We love it when local D.C. gals make it big — even if they have to move to Omaha to do it. That's exactly what songstress Laura Burhenn did, making the move to Nebraska after spending nearly 10 years in D.C. as a musician, including a stint in the beloved band Georgie James. Since her move to indie label Saddle Creek Records, she's been busy starting a new band, The Mynabirds, and touring around the world with Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes. Now, Burhenn's on the road again to support the Mynabirds' critically lauded sophomore album, Generals, a listen-on-repeat record that shows off both her impressive pipes and political activism. We caught up with this jill-of-all-trades to talk about her inspiring take on girl power, her favorite local vintage haunts, and her D.C. besties. Listen to the foot-stomping single "Generals" here, and read on for a sneak peek of what to expect at the Black Cat on Friday, when The Mynabirds open for AC Newman.
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Burhenn/DP Muller
We hear that the new album was inspired by a trip to the Corcoran — tell us about that.
"It's funny — over time, I realized how much this is a very D.C. record to me. I grew up in western Maryland and lived in D.C. for over a decade. Back in 2008, I was in the Corcoran for the Richard Avedon exhibit called Portraits of Power, and one of those was the portrait 'Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution.' The title just struck me, since you would imagine a totally different image for that title. Instead of satin gowns and pristine gloves and tiaras and sashes, I imagined the women in America who are truly revolutionary. They're not usually done up like that. They get their hands dirty."
The title track "Generals" sounds like a call to battle, one that you can dance to. Is that what you imagined for this album? A political/conceptual album that's still fun and danceable?
"Absolutely. I always come back to this quote by Emma Goldman, where she says, 'If I can't dance, I don't want your revolution.' I feel like the idea of revolution and change is often so dark. In my mind, I feel like there's a lot of positive revolution going on, where people are taking their own corners of America's community and their backyard, and just making it right. It's not complaining — it's standing up and doing something about it. I really wanted to honor that. In my way, it's like 'whistle while you work.' I wanted to write songs that are like, 'dance while you are getting it done.'"
Your portrait project, The New Revolutionists, is a compendium of modern-day kick-ass women. Is feminism an important theme in your work?
"It very much is. It was something I wanted to pay tribute to — all of the women that I grew up with and admired. I feel like we are in this moment, this zeitgeist of female power. I feel like the Riot Grrl movement has this real resurgence. You have great bands like Wild Flag — some of the members were around in the original Riot Grrl movement, and it's great to see them still going strong, doing awesome things, and making great work. And, obviously, Free Pussy Riot — that was a worldwide cry for treating women equally. We recognize that in America we have things pretty good, [but] there's still a lot of inequality, and [the] inequality that women endure around the world is still a real issue. That said, I've always been inspired by women who just get it done, not necessarily [drawing] attention to themselves — they just do it. And that was what I really wanted to honor in the New Revolutionists photo project. Those portraits, shot in a Richard Avedon-style. Some of them are women you recognize, and some of them are women you don't know. That's the idea — that there are women everywhere just getting stuff done."
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Burhenn/DP Muller
Is there a bit of '60s girl-group influence on the new Mynabirds album?
"I loves '60s girl groups, R&B, the idea of three-part harmonies. There's, like, echoes of gospel and blues. That kind of stuff runs in my blood. Even if I'm trying to write a pop dance song like 'Disarm,' I feel like there's always going to be a choir of 'umms' somewhere. I do a lot of hand claps."
You can't go wrong with hand claps! So, you lived for a decade in D.C. — does the Black Cat feel like home to you?
"Every time I'm back at the Black Cat, I'm very, very happy. It's awesome to go back to the club that's your home base. I've toured around the country and the world, and it's one of the best clubs anywhere. Back in the day, when I was in a band called Georgie James, I remember playing the main stage at the Black Cat for the first time, which was really exciting. And getting to play the 9:30 club — the 9:30 Club is where I went to shows as a teenager. We would drive an hour and a half into D.C. [from western Maryland]. I think the first show I saw there was Beck, and it was amazing. To one day get to the point where you are playing that stage, you can't help but get giddy."
