I was amazed to get the message that Laura Burhenn would be walking towards me from the studios of NPR, a two mile trek in the blazing and nearly shadeless concrete of Washington, D.C.’s NW corridor to Cafe St. Ex. While she writes about surviving the smoke screens and the pipe dreams on the Mynabirds debut record What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, this was a day where it was too hot to blink without feeling that your eyes were coated with sandpaper. It seemed unlikely that even someone who loves this city as much as Ms. Burhenn does could make it and sure enough they needed to call a cab to finish the distance. I made sure to be waiting with a glass of water, a little guilty at my own comfort but anxious to make her exhausting homecoming a little more at ease.

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There’s something I’ve always wanted to try in an interview and you’re the first example so I’m really excited about it.

All right.

Something I’ve never quite liked is that no one ever listens to music during a music interview, so I was wondering if you’d like to listen to this song that I polled some other people about playing for you?

Sure. Don’t I get any preference about what it is?

Well, we picked one.

As in just a random songs?

Well there were a few contenders and we got one.

(laughs a little) I feel like a guinea pig

(plays “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin)

I love this song it’s one of my favorites. So do I keep listening to it?

If you’d like to; it’s an experiment.

Aretha! (put her fist in the air and the song is stopped halfway through)

So did you listen to a lot of Aretha Franklin when you were young?

I feel like I was raised on a lot of radio hits, so I definitely had a greatest hits of Aretha.

Was this song on there?

I feel like it must be. It’s one of her better known songs.

From Young, Gifted and Black.

Yeah.

A very, very great record.

Yeah.

There’s a wonderful cover of “The Long and Winding Road” on there. Have you heard that?

No.

It’s really great, you could listen to it afterward if you want after we’re done

Yeah, sure.

I actually saw your Twitter feed just before I left today and you were listening to the 50 Greatest Television Hits ?

(laughs) Yeah. We have been operating on three hours sleep. We played Cleveland last night. In order to get to D.C. for Tiny Desk Concert at NPR with Bob Boilen we had to leave… well we basically had to get here by noon. So we ended up at Pittsburgh for three hours of sleep and back on the road and at about nine or 10 in the morning we needed something fun.

Was that the first time you’ve been to NPR?

No, actually I was there with Georgie James a few years ago. We did Project Songs, a really amazing thing we did. And our episode actually was nominated for an Emmy which was amazing because I don’t know that I’ll ever be involved with anything that was nominated for an Emmy again which was a really amazing honor to be a part of it.

What was a favorite song you had of the TV songs from the disc?

Of the ones we were listening to?

Yeah

Um, there are so many and it’s funny. I was laughing because with “The Brady Bunch” theme song, I never thought about the fact that it was composed by someone. The way they ran it with the credits, it makes feel like a song that maybe they wrote that on an episode where the Brady Bunch started a family band…

Like The Partridge Family?

Right, exactly. So that’s not my favorite. Actually, I really loved “The Cosby Show” theme. Hearing it without the credits, as a piece of music, it was really beautiful.

The credits were really distracting because there were different ones every season. So this was the first time you got to hear it without the visual?

Right exactly. You know, I was asking if Bobby McFerrin performed it, but he wasn’t involved as a writer and we didn’t know the answer even though we had an iPhone. I didn’t look it up. Maybe I should look it up right now.

I don’t think he was but if you want to look it up…

(laughs) Maybe later.

Was “Twin Peaks” on there?

No.

I was curious because the first time I heard of a mynah bird was that it was a major plot point on the show.

And you know I’m sad to say I don’t know “Twin Peaks” at all. I really like David Lynch but I don’t know any of it.

On your record it seems like there are a lot of colloquial phrases on there; phrases that elicit common knowledge among people and common sayings. Are you very fond of those or if you think about them at all?

I mean, I definitely think about them. On “Let the Record Go” I like the idea of turning that phrase on its head. Not “Let the Record Go” but “Let the Record Show.” The idea of two people arguing a case and does it matter? Who cares about the record? Let’s just let it go and not show anything.

So you think about it?

Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to use things that were easy on this record, I didn’t want to use anything that was necessarily brand new. I wanted it to seem old and familiar. Sort of like old jazz lyrics or the title of the record, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood. Something that sounds like an old proverb.

Do you remember the first time you heard someone say it?

No one has said it that I know of.

I was wondering if you had heard it and I hadn’t.

No. It’s a saying that I thought of when I was writing the lead track and I thought, “Wow, I really like that. I wonder if it was something I stole from somewhere.” I was wondering if it was something I heard in a conversation or read on a fortune cookie, something like that. But I did some research and didn’t find it anywhere.

I don’t know if you’ve heard about this but you got a really great review from Christianity Today.

