Laura Burhenn at LUSH Festival:
Given the opportunity to speak to international artists is always a cool thing. When I got the shot at Laura Burhenn, I was pretty stoked for 2 reasons; she’s a great artist and she’s been to SA before so I’ll be able to get an outsider’s proper and insightful input…and what did she do? She told me our shot glasses are small.
Richard Chemaly (RC): So looking forward to welcoming you to South Africa. Settle our curiosity though. We know you haven’t tweeted in years but your Twitter bio contains an offer for sugar. Is it white or brown, what’s the brand and are you offering anything to accompany it?
Laura Burhenn (LB): *Laughs* The internet is a funny place. A few years ago, I think everybody was rushing to lock down every possible variation of their name on every platform, hence how the @lauraburhenn Twitter handle was born and why it has never really been used. But The Mynabirds has always been a solo project, and so I’ve been tweeting via that @themynabirds handle all these years…and while I’ve been sharing a lot of politically-fueled things lately (the US is in a strange state, and the kids organizing these marches against gun violence are real heroes), I will always share a cup of sugar, preferably raw, with all the molasses still in it. I might be opinionated and ready to march and fight for peace; but I also want to be a good neighbor. First things first.
RC: It’s been 6 years since I last visited DC. It’s where I had my first ever 40! But you then moved to Omaha. Other than in first person shooter games, I’ve never been. Neither place is up there as having the biggest music scene in the USA though. Why have you picked your domiciles as you have?
LB: Omaha is home to my record label, Saddle Creek, and actually a pretty incredible music and art scene. It’s a liberal bastion in a sea of conservatism where folks are building the rich community they want to live in — from farm-to-table vegan restaurants to woman-owned, politically-minded boutiques to non-profit arts programs for kids in need. Same goes for DC. It’s home to an incredible Jazz lineage, and also to the Dischord DIY punk scene (Ian McKaye and Fugazi). My first band, Georgie James (also on Saddle Creek), featured John Davis as my writing and singing partner, who was in the incredible Dischord band, Q And Not U. I love underrated cities and scenes and people. They’re the ones who’ll always surprise you with their rich interiors. I’m living in Los Angeles now, and I love it. A whole lot of people have moved there from DC, Omaha, New York, and all over. It’s a hotbed of creativity at the moment, and nothing like the vapid, plastic “Hollywood” scene people might imagine. People are supportive, collaborative, and full of a lot of love for each other and all of our wild creative ideas and projects.
RC: Rad! Sincere collaboration is as awesome as it is rare. I’ve been listening to “Shouting At the Dark” and I’ve read the backstory. It’s cool to see that there’s still some rock out there that’s not afraid to get political. This used to be the realm of punk rock but the scene internationally seems to have largely died down and lost its political resistance. Is there a resurgence waiting in the wings?
LB: I’ve been writing and pushing politically-active, socially-conscious music since way back (see my album “GENERALS” from 2012)…probably has a lot to do with growing up in DC. I’ve always had such a strong affinity with progressive music, especially a well-crafted subversive pop song. You know Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In the Streets”? It sounds like a song about a block party, but it was really a don’t stop/keep-on-going song that was talking about protesting, marching in the streets during the Civil Rights movement. And so much of what Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, John Lennon, PJ Harvey, and Tori Amos wrote, too… I’ve actually taught a couple songwriting classes on protest songwriting, and will be teaching one while I’m in South Africa. There’s always been protest music; it’s just a matter of what’s getting on the major airwaves and in the top tens and forties. Right now it’s coming back strong in America, and I’m so proud to see women, trans and queer folks and people of color having their voices out there and amplified. Finally. It’s way past time.
RC: Looking forward to sharing the info on that class when it’s released! I’ve been loving my Melvina Reynolds lately…not exactly political protest as much as social protest but the point remains. Okay, let’s get to the shows in Johannesburg (Cresta Barnyard Theatre for 28 March), Lush Festival in Clarens (over Easter Weekend), and the Garden State launch event in Cape Town (7 April). Not your first time to South Africa but when you were last here, Lush wasn’t even a thing. What’s your favourite thing on this side and is there something you regretted not doing last time you were here and are going to use this opportunity?
LB: I love South Africa so much. My last time was such an incredible whirlwind, I couldn’t believe all of the places I got to visit and people I got to meet and work with. There’s some heavy spiritual energy in SA. It’s very healing. I mean, there’s a lot that’s raw and rough around the edges and in progress. It feels like it’s on a parallel path to America in a lot of ways. We’ve got that colonialized-and-trying-to-make-peace-with-our-past-and-create-a-vibrant-future thing in common. It’s heavy work. But counter to that, y’all have penguins…and hanging out with them is the stuff pure inner child joy is made of. I’m looking forward to doing that again, for sure.
RC: Basically, have you missed Black Label?
LB: I don’t drink beer. :-/ But I do miss those really cute little shots of whiskey y’all put in your Cokes. You’d need approximately 4 SA shots to equate one single American shot. I don’t know whether this is anything to brag about from my side, though…
RC: Lame question but important that we ask international artists who our readers might not have been exposed to yet…what can we expect from your set? Actually, forget that one. Tell us if you invite people onto stage and teach them a chorus to sing along to?
LB: I’m excited to play completely solo. It’s been fun to reimagine my full band songs alone at the keys, and bring it back to how they were all born in the first place: just me and a piano, storytelling. I mean, if people will come up onstage and sing with me, you’d better believe I’ll invite them up!!!
RC: Looking forward to your set! Safe travels. Can’t wait to have a drink on this end!
LB: Yes! Can’t wait!