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The Weekly Interview: Laura Burhenn brings her Mynabirds to town

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Chris Bitonti

When did you last play Las Vegas? I think the last time was with Bright Eyes in 2011. Oh no, wait, Postal Service played Las Vegas [in 2013]. What’s funny is that the Bright Eyes show was much more memorable; no offense to the Postal Service, it’s just that we were on the roof and on the Strip and you look up [at the video marquee] and there you are, 50-feet tall, which is pretty cool It’s as Vegas as it gets (laughs).

Between 2011’s Generals and August’s Lovers Know, you did a ton of traveling all over the world. Do you think that colored the songwriting on the new album? It definitely affected it, but it’s hard to know which came first. It’s funny, one of the first things I ever put out was a solo album called Wanderlust. I self-released that on my own record label when I was living in D.C., and as I’ve gotten older I think that’s just deeply who I am as a person—there’s a lot of wanderlust, I’m an adventurous soul. Generals was very much an album about knowing, about being self-assured and feeling empowered. Then I went on The Postal Service tour, and that was just so much fun. It was like a victory lap. They were celebrating this record that they made as a side project, and the fact that it became so widely popular was kind of like icing on each of their cakes.

So when I came off that tour I felt like I was riding this high, and I got back to my home in Omaha and thought, what am I gonna do next? Then the relationship that I had been in for six years started unexpectedly dissolving, and I suddenly felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. So I just started traveling, I didn’t know what else to do.

When you’re on a bus tour with a big band like The Postal Service, you don’t really feel the road. You kind of feel like you’ve been teleported to each city—you just wake up in the next place. So when I got off that tour I started feeling totally lost, and driving was a way to either feel more lost or to hopefully, eventually find myself.

Playing with other bands will make you rethink songs in general—melodies, the way things are put together lyrically or as far as the chords or structure goes. Being on the road influenced what I was writing, but it was kind of my need for being on the road that mostly influenced it.

Listening to the album there are recurring themes about love coming to an end, couples growing apart or even just overall regret. I really tried to write in a more open and vulnerable and honest way than I ever have before. I come from a literary background—I’ve got a degree in literature, and I love good writing. I was kind of writing as we were recording, and I would come to the producer Bradley [Hanan Carter] and say, “What do you think about these lyrics?” and he would say, “Well that’s fine, but you’re hiding behind a metaphor.” He really challenged me to say exactly what I was feeling, and that to me was really difficult because I think that some of that writing can come off as trite or just sort of dumb and I’ve shied away from that. But I think if you’re writing a record of love songs it’s really important to say exactly what you mean.

I was listening to a lot of pop songs that I’ve liked over the years, like Sinead O’Connor singing a song that Prince wrote, “Nothing Compares to You”—that song is so simple, but it says way more. It describes the scene, and just singing it over and over again— “Nothing compares to you, nothing compares to you”—can be pretty powerful.

How much of your writing is inspiration-based like that versus grounded in music composition and knowledge or proper songwriting? It’s all inspiration (laughs). I studied composition, I studied classical music and theory, but I made peace with the fact that I was a songwriter and I was never going to be a great composer when I was about 18. I remember I played at this composers’ showcase when I was in college. I played a song that I wrote that probably had six chords in it, and the chair of the department was like, “That was an interesting choice, Laura. You chose to use so few chords and perform the piece yourself.” And I thought, who am I kidding? I’m a songwriter.

I think there’s a reason why some simple three- and four-chord progressions are so popular and have stood the test of time, because it just connects with people in a really deep and meaningful way.

I try not to write in front of the piano. I write a lot driving or walking the dog. I’ll just come up with melodies, then I’ll go back and try to figure out the chords later. That way I don’t get caught up in a spot of my brain knowing what the math should be.

A little over a year ago you moved from Omaha to LA. How has the West Coast transition been for you? It’s been different. I miss Omaha so much. I have deep, deep love for the city and the people there. It’s a real gem of a place, and the people are some of the best you can meet in the world, and I can say that after having traveled all over the place.

It was weird to come to LA in the middle of winter and write an album of heartbreak in the middle of a hot-as-hell drought (laughs). It’s sunny every day! That was a really strange thing. Luckily, I have a lot of great friends here; this city attracts loads of musicians, so it feels like a new home in that sense. It’s kind of a good challenge to go to a place where there’s so much emphasis on the business of music, to kind of dip your toes in but not get swept away in it. Because I don’t do well with falsities and bullsh*t (laughs).

The first time I was here I had a really interesting experience. I came to LA when I was 18 and I swore, “I’m never going back there; that place is terrible.” Then the more you visit, you realize it’s like any other city—there are good people anywhere you go, doing interesting things; it’s just a matter of finding them. I think there’s a really great community of musicians and artists doing really great things in this city, and actually they’re very supportive of each other.

Do you think not being holed up in the cold weather for a few months will affect your songwriting? Yeah, it’s harder to get things done, because it’s really easy to say, “You know I could just go to Malibu today.” The other day a friend had a birthday and her friend has a boat. I drove up to Paradise Cove and a dingy came and picked me up and we went swimming. It’s really hard to say no to things like that (laughs). I know I should be at home working on a tour budget, but what the hell—that tour budget will still be there.

I do miss the weather in Omaha, because some of the blizzards were the best. Nobody could drive anywhere, so it’d just be the friends who could walk to your house when it’s zero degrees, and you’d just make a pot of chili and hang out and play board games. who knows (laughs).

The Mynabirds with The Bad Bad Hats October 7, 9 p.m., $11-$12. The Sayers Club, 702-761-7618.

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