Interview The Mynabirds: ‘It Was Heartbreaking To Record, But In The Best Possible Way’

Gareth Ware speaks to Laura Burhenn ahead of the release of ‘Generals’.

In recent years, America’s army of emotive, honest female songwriters has truly come out of the woodwork and made their presence felt. Alongside the likes of Carrie Brownstein and her unstoppable rock juggernaut Wild Flag, there’s the heartbreaking works of Sharon Van Etten, and the vivid imagery of Eleanor Friedberger, to name but a mere three. But with new record ‘Generals’, The Mynabirds (essentially a nom de musique and songwriting vehicle for Laura Burhenn) now has an incredibly rich, ambitious and arresting body of work which easily has the potential to join the fun.

Speaking on the phone with Burhenn, we put forward the notion that ‘Generals’ will draw comparisons to those already mentioned and there’s a pause on the other end of the line. The kind that causes you to temporarily freeze, fearing that you’ve in some way mortally offended your subject. No need to worry, a mere delay on the line. “I adore those women,” bubbles Burhenn, the model of politeness and enthusiasm that she’ll remain for the remainder of the interview. “For me, Brownstein is such an inspiration. She was at the forefront of the re-birth of American women in music in 1990s and Wild Flag are just so amazing! Sharon Van Etten is just this incredibly honest songwriter, and then you’ve got Eleanor Friedberger, who to me feels a bit like Patti Smith. She isn’t someone who’s afraid to experiment. If at some point I end up in some way being an amalgam of those three people, then that’d be pretty much perfect!”

‘Generals’, Burhenn explains, is a concept record. ‘It’s about my frustrations with politics, and America’s sense of collective conscience. Everybody’s just walking round in a state of numbness. I wanted to turn yelling about frustration into something tranformative. Something positive. Then I had a slight crisis of conscience. Are artists allowed to talk about these things? Isn’t it meant to be that the men in suits talk about these things and artists are just meant to make grand gestures and statements? But then I thought, ‘what do you do in these situations? What is the answer?’ and the answer is love. You have to do what you can. The thing is, I’m a pacifist. When you’re a pacifist it’s quite difficult to deal with all this anger!”

In moving into territory marked ‘revolution’ and ‘protest’ on ‘Generals’, Burhenn has had to steer away from the 60s-sounding nature of her 2010 début, ‘What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood’. When you put this to her, she’s quick to defend her earlier work. “I’m very proud of that record. It was about loss and recovery, so it was always meant to be a comforting listen, and meant to be safe. I wanted it to feel like an old friend. But when it comes to the themes expressed on ‘Generals’, protest music can’t be safe. It was a conscious decision to move away from the last record.”

The differences between the two records span not only those of sound and concept, but also of musical influences and their use throughout the album. “With ‘What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood’, when it came to influences, I was quite careful… Imagine standing in front of a canvas and trying to paint a giant picture but only using a very small selection of paint. That’s how I worked on the first record. Only using a very small selection of shades. With ‘Generals’, I just used whatever colour felt right at the time. Being influenced by so many different artists makes the creative process that bit more fun. It gives you real room to move when playing with ideas. I mean, take ‘Disaster’. It’s got a real hip-hop vibe to it. That’s what I was aiming for, anyway! That whole Tribe Called Quest thing. When I was growing up I was really into intelligent hip hop, so it was great to finally get something like that on record.”

‘Generals’ displays an impressive array of musical directions, be it the brooding (‘Generals’, ‘Wolf Mother’), instant pop moments (‘Body of Work’, ‘Radiator Sister’) or the sweeping and epic (‘Mightier Than The Sword’, ‘Greatest Revenge’). Yet it works flawlessly as a single entity. “Thanks! That’s good to know” Burhenn replies. “The thing with a concept record is that it needs to be able to do that. It needs to be able to tell a story, so everything it needs to fit together well. Every song has to play its part. ‘Mightier Than The Sword’ is really the pivotal moment in the record, it’s the break after the early tracks, which can get a little intense! But then in the same way you’ve got ‘Body Of Work’, which needs to sound fun, it has to make people want to to dance. Coming after ‘Mightier Than The Sword’ the record needed to be brought back up, so ‘Body Of Work’ had its own part to play in how the record worked as a whole’.”

For all of the record’s many highlights, it’s ‘Mightier Than The Sword’ itself which steals the show. Building from a haunting piano line and Burhenn’s heartbreaking vocals into a powerful wall of sound over its five-minute duration, it’s one of those rare songs that sounds truly timeless. “It was so powerful to record. We recorded the piano first, and did it in one take. It was incredible and amazing to record so organically. It totally fitted into my vision of the album as a story. There were other elements which were slightly odd though, because of how we recorded it. The drums were recorded with no click track! It was heartbreaking to record. But heartbreaking in the best possible way.”

Armed with such an emotional and honest set of songs, it must surely be quite an odd sensation for Burhenn as an artist to be so open in her songwriting processes? “I want to connect with people on some level. We all have shared emotions and experiences that we can in some way relate to each other on. It felt good to really throw yourself out there emotionally. The best thing when you open up is all the people who come up from the woodwork, and they’re the people who you end up forming really intense bonds with.” And her expectations? “With it being, I suppose, a modern protest record, I’d like people to have a greater sense of awareness. Be more active in communities, that sort of thing. But I also want people to have fun. It had dance-y moments for a reason – we all want to have fun! So yeah, I’d hope for those sorts of things. I hope we get to tour the hell out of this record, and can pay our bills. That’s always an important consideration!”

Talking to Burhenn, you get the impression that she has the unshakeable ambition and vision to allow her to strike comparisons to the likes of Brownstein, Van Etten and Friedberger, not to mention St Vincent’s Annie Clarke. Armed with ‘Generals’, she now unquestionably has the musical vehicle to join them as figureheads in the rebirth and resurgence of America’s songwriting dames too. It’ll be fascinating to see where she ends up, but one thing’s for certain: Burhenn’s going to have a blast on the back of it, for better, for worse.

The Mynabirds’ new album ‘Generals’ will be released on 26th June via Saddle Creek.

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