In a moody follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, The Mynabirds‘ sophomore release, Generals, is a call for change in uncertain times. Presiding as wolf mother of love over an album of bossy hand claps and drums, singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn traces the arch of revolution from frustration to action, showing empathy to be the most revolutionary of ideals.
Before opening for Conor Oberst in a stripped down solo performance this Sunday (September 23) at the Capitol Theater (tickets here), True Endeavors talked to Burhenn about her first outing without a band, love, cynicism, and recurring dreams.
True Endeavors: Is this your first time touring solo as The Mynabirds?
Laura Burhenn: Well, I’ve played a couple shows here and there. I put out a 7” around Christmas time two years ago, and I played a show in Washington D.C. But it’s been a while. I used to play solo shows on occasion back in the Georgie James days. I was just talking to someone from The Washington Post a while ago and was reminded of how during one of my solo shows I got to open for Adele in D.C. It’s been a while, but it’s always fun to do that. I love playing with a full band because it’s really exciting and has high energy, but it’s nice to kind of get back to the idea of songwriting, you know? You’re stripping away everything but the melodies and the lyrics, the basic structure that you need for a song to exist. That’s always a lot of fun to do.
What brought about the decision to tour solo?
Conor [Oberst] asked me if I wanted to come along and open for him, and I thought, of course. Why would I say no? He sort of requested it because he’s also doing a stripped-down solo thing, so it wasn’t even an option for the band to play. But it’ll be nice change of pace. We’re playing all of these beautiful theaters.
Are you nervous or excited about the opportunity? Maybe a little bit of both?
There is a certain amount of nervousness that goes along with it. Instead of having a whole band to back you up and carry you if you forget what you’re doing, the entire responsibility lands on you. That said, I am going to have a guitarist with me for part of the set at least. It’s a friend from D.C. who I’ve played with for years and years and years. But there’s something I keep thinking about that is hopefully keeping me from becoming completely nervous, which is getting back to the source of why I became a musician. I feel like I was really lucky as a kid, because I had these teachers who for whatever reason would write me notes to get out of class and let me go into the high school auditorium and wheel a grand piano out on the stage. And I would just sit there and play to this big, open auditorium. There’s something invigorating about that. So as much as I could be like, “Oh my God, this is terrifying,” there’s also something wonderful and pure about it, if that makes sense.
I’ve heard other musicians say that sometimes it’s that fear that lets you know you’re on the right track of pushing yourself somewhere new.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. It’s also an opportunity to not only explore a different dimension of myself, but to open that up to other people. I think of some of my favorite shows when I was a teenager, and the ability to see a favorite band all together live doing something big was exciting. But there was also something big about seeing that singer or songwriter sit alone and play an electric guitar, piano or acoustic guitar. I use the word “big” a lot, but it’s true. [laughs]
You used to tour with Oberst in Bright Eyes, so this must not be too much of a change for you having a friend along.
I’m very much looking forward to it. We had so much fun last year on tour. It’s a lot of the same crew. It’s not entirely the same crew, but I’m really excited to get back together with the same group of people on the road. It’ll be great.
What do you think some people would be surprised to know about touring with Conor Oberst?
That’s always an interesting thing. I mean, Conor is really one of the funniest people I know. Very good-hearted, kind and hilarious. And I think people have this idea that he’s sitting around and brooding and feeling sorry for himself a lot. [laughs] Which is just not the case at all. But it’s funny, because part of me thinks maybe I shouldn’t tell that to the world. That should be our little secret.
Aaron Freeman recently talked to us about his solo project, which is an album of Rod McKuen covers. Is there any artist you’d consider dedicating a covers album to?
Oh yeah, I certainly could. I’m actually planning on covering a Leonard Cohen song while on tour. I think this is a good opportunity to bring out covers. That way you can just play and play. And I mean, Leonard Cohen is obviously one of the greatest songwriters of ever. Of ever. [laughs] I would love to do an entire album of his songs, but maybe in ways you wouldn’t expect. I would not cover “Hallelujah” because Jeff Buckley nailed that, and no one should ever cover that song again, but with someone like Leonard Cohen, you could really blow that whole thing apart. His arrangements are often very simple, and the lyrics, as simple as they sound, are often telling this difficult, complex story. So there’s a lot of room to approach the music in a really different way.
Which Leonard Cohen song are you thinking of playing?