I did?

You did. You got five out of five, what looks like, little Pac-Man pellets. There’s a line in this review I was curious about: “the album title gives away the major themes of the Mynabirds debut–the ache of loss and confidence in restoration.” I was wondering what you thought about that.

I didn’t know I got a review in Christianity Today. Hm, that’s interesting. It’s funny. I grew up in a really conservative Christian household and actually stopped going to church when I was 13 when the pastor got up in front of the congregation and said, “There had been some homosexuals at the church the week before, and I just want everyone to know that it’s not accepted and they’re not welcome here.” I thought, what I remember about all my childhood teachings and Sunday school is that “God is love.” So I quit going. And when I thought about this record, I wanted to make something that was more about common universal experience. It’s sort of like everyone knows what it feels like to lose someone really important to them and want to come back from the depths of that loss. And different people have different ways of coping for sure. But I’m certainly not going to judge anyone’s means, you know? So I think, in my mind it’s better to focus on the things that connect us than divide us. I guess that’s how I would answer that question.

It’s little funny because they’re the good cop of the evangelical movement. They use very soft language. While someone like I guess Pat Robertson would be the bad cop. Did you read their piece on Jennifer Knapp?

Who’s that ?

She’s a prominent Christian folk star.

Is she the country star who’s on the cover of Out this month ?

Yeah. She got interviewed by Christianity Today beforehand.

That’s interesting. I’d be interested to know exactly what they’re doing. I think at the heart of a lot of things there’s a really good seed you know? Jesus, for example, had a lot of great teachings, and was trying to change the way people do things. And then it’s really what people did with his legacy after the fact where wars get fought in the name of God and religion and it’s unfortunate.

Going to something you said a little bit before, what’s striking is that it’s a very big record in some ways. And some of these songs feel very anthemic in a way. Are you interested in writing large songs with a very big scope to them?

Sometimes. With this record I definitely was. I had been thinking a lot about collective conscientiousness and the things that sort of connect us. Ideas like the title of the record, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, and where does that come from. Did I think of it on my own? I mean I’m sure that I did but it’s more of a universal feeling.

Do you remember listening to the record for the first time?

Yeah. This record?

Yes.

Yeah, I remember going home from the recording sessions, the first recording sessions in Oregon, and we had six songs on it I think. I thought, “Ok, I’m in a good place, I’m doing something good.” At that point they weren’t finished and they weren’t mixed and everything you hear something I have to put it down. I’m proud of what it is and what it was but I don’t want to judge it anymore.

So have you listened to it after that?

Mmhmm. A few times after that.

Has your impression changed from that first time to today?

I don’t think my impression of it has changed. It’s interesting to me on some other people’s impressions have changed. I just wanted to make something that felt real and honest and sort of down to earth and simple. I didn’t want to make something that felt complicated at all. I mean I was probably more involved in it lyrically as trying to write a story and craft something whole, rather than craft individual songs. But I didn’t want that to get in the way of the simplicity of it all. So, I feel like there are some pieces of it that I was critical of with when I started it. And then when I heard other people’s responses and became less critical.

Were there any leftover songs from those session? I know with debut records sometimes there are things that don’t make the cut.

Yeah, I cut two songs, there were 12 total. I’ll probably release them as B-sides. But for the most part I started writing this record from scratch and the two that I cut were older songs that I felt like lyrically there was a little more going on with them. They didn’t have that easiness going on with them like old jazz lyrics or something like that.

What was the last time you were in D.C.?

I was here over Easter. I think. No…is that right? I wasn’t here for the holiday, I didn’t even realize it was Easter weekend. I had to go to New York. I’ve had to go to New York a couple of times the first half of the year and it ends up being cheaper to fly to New York and fly home from D.C. So I took the bus and the train which was lovely. It was good to see my friends and my family. I was here for the blizzard. The train doors were freezing shut on the way down.

Did you get a chance to catch any of the snowball fight?

No, I missed it. I was really sad. I heard about it.

Did you see any of the Snowpocalypse T-shirts?

I didn’t see any of those.

A couple of those still linger around.

Really? I’d like to see someone outside in one right now. Maybe just looking at someone with it would be refreshing.

I think someone who purchased the domain name for it around here but I forget what’s up there now. What do you think the difference is between leading a band in Omaha and being in a band in D.C.?

It’s a lot easier in Omaha, because the cost of living is lower and it’s a lot more affordable and so there are a lot of working musicians around there and just people who are involved with a bunch of different bands. Like Dan McCarthy, who plays bass with us right now, he has his own band called McCarthy Trenching and he’s toured with just about everybody. He’s toured with Bright Eyes, Shudder to Think, Art in Manila and just a bunch of different bands. So it’s kind of nice, people just help each other in their own bands. It reminds me of These United States in D.C. When they got started it was more like a collective of musicians. There was the whole Federal Reserve which got together at Iota once a month.

