It’s typical to hear about musicians secluding themselves following pivotal moments in their lives in order to regain clarity and control.
It’s typical to hear about musicians secluding themselves following pivotal moments in their lives in order to regain clarity and control. Justin Vernon famously comes to mind with the now legendary story regarding the genesis of Bon Iver’s debut record For Emma, Forever Ago, but there are plenty of other instances in popular and indie music of this being the lore behind a record.
For Laura Burhenn though (better known by her recording alias, The Mynabirds), she took a different approach following a pivotal time in her life and it’s this atypical, yet classic approach that led to the creation of her fantastic new record, Lovers Know, out now on Saddle Creek Records. Burhenn will debut the songs forged during this contemplative period in Richmond this Monday at Strange Matter and before then, she was gracious enough to chat with us about the mindset behind regaining her life and recording her new record.
In 2013, Burhenn was touring the world as part of a backing member of The Postal Service, but despite the high of touring with such an established group and seeing the world along the way, Burheen still felt unsatisfied as she returned home to an uneasy situation.
“When I got back home from touring, the relationship I was in at the time suddenly started disintegrating and it was like the rug had been pulled out from under me. I had been on the heels of making Generals which is a very empowered, self-assured record and touring with The Postal Service, but it all didn’t feel right. Even though you can do a world tour with a band like The Postal Service, if you’re on the bus, you don’t necessarily feel like you’re driving anywhere. You just magically appear somewhere. It’s like you’re being teleported to every new show and city. I just felt like I missed something about being on the road. Ever since I was 16, the road just gives me a sense of freedom so I just decided to put my dog in my car and if I was feeling lost, I was going to feel more lost and hopefully I’ll become found along the way. I drove across the US twice and I started writing songs for this record.”
Across her US travels, Burhenn found herself in familiar situations as she visited old friends scattered across the country, but also in surreal moments too. “It was fun to just stay in a weird, random college town for a night and have a picnic at 10 o’clock at night with all these weird frat parties around you.” It sounds like a scene lifted from Jack Kerouac’s beloved work On The Road, which Burhenn was quick to reveal was a huge influence on her life and travels.
“Anybody who’s read On The Road or any of the beat wanderers, there’s something you feel when you get pretty far away and you realize how connected you are to everyone. I love On The Road and I think everyone goes through that period where you feel super connected to the beats. This idea of getting out, getting lost, and finding yourself through other people. That was definitely a big inspiration for me on this record.”
Getting lost and becoming found again is definitely what Burhenn ended up doing musically. Her latest work is a stark departure from the rough and gritty formula she explored on her sophomore record, 2012’s Generals. Whereas Generals oozes confidence and even swagger at times, Lovers Known comes from a much deeper and emotional place with obvious hints of introspection and even anxiety. It’s almost irresponsible to have a record full of those themes follow the gutsy musical map of her last record, so it was only natural for Burhenn to explore a new voice on this record. Like one of her musical heroes PJ Harvey in that regard, she’s found a way to establish a new voice on each record in both a sonically and physically method.
“I just wanted to change the sonic palette I was working with. [The first record] What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is very dusty and very soul and R&B and 60s. Generals is way more rock and roll, riot grrrl, and rough around the edges. For this record, I was really digging into 80s synthpop, 90s shoegaze, and even 90s R&B, but I did explore some new places with my voice and I wasn’t even thinking about it while I was doing it. I got some feedback from some friends that I was singing in this high, fragile way that they’ve never heard me sing before. It was the total antithesis of how my voice sounded on Generals which was like the growl of the wolfmother because I was out for blood with that last record. It was all about being self-assured and empowered and feeling like you could make a change in the world. I think it’s funny that even though this record is called Lovers Know, it’s very much about not knowing so I think I let my voice go to this place that was more contemplative and unsure and you hear that on definitely ‘Velveteen’ and ‘Last Time.’ Even ‘Omaha’ is that way.”
While it was easy for Burhenn to express herself musically in this regard, the singer-songwriter definitely struggled putting words to paper to accurately match the planned theme for each song.