I think I’m going to cover “Suzanne.” I know it’s a famous song, but I think it’s the greatest love song ever written. It’s so beautiful. A couple years ago on a solo album I released myself, I covered “Chelsea Hotel,” which I think is the saddest love song ever written. [laughs] But there’s something transcendent about “Suzanne,” and I think there’s something interesting about a woman singing it as well.
Your newest album Generals has gotten a lot of attention from critics because of its political themes. Have you gotten any feedback about it from fans?
It’s been really great. This record was born out of a lot of political frustration and rooted in politics to some degree, but in another way it throws them all out the window at the end of the record. It tells the story about being pissed off but then doing something about it. I heard some criticism about how [Generals] is supposed to be a collection of protest songs that ends up being a bunch of love songs. To me, that is exactly what it is. To me, it’s ultimately about what we can do personally to help each other through the mess that’s around us.
Someone reached out to me and said that the song “Body of Work” saved their life. They were a person considering their gender identity, and felt depressed and terrified about the whole idea of not really understanding who they are and feeling like they’re not going to fit in. It’s one of the best compliments you can ever receive, if someone says, “Your song saved my life.” Not like, “Your song inspired me.” That’s wonderful, and I’m grateful to hear people talk about how they were frustrated too, and did something about it, but I will keep writing songs for that one person for every record. Those are the meaningful connections that make me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile and on the right track.
You mentioned that it was a point of criticism that your album preaches love. Why do you think a universal message like acceptance or love is often a point of criticism, even if it’s presented in an original manner?
I think people are cynical. People have been burned. You could get into the personal psychology of it all, but I think that has something to do with it. I think people are terrified to humble themselves to other people, because you open yourself up to being rejected or hurt. When you put your guard down, you feel as if you could be attacked. So it has a lot to do with fear. I’d be interested to talk to someone who studies psychology or group psychology, about how the fear that existed during the Bush years still exists today, and what that has done to us.
I can understand being cynical and being frustrated, but no one wants to believe that the simplest answer is the right answer. As an example, in 2008 Obama said “Hope,” and that was a simple, positive message. And the four years that followed were not very hopeful. They were met with a lot of fighting, and I think people are really burned by that. You try and be positive and see the way people react to it.
Apart from that, love is an easy target. The word is overused and commercialized, and it’s written off a lot of times as being trite. But if you’re really going to talk about what love is and what it means, you need to act lovingly. It’s a very complicated, deep thing. But I think that’s a little bit of the mystery or intrigue surrounding people’s fascination with someone who is more open or honest and loving. I don’t know what it is. We love to be hurt as human beings. [laughs] We’re addicted to the things that are no good for us.
Do you often dream at night?
I always have dreams about tornadoes or T. rexes. There’s always this big, destructive, powerful thing coming, and I’m trying to warn everybody and get them in a basement to hide from this terror, and no one is listening to me. There’s also the reoccurring one where I’m in a high school play and we’re doing Romeo and Juliet again, and I’m supposed to be doing Juliet but I never learned the lines because I was the understudy and never thought I was going to be called on, and there we are the night of the show and I have to perform. Those two are pretty common, and I think they’re pretty transparent as to what they mean to my subconscious mind.
But I will say as far as dreams go, when I was writing the album [Generals] and trying to figure out what exactly I was trying to say, I had this beautiful dream. Basically, the short version is I was going through this dream, and I was asking myself, I’m supposed to be telling people something and I don’t even know what it is. What am I supposed to say? And in the dream, I’m in this group, and we were reading this book, and I read ahead and was really excited and telling everyone, “Just wait ‘til you get further into this plot!” And I walked out of this classroom into a big, beautiful open area, and I saw a group of people of all races and ages, and they were holding multicolored balloons and singing together as one. And as I turned to face what they were all looking at, I saw this big, beautiful rainbow. And for whatever reason, that’s when I came up with the idea of love. That’s the answer I wanted to tell everyone about. It was the idea of unity and taking time to see all the beauty around us.
And I woke up and thought, “Oh my God, everyone is going to think I’m an idiot.” [laughs] But at the end of the day, if the worst thing that happens is people think I’m a dreamer—literally and figuratively—and that I promote love being a good thing, then I’m fine with it.
I wonder how the album would have turned out had you seen a T. rex instead of a rainbow.
[laughs] Or a tornado bearing down on everyone. Exactly.
—interview by Austin Duerst
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Filed under: Indie, Interviews, Music News & Reviews, Music Shows This Week in Madison, Singer-Songwriter Tagged: | capitol theater, conor oberst, Laura Burhenn, Madison WI concerts, madison wi music, Mynabirds