By Matt Pais
RedEye Sound Board
July 5, 2012
The Mynabirds singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures. She has her opinions, and she’s not ashamed. On that note, she says with a laugh: Her favorite movie is “The Neverending Story.”
“It’s been my favorite ever since I was a kid,” says the 32-year-old singer. “I had a crush on Atreyu as a kid. I think the idea that one person can go out and try to save the world from the nothing is a really amazing lesson for kids to be taught. And it’s something I think that still really resonates with me.”
Burhenn may not be trying to save the world, but she’s certainly taking action. Her band’s latest record, “Generals,” moves away from the beautiful warmth of the previous album, “What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood” toward something far more topical, touching on political and social frustrations from health care to the housing crisis to the music industry to gay teens committing suicide. At home in Omaha, Burhenn has also put her proverbial money where her mouth is, helping pass an equal employment ordinance by, among other things, testifying before the city council, writing letters and distributing a petition among musicians. She’s also involved with “Omaha Girls Rock,” a camp entering its second summer where young girls arrive with a love of Miley Cyrus and no experience playing an instrument. They leave with both musical knowledge and a desire to be someone like Patti Smith or Carrie Brownstein.
At Tribune Tower, Burhenn (a pacifist who says “War is something that I truly don’t understand”) talked about her band’s crime-stopping powers, the ideas behind “Generals” and if she’ll ever run for office.
You guys had a show last night at Schubas. How did it go?
It was really amazing for being a Sunday night and Father’s Day. Everything was great. Really great crowd. We had a bit of an adventure: I wear a fox-head dress for part of the set, and someone actually stole it.
After the show?
After the show. So our guitarist and his friend chased the guy through the streets. The Chicago police department got involved. They captured him. They got it back. They handcuffed him and had him in the back of a cruiser.
How do you see audiences responding to songs from the new record, which obviously have a lot more oomph to them than songs on the previous album?
I think it turns into a dance party, which is really fun. Which is what I wanted to happen. If you’re going to tour a record for a year, you want to be having fun while you’re playing it. Not that we didn’t have fun playing the old songs, but it’s kind of nice to have those quiet moments, even in a new song like “Mightier Than the Sword” and then to really just cut loose for “Body of Work” or “Disarm” or anything like that.
You were inspired by the photo “Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution.” Tell me why that got you worked up.
Well, yeah, I saw that photo at an exhibit of Richard Avedon’s work in D.C. As you know and people may not know but the photo features older women in starch satin gowns with sashes and tiaras, and they’re women who are members of the organization daughters of the American revolution. It’s a photo I think from the ‘60s. I thought, “Man, that image doesn’t really coincide with what I think of when I think of revolutionary women.” And so I started thinking what do revolutionary women in America look like these days? In my mind they’re not afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.
So what made you feel like you had all this anger that you had to get out?
It’s definitely been brewing for about a decade. You go back to Sept. 11, and it’s crazy to realize that that’s already been 10 years. And I lived in D.C. at that time and was part of the protest leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and was there on election night in 2008 when Obama was elected. I’m sure being in Chicago that was an electric night here, and in D.C. it was absolutely insane. We were drinking champagne in the streets behind the White House. Joan Baez was there which was really, really amazing. So I’ve been thinking for years about protest music and protest songs, and when you put that up against what’s in the top 20, top 40 in our pop culture song, it’s a real contrast.
I thought “Party Rock Anthem” was protesting all the people that don’t want to party.
[Laughs] It’s funny that you say that because that’s something that I wanted to do with this record, which was, there’s a lot of frustration. I think, some people have asked, “Well, what is she protesting? She talks about a lot of different things in this record.” And I think that was the point. It’s not one general protest. In the song “Generals,” I talk about a lot of different things. I talk about health care, the housing collapse, the music industry, there’s a lot of things going on in that.
Happy times, these days.
But at the end of the day it was important for me to feel like I could transform that energy into something positive. I didn’t want to just stand around and yell about what’s wrong for the entire record. That would get annoying to me, and I know it would be annoying to other people. And I don’t think it’s very helpful on a larger scale as far as making change and getting things done. But I wanted the songs to feel like they’re a version of “Whistle While You Work.” It’s like, “Dance while you’re getting stuff done.” So I wanted the songs to feel positive and definitely end on a positive note as far as the whole album goes.
Does it hit home when you wind up on the NPR list with Fiona Apple and St. Vincent and other singers who would usually fall on a list under the term angry?
I don’t think of St. Vincent as being angry. I was really, really honored. That list I think was called “Beloved Weirdoes.” Yes, finally, we made the list of beloved weirdoes.
But you were always beloved. You just weren’t recognized as a weirdo.
[Laughs] Right. That was part of the fun of writing this record was to get more experimental. The first record was meant to feel classic. Was meant to feel like an old record you found, or an old friend that was comforting you in a difficult time. When you’re writing songs about revolution, it can’t feel comforting necessarily. That said, I feel like toward the end of the record I did want some of the songs to feel comforting and positive and uplifting.
On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being no way and 10 being definitely, what are the chances you ever run for office?
Oh. That’s an interesting question. It’s funny, there’s someone, I live in Omaha now, and since I moved there I’ve become very, very active politically there. A couple people have said to me, “Oh, it’s the next mayor of Omaha.” And they joke about that all the time. And I’m flattered; I don’t know if I could get elected in a place like Omaha for sure.
I think I might be a little too radical. Maybe city council. But I’m not sure about mayor. I don’t know that I’m cut out for politics. ‘Cause it can be frustrating. Politics can be extremely frustrating, and there’s definitely a game involved. But I want to be involved doing whatever I can, that helps move things forward. So who knows about that, but definitely involved in helping educate other people about what’s going on.
The first track on the record is “Karma Debt.” How much do we owe, and how do we pay it back?
Again, that’s such a big question. That was a question I was asking myself. “Can I even as a musician even talk about this?” A lot of people say musicians shouldn’t talk politics. “It’s annoying; shut up and sing. You’re an entertainer. Entertain us. Make us dance.” And it was fun to say, “OK, I’m going to make you dance, but I’m going to make you think too.”
Where the band ate in Chicago: Native Foods Café (the afternoon of our interview) and Big Star (where they were heading after the interview)
What’s to come on the next album: “I have no idea. I’ve thought a lot about it. I would love to write an album of straight love songs. But maybe in a trip-hop kind of a way. I love Portishead, and I was touring with Bright Eyes last year and we did some festival shows in Australia, opening up for Portishead, and that was really amazing to see them play every night. And it rekindled my love for “Dummy,” that album from so long ago, which was the quintessential make-out album from my youth. Along with My Bloody Valentine. And the idea to make that sort of a record would be fun. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s next.”
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