Interview | The Mynabirds: “The true revolutionists get their hands dirty!”

Photo by Shervin Lainez

I’ve been a Mynabirds fan since the band’s inception, doting on singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn more than sporadically on this here blog. I’ll keep this interview introduction simple: after talking with her, I think I’m in love. A whip-smart, creative, grounded/groundbreaking woman is, of course, not an anomaly, but I still feel the buzz of my recharged battery every time I encounter one, in any capacity.

And guess what, Saint Louis? The Mynabirds are coming to The Firebird this Sunday, July 1st, so we can all go get zapped by Burhenn’s unavoidable electricity in person. Tickets are available here. In the meantime, listen to former Jams of the Day, “Numbers Don’t Lie,” “Generals,” and “Body of Work.”

Congrats on the new album! It sounds fantastic. And, the concept of GENERALS – a politically charged protest album – definitely shines through, both lyrically and musically. Talk to us a little bit about this idea. How did it come about?

Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying the new record. Well, the concept was one that had been brewing in my subconscious for nearly a decade. Living in DC from before September 11th and over the course of America starting to wage war against the whole wide world in the name of protecting us from terrorism (and all the while bankrupting us literally and figuratively) — our recent history has been infuriating to me. And then having lived with it for so long, I realized one day I’d become numb. It’s easy to forget what life was like over the hum of fun-loving pop songs and blockbuster movies. Not that it’s all roses on the radio or on our TV sets, and sure there’s nothing wrong with being entertained. But this realization absolutely hit me one day — for kids in high school, college — this is all they’ve ever known. This is their America.

So, it was imperative for me to address that — the world in which we live in, and the world in which we CAN live in. It’s a dreamer’s album, ultimately, full of hope and promise (just like America). But before I got myself back awake to my idealism, I had to remember what was wrong around me, I had to allow myself to really get angry. And then I needed to do something with that anger — transform it into useful energy to, really, as Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” There’s probably a more straightforward answer to this question, but that’s the gist of where the concept came from.

The percussion on the record really emphasizes this idea of this revolutionary battle cry. What other elements did you incorporate to help establish the GENERALS concept?

Well, there’s definitely a lot of rhythm, as you mentioned. I wanted it to feel like an army of percussion, a lot of it layers upon layers of actual human stomping and clapping, which was a very conscious effort to bring the listener into the movement. Just stomping or clapping along to the beat brings you into the ranks of the revolution. It’s a powerful thing, raising our voices together, joining our bodies in rhythm — our hearts ARE beating drums.

Beyond that, there are a lot of animals throughout — wolves, buffalo, wild horses, bucks, blackbirds, birds of prey and even doves of peace (in the b-side “Fallen Doves”). I watched this NOVA documentary on dreams (you can still stream it on Netflix, I think) and they talk about how, as children, our dreams often involve wild animals — trying to escape them, tame them, hunt them — because we’re still primal beings at that time; it’s a reflection of evolutionary biology.

As we get older and more assimilated into the modern world, our dreams involve more modern problems like technology — the inability to get a cell phone to dial when you’ve got a real emergency on your hands, for example (I can’t be the only person to have had that nightmare). So, part of using the animals symbolically was to bring us back to our basic, primal selves; the other reason was to harken back to our mythologies, the way we formulate and tell our history throughout generations. I was definitely thinking of Native America, shamanistic ceremonies to help awaken and cleanse us spiritually.

Your portrait project, The New Revolutionists, is sort of an extension of GENERALS in that it promotes and congratulates revolutionary women. How did you come up with this project?

The album’s title GENERALS was inspired by Richard Avedon’s photo, Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I saw that photo in the Corcoran in DC in an exhibit of his work called “Portraits of Power” back in 2008. The women in the photo — in their starched satin gowns, tiaras and sashes, clean white satin gloves stretching up to their elbows — they seemed to be exactly the opposite of what I would expect revolutionary American women to look like. The true revolutionists get their hands dirty! So, I thought it would be perfect to use this concept for the album art: women who are revolutionaries in their own right (whether they’re making headlines or not) photographed in this classic, black and white Avedon style. But the twist is that they’re actually posing for “warrior portraits” — the image of that woman the instant before she’d go into a metaphoric battle for everything she believes in.

Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution by Richard Avedon

Who were the first women to be photographed? 

The first round of photographs were shot by Shervin Lainez in NYC when we shot the album cover and included Amy Klein (one of the founders of the feminist group Permanent Wave, writer, musician, formerly of Titus Andronicus), Lagusta Yearwood (owner of Lagusta’s Luscious, a vegan chocolatier deeply committed to fair trade, organic, and animal-free bonbons that are so delicious they’ll make you swoon), and Lavinia Wright-Jones (writer, musician, and co-founder of The 78 Project). The second group of women were photographed in Omaha. The project has since spread out to include women from all over (mothers, teachers, artists, doctors, and even some amazingly notable women like Rosanne Cash and Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show). The nominations are open for anyone to make, and I invite people to nominate women in their own lives. I want this project to be as diverse and inclusive as the women all over doing their parts to change their corners of the world for the better.

I was an instant fan of the blue-eyed soul of What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood. If you were to think thematically about that album, how would you categorize it?

The last album was about loss and recovery, told from a mediative Zen perspective. You can feel that in the album’s title, I think, and definitely in the orchestration of the songs. Since that record was meant to comfort you in dark times, it needed to feel comforting — like a new friend you felt like you’d known forever.

What made you decide to change up the Mynabirds’ overall sound?

Since this new record is about protest, revolution, change, I felt like we needed to change up the sound to fit the subject matter. It was fun to experiment with different sounds and styles. Besides all that, I like to keep you guessing. I knew it’d be a risk to try something new, but I’m into pleasant surprises. Hopefully other people are, too.

Finally, you’re coming to Saint Louis on 7/1. We’re so excited to see The Mynabirds live. What can fans expect?

Expect to dance! We’ve been having a lot of fun with the new live show. We’re borrowing stomp boxes from Tilly and the Wall and have incorporated some samplers and a whole lot of percussion into the songs. We’ll play both new and old songs. If you’ve got any requests, let us know!

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