“It was really difficult. I really struggled to write the songs because I think I tried to allow myself to be more vulnerable and open than I ever had in the past. I would come in and ask what the producer Bradley [Hanan Carter] thought about this lyric for the song and we would talk about the particular theme for that song and what the song was meant to be about. He would say that was a fine lyric, but I was hiding behind a metaphor and no one cared that you can write a great lyric because it’s not communicating an emotion. I really struggled with that because one of my creative fears is being perceived as being trite and so it’s a real art when a pop song writer can say something that’s so straight ahead, but also carries a real depth of emotion. I thought of Edith Piaf and her song ‘Non, je ne regrette rien.’ How straight forward and how powerful it can be when someone just says exactly what they feel. I allowed myself to go to those places which did not feel great at the time, but I think it was worth it.”
It’s not a lyrical place fans have turned to The Mynabirds for in the past, but on Lovers Know, it’s perhaps the album’s soaring quality. Her ability to poetically express each song’s theme without dancing nervously around it allows the record to distance itself from recent synth-laden records that are stepped in tricky vocal wordplay. While it can definitely work time to time, it’s fast becoming something Burhenn expressed deep fear of: a cliche. To avoid this, Burhenn leaned on many inspirations to help her lyrical strength come through. Like Edith Piaf, it was rooted in a traditional style of writing, but as she explored her sonic inspirations, she found the songwriting was just the same fifty years later.
“I’ve always been a big fan of jazz and standard lyrics. The way that people can work in a beautiful metaphor while saying what they’re feeling exactly. Like Louis Armstrong which I grew up on. I would think, “Wow, he said that in the most perfect, succinct way without fucking around.” I always have that in my mind. I think that’s one of my deepest inspiration. It’s funny because I made this playlist because I wanted Bradley to understand the sonic references I had and it was anything from Kate Bush to P.M. Dawn to Leonard Cohen so it’s really all over the place, but there were some straight away pop songs in there like Blondie. Even Portishead popped up. Some of the stuff that they wrote, it ends up being closer to jazz records as opposed to metaphoric indie or hard rock.”
Lovers Know reflects Burhenn’s period of traveling not just in the lyrical nature, but also in the way the album was recorded in general. Spread across four regions that even included Auckland, New Zealand, Burhenn allowed each studio to add a crucial element to each song much like each town had added a bit more to her mental clarity during her travels.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we were recording different songs in different places. It was more recorded like collage work or a hip hop record. We started in Nashville at my friend’s studio and we recorded live drums and bass and some synth bass and grand piano pieces. That was the base layer for every song. Then we went back to LA and we added some guitar or some vocals or whatever. For the most part, every place we went, we were adding a little bit to each track. If you think of them as individual works of art, they each have a little bit of the same ingredient from the different places. I think that helps keep it cohesive.”
The end result is Burhenn’s most personal, emotional, and accessible record under The Mynabirds moniker. While uncertainty is definitely abound in the record, there is still a clarity found within the songs that’s nearly epiphanical and undoubtedly comes from Burhen’s own personal journey. It’s a journey people from all walks of life dream about and envy, but never end up attempting for a myriad of reasons. For those on the fence about just letting go and hitting the road, Burhenn offered up some useful advice as our conversation came to an end.
“Traveling is just something I think people can be afraid of because there’s so many unknowns, but the unknown is where all the best stuff is waiting for you. It’s nice to have a general plan, but it’s also good to stop and take a weird detour because you’re going to end up meeting someone interesting. You sit down at a coffee shop and there’s suddenly someone who’s lived in this town forever and you’re having this conversation about their life. When I was with my dog, we stopped off the highway I think in Illinois to get some gas and I saw this sign that said ‘Giant Superman Statue Five Miles Ahead.’ I looked at my dog sort of asking if we should do this. Of course the dog didn’t say ‘hell yeah,’ but in my mind, I projected on him the feeling of ‘of course, we’re supposed to take this detour.’ So that’s my advice: Take the detours, take the long way.”
The Mynabirds play Strange Matter this Monday with Bad Bad Hats and Venus Guytrap opening. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, just click here.