuck, someone to be a friend, someone else to live with – they don’t all have to be in the same person. It’s less explosive, it’s better to have so many different people.”
Her first performance was five years ago, and at the time her voice was very small. “My lungs hurt after, and so I took voice lessons to learn how to breathe.” Since her debut L’Entredeux her voice has grown and she has become more comfortable in the spotlight, and has maintained charge over her career. She just put Paris One Takes up for free on her Web site. They recorded seventeen songs in one day in Paris.
For her upcoming album, L’Abandon she had met a man in Italy while on tour who came to her and told her he had composed a song for her. She went back to his town after touring and stayed at his parents’ house for two weeks while they wrote and composed the album. They began recording the Friday after SXSW.
“Songwriting is all about clichés, but putting new twists on them. And to write songs for others, they must be moved by the lyrics,” she said. She brought her docu-director thought into it because both are “all about getting into someone else’s head.” For the song ‘Woman was a Woman’, which she originally wrote for her ex-husband to sing, she now sings, and puts a new perspective on it, “coming from a woman, it changes the entire meaning.” She writes mostly in French being that she considers it the language of the heart, her first language. This is what she does full time, the performing, the songs, everything has become more comfortable over the years, and “I don’t have kids, ”she says,“ just albums.”

The Ettes

I met with Coco of The Ettes at Shangri’La (later Bill Murray was spotted serving everyone tequila there). The Nashville based quartet met in Los Angeles when they all had been bumming around, picking up jobs wherever they could. Coco and Poni met while working together and decided to start a band. Coco plays the guitar, sings and write the lyrics, Poni is an FIT graduate that plays the drums. They moved to Nashville two years ago after noticing the rising rock scene there and housesitting for Ben Folds. “A friend told us that he had a house we could stay in for a while,” Coco said, the house belonged to Ben Folds. They just started living separately, “Now when we’re home we just want to sleep, have sex and eat tv dinners.”
They just finished touring in Europe, and opened for Kings of Leon last year. Coco will tell anyone anything and when asked about Kings of Leon she doesn’t hold back, “They know their last album wasn’t good. I saw the video for ‘Sex on Fire’ and was like ‘WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?’ I asked them about it and they said that they could really support their families, and there’s no shame in that. They know it’s not a great album.” She has beef with their management for not being honest, though she doesn’t go into the details. She also has beef with SXSW for not being as organized as it has been in years past. She does not have beef with jack White, and will be touring with The Dead Weather later this year. “He has that mysterious thing going on,” Coco says, “he’s a proper rockstar for today.”

Bear Hands

Early Friday afternoon I make my way to Maggie Mae’s to interview Brooklyn based band, Bear Hands. I have seen them a couple of times before, and was in touch with their manager the day before, but when I get there they are nowhere to be found. I ask some of the other bands if they have seen them, and ask some employees of the venue if they know anything and no one does. My time is running short and I need to get to my interview with Sally Seltmann. Later I get an explanation from the Bear Hands’ manager explaining that they missed their flights from Memphis and weren’t able to make that showcase.

Sally Seltmann

I arrive at Mohawk to interview Sally Seltmann, only to find that I can’t get in. I call her manager and he comes outside to get me. We make our way to the Green room, that is actually green – the walls, the furniture, everything is a different shade of green.
She is just as sweet sitting next to me as she was the previous night on stage. We discuss her coming into her own and going by her name instead of the moniker New Buffalo. “I just wanted to use my real name, it’s less complicated and more connecting. Though, confusing for those who knew me as New Buffalo,” she says in the same soft spoken tone she used at the church. “ It’s strange being ‘Sally Seltmann formerly New Buffalo, but I am more confident now.” Her huge blue eyes are starring very intently at me in what seems like anticipation to be done interviewing for the day. I can’t blame her, she had several interviews prior to mine and has more scheduled after.
I ask about ‘Emotional Champ’ a song that to most sounds like it’s about lost love. “No, I can see why people would think it’s about love, but it’s about the struggle of being an artist. It can be difficult, being two people.” Her new album is more uplifting though has some darker undertones. Her aim was to write classic pop songs in the way of The Beach Boys. Heart That’s Pounding, to her, has accomplished that, “The songs are really feminine and about overcoming shyness.”

Zola Jesus

The Trailor Space is a small record shop next to a pizza place, in the middle of what looks like an otherwise residential neighborhood. The place is packed, so despite the weather Nika and I go outside.
Her EP Stridulum just came out, and is a far leap from her previous work. “A true artist challenges themselves,” she says, “There was not much else I could do with The Spoils or New Amsterdam. I was younger and more limited.” She began taking opera lessons when she was ten years old and has a lower range than most of the other experimental-pop groups emerging currently. She mentions that there were a couple of years where she wasn’t making music, “I was really unhappy then, it was a new low – music is all I can do.”
The college senior is double majoring in French and Philosophy. Unlike other performers in her position, she has opted to “finish what I started,” she says, “I guess it’s just that mid-western girl in me.” She is graduating this summer and would like to move to Los Angeles to focus more on her music career.
Her moniker comes from the French novelish Emile Zola, and well, Jesus Christ. She goes on to explain, “I wanted to break the stigma of (Jesus) being sacred. It’s just another word.” Everything she does has meaning and is done by herself. The albums? All self-produced. The instrumentation? She plays every part on each song on each album. For touring she says, “I just give them (the touring band) the songs and they work it out, I’m terrible at music theory, but they get it.”
After SXSW she will begin recording her next LP, which will not include any songs from Stridulum. She will tour the U.S. this fall, then Europe and the UK.

——> To read about her trip to SXSW click here.

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.




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