Best of What's Next: The Mynabirds
Hometown: Omaha, Neb.
Album: What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood
For Fans Of: Feist, Cat Power, Dusty Springfield
Laura Burhenn, the 29-year-old songstress who makes music as The Mynabirds, would have you believe she’s just an ordinary gal who plants jalapeños in her garden, reads Carl Jung and dreams of starting an after-school kids’ art program. Perhaps that’s why the Omaha music community has so fully embraced this new solo project from half of the now-defunct duo Georgie James. You can’t really blame them: Even when you’ve just met Burhenn she so instantly makes you feel like a friend that it’s easy to forget she’s likely to take the world by storm with her new LP. What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood is soulful and introspective, as much a reflection of Burhenn’s pop-chanteuse forbears as her own artistic vision. Earlier this spring, over a cup of coffee in New York City, Burhenn talked to Paste about her new album, her love of punk kids and her fears of pissing off Neil Young.
Paste: You’ve previously described the album as being about loss and recovery. Were these things you were experiencing in your life while writing the material?
Laura Burhenn: After Georgie James broke up, I wasn’t really sure how to move on and pick up the pieces. I had experienced another personal breakup before that, so I was really stuck in this mode of loss. As a result, you sit around, and maybe you’re sad for a little while but finally you think, “It’ll be good to focus on something else. What’s going to pull me out of this?” And it seemed also very much in line with where we are as a world. After the Bush years, Obama gets into office and we’ve got this recovery act—it’s a part of what everybody is going through. It seemed like what I knew, so I felt “Well, that’s what I need to write about.”
Paste: There were songs you had originally written for the record but then abandoned. Why?
Burhenn: A lot of the songs that I contributed to Georgie James were pretty political in nature. I grew up around a lot of really amazing punk kids, who were in punk bands. I’ve always aligned myself with that spirit of, “We’re committed to making goods things happen in the world. We’re going to speak out against racism and things that are wrong and shouldn’t exist in our society and have fun while we do it.” I started writing these songs and they were very much like that. But I thought, “I’m not writing anything that is hitting me at my heart.” I think I was being very guarded about what I was writing. I really didn’t want to open up because I didn’t want to write a diary record.
Paste: Were you afraid of putting yourself out there?
Burhenn: Absolutely, and then finally I realized that that was what I needed to do and that was what I was going to be able to do best in that moment. And I feel like I’m really proud of what came out of it in the end. Growing up I loved to put on records, sit in my bedroom, close the door and listen to it over and over again and think, “This person is the only person in the world who understands what I’m going through right now.” Those moments are so meaningful. I hope that’s how some people react to the record.
Paste: How did you approach songwriting differently the second time around?
Burhenn: I was less afraid of throwing things away. If I had an idea that didn’t work, I would let go or I wouldn’t put too much pressure on a song to finish itself immediately. “Numbers Don’t Lie,” which is the first single that Saddle Creek released, was the last song that I wrote for the record. I was considering not even using it. I didn’t think it was that great of a song. When I took it to Richard Swift [the album’s co-producer] it was actually unfinished. It was basically all there, but the lyrics weren’t completely done. And I don’t usually write that way. I usually write start to finish, plow through a song, and figure out how to shape it. But I was more willing to let the song happen however it wanted to happen.
Paste: There’s been a lot of talk about the band name—that it’s based on a character in James Joyce’s work, and also on an old Motown band. Can you clear that up?
Burhenn: I always wanted to make a record that sounds like Neil Young doing Motown. So we made this record with that spirit in mind. And then after it was done, I thought “Do I release this under my own name? Do I release it under a band name?” I really wanted to not put it under my own name. I didn’t want it to be seen as a singer-songwriter thing. And it’s nice to have a bit of detachment from the project so it’s not just you—it’s this thing that exists outside of you. So I’d asked a couple of friends, “Do you have any recommendations?” And a friend of mine, her sister was pregnant, and her dad had just sent her this list of female names of James Joyce characters, one of which was Mina, and that resonated with me and I immediately thought “Mina, Myna, Myna birds—oh I love the way that sounds. Let me see if there is another band called the Mynabirds.” I looked it up and very serendipitously it was Neil Young, who was in this Motown band [The Mynah Birds], and of course I thought “Well, that’s it. It’s got to be it.” There was a moment when I thought, “Am I going to get sued? Is Motown going to come after me? Is Neil Young going to be angry?” And I think hopefully it’s just going to sell some more singles for them.
Paste: Are you a fan of Joyce?
