Analogue Music | Laura Burhenn's latest record reads reactionary on…

The Mynabirds

By Matt Conner

Laura Burhenn's latest record reads reactionary on the surface. Don't let that mislead you.

Yes, Be Here Now is a musical and political touchstone, an album of nine songs about divisive tribes and dismissive attitudes, about Standing Rock and standing up for those who cannot. But for Burhenn, the lovely artist who has utilized The Mynabirds moniker since 2010, the album isn't a knee-jerk response to Donald Trump as president. Rather it's the sort of musical collection that can only come from someone centered in the midst of it all.

Consider the rallying cry of the title track, a musical torch akin to Lady Liberty herself acknowledging the darkness of our days while simultaneously calling us to our better selves:

Everybody come and take a step together 
Everybody, one step now 

If you’re feeling lost 

Well just remember 
You’re here now

"Golden Age," the album's cornerstone, laments the loss of so much good over the last year and then calls—nay, even preaches at us with her self-described "sermon"—us to step up to save the rest. 

The golden age
It's ours to save
I hear the bells ringing
Are you awake?

Lest you think Burhenn is a modern protest hero—well, she might be—she comes across as more than that. Or maybe it's less. Any label applied to Burhenn is reductionistic, because she channels her whole self, fully present with the work, with her surroundings, with her place in it all. She's here now.

Analogue: Creatively, has this last year been a good one for you?

Laura: It’s strange. That’s a really difficult question to answer. Creatively I made a record I didn’t expect to make. It’s exciting, and I got to make it with some of my best friends in Nashville at a studio that doesn’t exist anymore. That record was really fulfilling, because I was trying to capture the Zeitgeist. I feel like we did that, so that feels creatively really good. But then I haven’t really toured on it yet, so that feels weird. I’m really excited to get out on the road in January and actually finally really play these songs for the first time. So that’s going to be fun. 

Analogue: What’s kept you from touring these songs yet?

Laura: The timing wasn’t right. It’s a weird time to be a musician. This is the fourth album I’ve made, and I've been putting out records as The Mynabirds for seven years, since 2010. It’s crazy how much has changed since then. Spotify has become ubiquitous. Everybody uses Spotify or Apple Music or streaming. That wasn’t a thing that happened before. Back then, touring was part of the album cycle. It was something that you needed to do to physically sell records, but now it doesn’t need to be tied in with the cycle as much. So it’s a matter of thinking about how to do things differently, how to respond to the changes in music as an industry. Music as technology, it feels great. There’s a lot of great music that’s coming out right now, but it also feels like a really strange, uncertain time.

Analogue: How good of a grasp do you feel like you have on the way things are changing and the proper way to adapt to it?

Laura: I don’t know that I have a grasp on it necessarily. It kind of feels like it’s overwhelming, right? It’s like we have all of these technologies at our fingertips, and we can kind of play around with them. It feels kind of nice to be like, 'We don’t know what we’re doing. Let’s try this. Does this work? Oh that didn’t really work. Let’s try something else.' It kind of feels like experimentation. 

I guess I’m excited about that, because I feel like to be able to take that, when you get into uncertain times, politically or creatively, or when it comes to music as an industry or technology, I think it only leads to good things. It unmoors you from what you thought you knew. It demands that you have to get free from any of your expectations of what you thought was going to happen or who you even thought you were, and that, to me, is so exhilarating. It’s also terrifying. But that energy is the same, it’s just how we choose to look at it—whether it’s anxiety or excitement, right? I feel like I got really deep. You were like, did you have a good year? And I was like, 'Let’s talk about it, and I went for it.' [Laughs]

Analogue: [Laughs] We wouldn't have it any other way. It's true when talking to you, even about the industry, that your responses are not reactive. Your responses sound healthy and centered. 

Laura: I could look at my Spotify plays and obsess about how many or how few I have and compare it to the past records and think, 'Oh god, I don’t know what’s happening.' But instead I’m so excited to go out on the road. At first I thought maybe I didn’t want to tour this record, because it was kind of an experiment. It was like, 'I’m just making this thing in two weeks and it’s going to kind of be a mixtape and we’ll call it a record.'

Be Here Now
Be Here Now

Then it kind of got branded as a record and we’re in this album cycle in a way, when I realized I missed touring. I missed getting together in a room with people, because regardless of what technology changes or regardless of how the industry changes, that’s one thing that doesn’t change. That’s what I’m so excited about.

I guess this is just sort of a part of me and who I am, but any time things get crazy, I think, 'I’m not going to react. I’m just going to sit still and let it all happen and get back to who I am and what I want to do or say.' That’s the only thing we can control.

Analogue: That’s what I was getting at. You can hear the centered nature and rooted wisdom come out in the music, so I'm glad to also know you as an artist are congruent with the music you create. You acknowledge the times we live in and you encourage us to lean in with the goodness that we can into these dark moments. 

