Omaha singer’s capital inspirations
By Jess Righthand
Friday, August 31, 2012
It’s not uncommon for Washington bands to reach a certain level of popularity and then decamp to New York or Los Angeles. But when local songstress Laura Burhenn announced in 2008 that she was moving to Omaha, many an eyebrow was raised.
“A lot of my friends were like, ‘What?’ ” Burhenn says from a tour stop in Dallas.
For years, Washington was a natural fit for Burhenn, 32, who was raised on a farm in western Maryland and grew up with a thirst for political activism. But while she was performing as half of the duo Georgie James, Burhenn forged a strong relationship with Saddle Creek Records, the band’s Omaha-based label. She also made some close friends who were involved in that city’s small but thriving indie music scene. After Georgie James broke up in 2008, Burhenn set out to start anew in Omaha.
“You know, there are people like the Faint and Tilly and the Wall and a whole slew of bands that probably people have never heard of on a national level that are doing really exciting things in Omaha,” Burhenn says. “And I feel like people take risks artistically that they might not take in other cities, because there’s not necessarily that culture of criticism.”
Four years and thousands of miles later, Burhenn has a new home. Her new album, however, is quite possibly her most Washington-inspired collection to date.
“Generals,” Burhenn’s second album under the Mynabirds moniker, features politically charged lyrics, a few reimagined songs she performed years ago around Washington and sounds influenced by the city’s go-go music. Even the album title was cribbed from a Richard Avedon photo of a group of Daughters of the American Revolution that was displayed at the Corcoran in 2008.
The album is a sort of brooding homage to Burhenn’s home, the culmination of what she describes as “a decade of political frustration.”
“After a while you kind of become numb to it,” Burhenn says of living in dissatisfaction with the government, specifically the Bush administration. “And I was at that point where I was like, ‘I don’t want to become numb. I don’t want to think that this is okay.’ ”
“Generals” is a marked departure both thematically and sonically from Burhenn’s first album as the Mynabirds, “What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood.”
“When I made the first record,” Burhenn says, “I told [producer Richard Swift], ‘I want to make a record that sounds like Neil Young doing Motown.’” (It was only after articulating her vision to Swift that Burhenn discovered the Mynah Birds, a band signed to Motown in the ’60s that featured Neil Young on guitar.)
Burhenn collaborated again with Swift on “Generals” but set out to create a new sound worthy of her weightier subjects. The result is a studio album heavy on electronics and interlaced with rhythmic complexity.
Burhenn says she wanted her voice to sound raw, a tribute to such strong female vocalists as PJ Harvey and Nina Simone. Those gritty vocals bring the songs to life. Burhenn’s foundation in gospel and R&B shines through at some of the album’s most gratifying moments (a shout-style breakdown on the title track comes to mind). Go-go also surfaces; on some tracks Burhenn plays a five-gallon bucket, a nod to the makeshift percussion popularized by go-go bands.
Some of the songs had been works-in-progress for years. The final track, “Greatest Revenge,” begins with lyrics Burhenn wrote just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: “All along the avenues / The soldiers make their way / While lovers reap the revenue / Of a cold September day.”
D.C. fans may also recall the song “Karma Debt,” which Burhenn says has been completely reconceptualized. She recalls playing a version of the song when she opened for Adele at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue during the artist’s first world tour in 2008.
“I just remember, there was this review in the paper afterwards, and it was like, ‘D.C. songstress Laura Burhenn came out and opened the show and she sounded more beautiful than ever,’ and it really was a glowing review. And then it goes, ‘And then, Adele sang.’ And I was like, okay, fair enough, I’m never going to be an Adele. But come on, guys.”
Burhenn says that beyond critiquing American society, she hopes to empower people -- women especially -- to act. In conjunction with the album, she has started the New Revolutionists, a photo project of Avedon-style black-and-white portraits of women who are making a difference in their own communities.
“I didn’t just want this album to be about everything that’s wrong. I had to turn it into something positive,” Burhenn says. “I think ultimately it turns into this uplifting message about doing what you can where you stand. Sometimes the most revolutionary thing can just be an act of kindness to a stranger, or to a neighbor, or to yourself, you know?”