Mynabirds: General Malaise

Mynabirds heroine puts on war paint, takes garbage culture to task.

“Body Of Work” (download):

“She knows, she knows,” sighs Laura Burhenn. She’s heard it all before. “A lot of people get pissed off when artists or musicians want to talk about politics, or want to talk about something real—they just don’t like it,” she says. But a funny thing happened when she temporarily joined the Bright Eyes touring band a year ago, on keyboards, percussion and backing vocals. Whenever frontman Conor Oberst would punctuate his tunes with a left-minded rant, sure, a couple of crowd members would tell him to shut up and just sing his song. But mostly, the reaction to his staunch opinions was resounding applause. And she found this incredibly inspiring.

Flash forward and the 32-year-old Burhenn has gained enough confidence to unleash her own torrent of green-minded, anti-corporate, pro-Occupy Wall Street views. An entire album’s worth, in fact, on Generals (Saddle Creek), her sonically adventurous sophomore outing as one-woman band the Mynabirds. In her previous incarnations as a solo artist and part of Washington, D.C., folk/rock duo Georgia James—and even on her soulful 2010 Mynabirds debut, What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood—the closet activist played it relatively safe. But now? She’s mad as hell, and she’s not going to take it anymore.

Musically, the Richard Swift-produced Generals pushes the Mynabirds envelope by tapping into some of Burhenn’s favorite edgy rock masterpieces, like David Bowie’s Low and PJ Harvey’s Rid Of Me, plus the grittier work of Patti Smith, Nina Simone and Talking Heads. It’s awash in waves of spectral synths, barrelhouse piano, rockabilly guitar, jungle-tribe percussion and the singer’s rich, layered trill. Lyrically, however, it echoes Mike Judge’s prescient film Idiocracy, Daniel Quinn’s definitive Ishmael novel and even Native American mythology to suggest that mankind, in its arrogance in thinking it’s the end product of evolution, might have doomed itself to extinction. And the end isn’t too far away.

“‘Disheartening’ isn’t even a strong enough word for it,” growls Burhenn on the state of today’s shallow, greed-driven society. “And it’s just like, well, what can you do in the face of all this? Is it too late? And maybe it is. But that’s kind of where I started my record, by posing a question. And the first question I asked in the very first song, ‘Karma Debt,’ is, ‘What is my role as a musician? And even if I sing my lungs out about this, is it going to make a difference?’ And what it comes to is that bridge in the song: ‘I’d give it all for a legacy of love.’ So, it was all very personal to me, and it breaks my heart and makes me want to do something.”

Climate-change deniers who not only ignore science, but actively fight against it. The blatantly ignorant refusal to accept any kind of universal health care, simply because Obama’s touting it. The surreptitious, and almost prehistoric, war on women being waged by the increasingly conservative right. Vacuous, self-obsessed female celebrities like Snooki and the Kardashian sisters being offered as role models for young girls. Burhenn has so many pet peeves, she doesn’t know where to begin.

“And don’t even get me started on campaign financing—I will blow a fuse,” she hisses. “I started looking at the statistics of how much money the Republican candidates had spent on their campaigns so far this year, and I had to stop because I was getting so mad—it’s millions and millions of dollars. It’s repulsive, just disgusting to see where we as a society put our money and energy.”

Burhenn was raised Pentecostal, but in a matriarchal clan of strong-willed women, she says. As a kid, she was always told that her great-grandfather on her mother’s side was pure Blackfeet Indian, so she grew up feeling more in touch with the land and aware of her steward-serious relationship to it. Now, having moved to the Bright Eyes HQ of Omaha, she’s even more connected. “Living in the plains and being closer to where the Blackfeet tribe has been located historically, it really made me think in those terms,” she says. “How the elders are respected and admired in Native American culture, and how things for the tribe are done for very specific reasons, like the seventh-generation rule.”

This manifested itself in treatises like “Wolf Mother,” “Buffalo Flower” and “Mightier Than The Sword.” On closing ’60s-retro piano stroll “Greatest Revenge,” Burhenn mourns for “we American sheep,” victims of their own “American greed,” then reprises her “legacy of love” “Karma Debt” mantra. “I tried to pull in a lot of images of animals,” she explains. “I was watching this Nova documentary on dreams, and they were talking about how when you’re a child, you dream in this very visceral imagery that’s about survival, so you’ll dream about animals and beasts hunting you down. So, I wanted Generals to feel very primal, with a lot of magical animals on the record.”

Burhenn even had herself photographed in a fierce animal headdress for the disc. “It was based on the idea of a Native American warrior portrait,” she says. “I wanted it to be an image of how I’d look right before going into a metaphoric battle for everything I believe in.” She was also moved by Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf’s latest “handbook for American revolutionaries,” Give Me Liberty, as well as Gloria Steinem’s Revolution From Within. “It’s not about shouting in the streets,” she says. “It’s more about feeling empowered within yourself, feeling like you have some self-worth. I think that’s part of being able to be a revolutionary.”

Can protest singers successfully state their case in this self-entitled, instant-gratification era? Or can we stop texting long enough to actually pick up on what the Mynabirds are putting down? Burhenn hopes so. And she also believes in starting locally. Last year, she and some other female musicians launched the Omaha Girls Rock Camp. The women, she recalls, “were like, ‘You know what? We don’t know what else we can do, so we’re gonna teach some little girls how to play some guitars and how to write some kickass rock songs!’ And it really brought the community together, and it really is making a difference. So, there are larger acts of revolution, and I tend to get myself involved in a lot of those. But it’s the neighborly acts of kindness and love that are often the most revolutionary.”

To that end, the Mynabirds maestro has also initiated on ongoing portrait project called the New Revolutionists, wherein fans are invited to submit photos for consideration of gals who’ve made a real difference in their respective fields. “Being involved in the Girls Rock camp, I started thinking about all the women around me who are really inspirational, and who fight their own battles every day,” she says. “Some of them you read about in the headlines, other women you would never even know about. So, I wanted there to be a yearbook of sorts, where there are all these women who are beautiful and strong and powerful—a contrast to all these women you see in the tabloid magazines. We just shot Kathy Valentine from the Go-Go’s, who was nominated by Rosanne Cash. So, I can’t wait to see how this grows.”

Tom Lanham