Burhenn: I honestly haven’t read a ton of Joyce and I was reading a lot when I was writing this record. So maybe that’s what the next record will be about. I’ll read some James Joyce novels and pick up on some themes and that’ll be my new exploration.
Paste: Can you tell me what you were you reading?
Burhenn: I was reading a lot about collective consciousness and Carl Jung, a lot of poetry, especially Wallace Stevens. I was focusing intensely on very small parts or pieces of literature. It’s almost like taking a few ingredients and that really inspired the whole record. A lot of the themes replay themselves in different songs like there’s the poem by Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It’s about having perspective and looking at one situation all different ways. The song, “Ways of Looking,” off the new album, is about finding perspective. There’s a line that says, “You can move mountains with your point of view.” That was a big theme in the record.
Paste: What were some of the artists you liked growing up?
Burhenn: I was raised in a very conservative Christian household and I wasn’t really allowed to watch MTV so I grew up listening to a lot of Beatles, Carole King and The Temptations. By the time I was 13 I remember hearing Prince for the first time and my mind was blown, like “Who is this?” And then I was really into PJ Harvey, Louis Armstrong, Neil Young, of course. It was a real mix of things from all over the place.
Paste: Considering your family’s conservative, how do they feel about your career?
Burhenn: I’m an only child. My parents got divorced when I was 10, so it was my mom and me against the world. She is more supportive than anybody in my life. She’s a firm believer that each one of us is given a gift and you must share it. When Georgie James went on our first tour to Europe, she met us at the airport with a bag of breakfast burritos. I remember she gave me a hug and she whispered in my ear, “This is the perfect day to start your life.” I was like “That is incredible!”
Paste: The album sounds both soulful and spiritual. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Burhenn: I am, for sure. It’s a tough thing. I grew up in a Pentecostal Christian environment and disagreed with a lot of those teachings. Organized religion can be very harmful. But there’s something at the core that I feel like a lot of religions and a lot of people share. Those are the things that I like to focus on, the things that connect us one to another, and the things that are inclusive rather than exclusive. I think there’s something wonderful to taking time out of your day to say, “There’s more to this life than me.” And I, for one, want to devote my life to hopefully doing what I can to make the world a little bit of a better place.
Paste: Will you be touring soon?
Burhenn: We’re going to be touring all over the U.S. and Canada. We don’t have anything outlined right now. But it looks like June and July will be pretty busy and probably end of the fall, we’ll be doing CMJ. The record comes out here April 27th and it’s slated to come out in Europe on June 7th so I’m hoping we’ll get to Europe this time as well.
Paste: Do you have a favorite city in which you like to perform?
Burhenn: I like playing smaller cities where you don’t have much of an expectation and then people come out in droves and dance their assess off. You have so much fun. I love anything that’s unexpected like that—pleasant surprises, happy surprises.
Paste: You moved from D.C. to Omaha before recording the album. Has living in Omaha affected your music?
Burhenn: Yeah, I moved there at the end of 2008 after Georgie James had broken up. I decided, “Maybe it’s time to try something new.” It’s just a lot of great art and creativity and people are really warm and welcoming. In a lot of ways I feel more open to trying new things and to having fun with music. I’d always been very, very serious about the songwriting process and how things maybe sound when they were finished. We did this Benefit for Haiti concert a couple of weeks ago in Omaha, and Bright Eyes and Tilly and the Wall played amongst a bunch of other great Omaha bands. A friend of mine was saying something about if you’re going to fundraise, you’ve got to have fun while you’re doing it. That’s sort of the spirit around there.
Paste: If you weren’t working as a musician, what would you be doing?
Burhenn: I’d love to start a non-profit after school arts program for disadvantaged kids. I did some work in D.C. with the Sitar Arts Center. It’s this really great arts organization that provides free discounted art lessons and classes to kids who might otherwise be getting into trouble. I taught a songwriting class there. I’d love to start something like that when I settle down a little bit.
Paste: Do you see yourself in Omaha for a while?
Burhenn: We’ll see. As of now I love it there—it’s home. I’ve got a great group of friends who’ve become my found family. The weather isn’t always what you’d love it to be but it’s a great home base. It’s right in the middle of the country so I can take off for whichever coast I want to and it’s really affordable. I love having space and having practice space in the basement and having a piano. I love the fact that I have a garden in the back and I grow vegetables. It’s become my sanctuary.
Paste: What vegetables are you currently growing?
Burhenn: Nothing yet, but last year I had tomatoes, squash and zucchini but my melons didn’t work out very well. I had more jalapenos then I knew what to do with. I have a lot of those in the freezer right now. I also planted a peach tree. It had a tiny peach but then I think a raccoon ate it.