What do you like to do when you're back in D.C.? Any old familiar haunts?
"I lived all over D.C., but I end up in the Columbia Heights, U Street, Adams Morgan area. I love to get coffee at Tryst and check out what Mercedes Bien has in her vintage shop. I feel like every time I get close to D.C., I'm like, 'Who wants Ethiopian food?' And I'm really proud of Johnny Monis and his wife, Anne — I went to Little Serow for the first time over Christmas. To see them be so successful and keep coming up with great new ideas — it's really exciting to see my friends succeed. Also, Svetlana [Legetic] from Brightest Young Things — I feel like we were all sort of getting our start at the same time. My ties to D.C. are forever strong."
And how has working with Saddle Creek and touring with Bright Eyes influenced your sound?
"I feel really lucky to get to work with Saddle Creek. It's a really amazing label, especially at a time when I feel like the music industry is in such a state of flux. There really is a sense of family around that label. When Conor asked me to go on tour with Bright Eyes, it really felt like I was going on tour with my new family. Getting to play at all of the places we played around the world was pretty amazing. On one hand, it makes you realize how much further you have to go, and how much hard work goes into [being] a working musician on the road. On the other hand, it seems like it's more attainable."
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Burhenn/DP Muller
Can you tell us about your onstage fashion?
"For this tour, I decided that I wanted to go with something more costume-y. In general, I love to wear a mix of vintage, new, and thrifted. This season, I've been particularly inspired by Stevie Nicks. I'm really lucky — there's this designer in Omaha named Emma Erickson, and she's designed a couple of rompers for me to wear. One of them is white and has long cape arms. It's an honor to get to wear art every night on stage."
What's up with the fox headdress that you wear on stage?
"There's Native American influence in the album, and I started thinking a lot about headdresses, the idea of going into battle and preparing yourself to fight for everything you believe in, and this idea of spirit animals. I reached out online to see if anyone had any leads on headdresses. I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh, God, I'm a vegetarian. I probably shouldn't wear an animal head.' Luckily, I found this artist from Boston named Erin Shaw who makes beautiful, sculptural animal headdresses. She suggested making this fox headdress. I'm so honored to have the piece. It reminds me every night of why I make music, which is to fight for what I believe in, and to do what I can to make the world a better place. That might sound self-important or cheesy, but I think it's the most you can do, particularly when you're on a tour in a van going from city to city and not sleeping enough and not eating well. You remind yourself that you make this art to do and be better, and give back what you can."
Fill us in — someone tried to steal the fox headdress?
"Someone actually did steal the fox headdress! We were in Chicago, and I ran out the door after this kid who was really drunk. Long story short, our guitarist chased him down, and the police got involved. The thief got thrown in the back of the cruiser, cuffed. The fox headdress was recovered and no charges were pressed."
What do you do when you're not touring and playing music?
"I've gotten really into making geode necklaces. I'm wrapping geode slices in jewelry wire. I might actually sell them at the merch table. I hate typical merch — sure, we sell T-shirts, but with the last album, I thrifted a bunch of ties and scarves, and we silkscreened them with The Mynabirds logo. This tour, I've been looking for something really unique that doesn't say The Mynabirds on it. I think that's kind of cooler for band merch. To have something that says, 'Hey, that's really cool — where did you get that? Oh, I got that at The Mynabirds tour.'"
And what do you do to relax on the road?
"If I ever have a day off, I will find an art museum. There's nothing that recharges me more than going and walking around in silence to think about whatever. It's just very mediative. And inspiring. Who knows the next time I'm going to walk into an art museum and see a photograph or a painting that is going to inspire the whole next record that I write?"
Photo: Courtesy of Laura Burhenn/Shervin Lainez