Laura: First of all I just want to say thank you, because that is what I wanted to do. In a way, the title Be Here Now relates to a certain Zen Buddhism. I listen to a lot of Pema Chodron. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with her, but she’s a Buddhist nun. She gives a lot of talks and lectures, and she has written a lot of books. She’s great. She talks a lot about emotions. When you’re meditating, you let each thought come and go and you just say, 'Oh this is a thought. This is thinking. Oh, I see that thing.'

I wanted to do that even with the emotions of each song. So in a way, I guess I was kind of thinking of it like each song has a very specific emotion. There’s hopefulness and there’s anger, like "Witch Wolf" is so angry. Each song is almost each color of the rainbow. It’s the spectrum in the emotional rainbow. But outside of that, there is that consciousness that is looking at it. So when you say rooted wisdom, to me, I wanted it to feel rooted or to feel like there was like either a rootedness or an omnipotence of it—a higher consciousness that was aware of each song being one singular moment, one singular emotion. 

Analogue: It does feel like that. I feel like art that directly relates to the times can be pretty rare. I was going to ask where that came from, but it sounds like some spiritual practice and awareness has been a part of that? 

Laura: Yeah, it has. And it’s funny that you mention what other music is out there right now. I have such a strange relationship to what’s happening out there. I get it. I get that a lot of what’s happening is happy love songs, pop songs, dance songs. There’s so much dance music right now. People just want to feel good. And I get that, because music can be escapism as well. But for me, these songs that are about really heavy, often political things, I also wanted them to feel like very likable pop songs. So I hope that people are taking that away from it as well. To me that’s the best way of really getting in and subverting the system. It’s like, 'Ha! You were humming along to this thing even though you don’t know what I just did there.'

I do feel responsibility that part of my job, now that I have people’s attention, is not just to talk about whatever is going on for me, but it’s to help raise other people’s voices who might not otherwise be heard.

Analogue: Where do these songs come from? Are they a cathartic vehicle for dealing in the times in which you’re living, or is it more like, 'I’m an artist with a platform, so I’m going to use my gifts to say what needs to be said?'

Laura: It’s both, for sure. I mean for me, I needed to do it after the women’s march and after the inauguration, I was just like, 'I can’t believe this.' What I realized over the past few years that sometimes it takes awhile to become self-aware of why you do anything. I started writing songs, and music saved my life. I was a depressed teenager, and I needed music as an outlet to heal from a lot of things. So music is always healing. I feel like I’m always writing it as a means of therapy for mem, and sometimes I’m exorcising my own demons, and sometimes I’m channeling somebody else’s. 

I take very seriously my platform as an artist, of having a voice. For example, there’s the song "Hold On," which I wrote for refugees. I featured a choir of refugees from Omaha, Nebraska. And one of the things I’m doing right now is I have a GoFundMe account that just launched. It’s as much for me as it was about wanting to lift up refugee voices. 

I recognize I am a white woman, so I am a person of privilege to some extent. So I do feel responsibility that part of my job, now that I have people’s attention, is not just to talk about whatever is going on for me, but it’s to help raise other people’s voices who might not otherwise be heard. And that’s exciting work. That’s really exciting to me. So when you talk about technology changing or the industry changing, I think, 'Oh god, does anybody care anymore to listen to my music?' But then I think, 'Well, you know, this many people are listening to my music, so I’m going to help this choir of refugees make their first record so somebody can hear their stories.' Because that’s worthwhile. 

Analogue: Have you ever gotten backlash on that, to stop being so serious or preachy or this or that?

Laura: Yeah, probably. I just ignore it. I do my best to build a bridge. That’s also, I think, really important work. So I’ll be preachy, but then I’m like, 'All right, what are the things that can bring us together? Let’s focus on that.' To be honest, I wish I was more fun-loving. I think I probably would sleep better at night, at least if I made dance music, because I probably would just be happier. But I just can’t read the newspaper, just walk around in the world and feel like I should just get to enjoy my life without recognizing that there’s some shit that needs to be fixed, and maybe we could do something about it. 

Analogue: You mentioned starting to tour these songs for the first time. Do you have an idea of what else is on the horizon for you?

Laura: I don’t. I would love to dive back into something. This was one of those years and albums where I was like, 'Do I just quit? Do I quit music? I’ve had a really good run, and I’m happy and there are other people making music. Do we need more music?' I realized I will always make music, of course. I love it, like I said, and it’s therapy for me. I’m grateful when somebody else listens and it’s therapy for them, too. Or just enjoyment. If someone else is having a dance or making out with someone, good. That’s great. 

So I have a couple ideas. I always have a couple ideas. I’ve been talking about wanting to make a makeout record, which I think would be really fun—kind of like My Bloody Valentine meets Portishead. I don’t know. I kind of flow through records, and I kind of think throwing some more love out into the world would be good. I don’t know. I’ve talked about doing a stripped-down record of select songs of mine. Because you know I toured last year solo, and it was really a nice thing. It’s kind of a weird compliment when someone’s like, 'We loved hearing you solo, and then we heard your records, and we wished that your records sounded like you playing the piano solo.' And you’re like, 'Oh. Thanks?' So yeah, I don’t really know, I guess. It’s like the same amount of uncertainty in the world is within oneself.