It’s interesting because These United States have several home bases. I know they play Denver an awful lot. I think also Louisville.

Yeah, two of the guys are from Louisville, Kentucky. I think they just end up in Denver a lot.

Is gin and tonic your drink?

No, that’s Jack and coke, but it’s too early in the day. I really wanted the Mine Nut Bird: Maker’s Mark, mint, bourbon, sugar, soda water. That sounded good to me but I’m glad they didn’t have the mint. Coming off of three hours sleep at 3:30 in the afternoon, a bunch of bourbon might not be good but gin is a good summer drink.

I understand you do some writing. Have you ever thought about bringing it to a publisher?

I’ve never done anything as formal as that. I’ve written a fair amount of poetry but, to me, poetry is a very serious craft. I feel like ever since Jewel released that poetry book… (starts laughing)

That was a very long time ago, maybe people have moved on.

I know. And maybe it depends on what the writing is and what the musicians going to release….

There’s a bad history there. There’s Billy Corgan’s poetry book.

I haven’t read that. And I’m sorry even Jim Morrison’s poetry book, even that wasn’t for me.

Oh you don’t have to be sorry.

I’m not sorry, I just didn’t want to, you know, if it’s someone’s favorite book I don’t want to take that away from anybody. But not really my favorite thing. In this record I took really few ingredients but I referenced some Wallace Stevens, Skipwith Cannell and some Elizabeth Bishop. Actual, real poets where that’s their craft and their art. So I really hesitate that I’m necessarily a writer. If I weren’t doing music I’d do writing. I’d love to teach. Creative writing is the best thing that ever happened to me as an 8th grader. I think it’s nice that there are some teachers out there who give kids an outlet to write exactly what’s on there mind regardless of how dark it is. The people trying to say, “Oh you can’t say that, you can’t think that, it’s bad.”

Have you read any Willa Cather?

I haven’t.

I asked because you live in Omaha now and I know she spent a very long time there.

No I haven’t. Stan, who’s in the band, and I are in the same book club. And so, I feel like I’m not as voracious a reader as I wish I was. So, some of the classics in the literary canon I haven’t got to yet. That was my aim with the book club, they go for the books I haven’t read yet.

I can recommended O Pioneers! pretty solidly. The prose is easy and you go through pages very quickly.

That is for my book list. I’m sure I’ve heard Young, Gifted, and Black. How can you not you know?

It has “Brand New Me” on it. Did you hear that one?

It’s so funny. I actually just wrote this piece with Vinyl District and when I get asked about favorite records and writers my mind goes totally blank. I’m sort of the person who goes home and put records on or to be in the car and put my iPod on shuffle and just let the songs surprise me.

Is it kind of an involuntary motion?

In a sense. I’ll definitely sit down and think about records and get into it for sure. But I feel like there are a lot records and songs that you soak up by being around other people. Something may not be part of your record collection but if you’ve been around someone who owns it and out it on a lot, there’s something really wonderful about that. The thing I wrote for Vinyl District is that I loved used records and a lot of records have been collections that I’ve gotten from someone else. Like my mom’s 45s. I’m not just soaking up the songs but that person and their history.

Have you ever listened to a piece of music and it’s caused you to take a certain action in your career or your life? Has it ever informed a decision?

That’s a really great question. I mean, I feel like that’s a tricky one because we’re getting into Tipper Gore territory right (starts laughing)?

A little bit.

Like have I ever listened to an angry punk song and ran my car into someone else’s… (laughs again). There are certainly some political songs that have me asking “what am I doing with my life” or “what should I be doing with my life.” Should I be doing more? Those for sure. I think on a basic physical level you know? I was listening to Brian Eno the other day, I was listening to my iPod on shuffle and it came to Brian Eno and I was thinking, “I want to dance right now!”

Which record was it?

It was Taking Tiger Mountain. I know most people don’t think Brian Eno is necessarily dance music, but it was really good and I wanted to have a dance party at my kitchen in that moment.

Are there a lot of opportunities to dance in Omaha?

There aren’t as many as in D.C., for sure. Some friends of mine, one of the guys from the Faint and Derek from Tilly and the Wall and Flower Forever, they have this party called Goo and it’s a pretty awesome dance party. They have different themes so, I think they do it once a month, so last time I can think of it was coup d’etat. There are a lot of late night parties at people’s houses and bars close at one. It’s a lot of fun and not organized. Just people playing records in a room.

by Neal Fersko
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