Photo Credit: Courtesy of Abby Reutzel | Daily Texan Staff

Singer-songwriter Laura Burhenn began her music career by singing and playing keyboard for various bands in Washington, D.C. She started her own record label, Laboratory Records, at age 21 and is now the frontrunner of indie rock group The Mynabirds. The band released its first album, What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood, in 2010 and its sophomore album, GENERALS, in 2012. Burhenn has also toured with Bright Eyes and The Postal Service. 

After The Postal Service’s tour in 2013, Burhenn got in the car with her dog and hit the road again. She spent 2014 traveling across the country, twice, and touring solo in South Africa and Europe. She wrote music during her travels, and the result is a new Mynabirds album set to come out later this year. The Daily Texan spoke with Burhenn about her upcoming projects and South by Southwest performances.

The Daily Texan: The album GENERALS focuses a lot on the idea of revolution. What inspired you to create the album? 

Laura Burhenn: I was living in D.C. from ‘97 to 2008, and I was there on election night in 2008, and it just felt like a crazy time to live through in the life of America. I really just started feeling a lot of passion about wanting to make a positive change in the world around me. I started out making kind of a protest record, and I think you hear that in a song like “Generals.” 

DT: Do you have any new projects in the works?

LB: I’ve got a new record coming out this fall. I can’t wait for it. It’s a very different record from the last one. I was really inspired by what PJ Harvey once said in an interview — she said she makes every record with a different voice. I think that’s what I do with this record for sure. It’s a lot of love songs. I’m working on some sort of project to go along with the record as well. It’s going to be something like a small, stripped-down sort of experiential tour, where it’s getting away from just playing in clubs and instead going around to people’s living rooms and having those real human interactions.

DT: What would you say was the most memorable part about your experience traveling and writing by yourself this past year?

LB: I was really guided by this quote from William Faulkner. He said something like — and I feel like I’m going to ruin this — but he said something like, “You cannot swim towards new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” To me, I knew it was time to move into whatever the next phase of life was. It’s almost like you have to completely lose your faith in order to find it again.

DT: What do you want to motivate people to do through your music?

LB: The simple answer would be — and it might sound so cheesy — but I feel like when I wrote GENERALS, and I got to the end, I said the final answer is love. I was like, “Shit, I can’t say that. That’s so dumb.” But it’s true. I think if I could inspire anyone to do anything, it’s just to love more.

DT: What’s your writing process like?

LB: The last record I wrote a lot in the shower and while walking around and taking my dog hiking. I would say this record was kind of the same. I would get in the car and actually turn the stereo off, and it was like listening to whatever songs the road was metaphorically playing for me. I do a lot of writing away from the keyboard and any sort of influence like that.

DT: How many times have you been to SXSW?

LB: This will be my eighth year. I took two years off. It’ll be nice to come back after a couple years off. I’m going to be playing solo. It feels nice to come to SXSW because there are so many bands. I’m going to come and say, “Even though it’s crazy outside, right here, right now, it’s just going to be us.”

Editor’s note: Some answers were edited for length and clarity.

The Basement Tapes: Elaine Greer

Indie folk singer-songwriter Elaine Greer and her band will be playing at Hole in the Wall this Sunday.
Indie folk singer-songwriter Elaine Greer and her band will be playing at Hole in the Wall this Sunday.

Singer-songwriter Elaine Greer’s light, airy voice, winsome melodies and slight country twang has earned her serious critical praise in Houston: She was nominated in 2009 for Best Female Vocalist for the Houston Press Music Awards. Greer, now based in Austin, has also opened for The Fiery Furnaces, Tilly and the Wall and Tim Barry. Her first EP, Making Plans and Going Places, featuring a cleaner mix of her breathy vocals was released in 2009. Her debut album, Annotations, will be released on June 30 and she is setting out on an American cross-country tour in July.

Greer will be performing twice on Sunday at Hole in the Wall for the Follow that Bird! Tour Kickoff, once as the front-woman of her band and then with local band The Sour Notes. (See weekend recs)

The Texan interviewed Greer and fellow band member and UT alum, Yola Blake, about their upcoming tour, latest album, recent show at Free Press Summer Fest in Houston and choosing a new name for their band.

Daily Texan: I know you have been going solo for a while, has that changed?

Elaine Greer: I have two projects going on. One of them is my solo project. I'm playing with a new band with a new line-up of people here in Austin, including Yola. There's six of us so it is kind of a big band. Then I'm also in the band The Sour Notes. I used to be in it a while back and then I quit that band ‘cause I wanted to focus on solo stuff but now I'm with them again.

DT: So for your solo project, is the band's name going to remain "Elaine Greer?"

Greer: At this point, we've labored for hours trying to find a successful "and the 'name' " but no one can decide on anything yet.

DT: Are there any nouns standing out to you?

Greer: There's been some potential. Which one is your favorite?

Yola Blake: I don't know because we shot everything down. We did the "yellowbirds" for a while...

Greer: There was the "daylights." There was the “killer whales.” [laughs] There's been like a hundred thrown around by our friends, saying I've got it. Our drummer said the “magnets.” [laughs]

Blake: There's the “sapphires.”

Greer: And the “pickles.”

Blake: I like the “sapphires.”

Greer: Eh. I don't. [laughs] See, this is why we haven't decided. [laughs]

DT: So how was Summer Fest?

Greer: Summer Fest was hot. If I could describe it in one word it would be hot.

DT: Was it a lot different this year than last year?

Greer: I think it was. It was pretty different. I played the first year that they did it, and it was way different because they had only two stages that year and that was awesome, I thought, ‘cause they had a lot of local bands and that was what they were pushing. Now it has become a really huge thing with all of these bigger bands and all of the local bands kind of get pushed aside a little bit more. It is kind of a bummer. But it was fun, I guess. I just hate being hot. If I'm hot, I'm never happy.

DT: I've seen you play and sing during concerts with other local Houston bands such as the Wild Moccasins and the Young Mammals – even when they were the Dimes, what has that transition been like, being so known in Houston and moving to Austin?

Greer: It was really frustrating at first, because yeah, that scene was, you know, you go out and everyone is your friend. The Dimes, we played together since we were in high school and the Wild Moccasins and I had a lot of the same band members. So it was like one big collective family there. When I first moved here, it was kind of depressing because I was like I don’t know who to talk to, what to do, I don't know anyone here. So yeah, that was frustrating for me. We were talking about this earlier, ‘cause I'm so excited now ‘cause I have a lot of stuff going on. I think it just took a little bit longer to pick that up.

DT: What initially made you want to make that move?

Greer: There were a few factors. One of them was a relationship. Also, I've lived in Houston all of my life so being in that kind of place where you go to a bar and you know everyone there, I guess I didn't really like that so much? I kind of miss it sometimes, but at the time, it wasn't what I really wanted. I didn't know what steps to take and what to do. I guess I wanted to move somewhere that had a lot more opportunity and more bands. Austin has been so inspirational. I would say that the main parts of the move were more personal reasons.

DT: What was the inspiration behind Annotations?

Greer: Basically with the album, I started writing songs whenever I was transitioning from Houston to Austin, so there's a common element to those songs, that feeling of feeling displaced and lonely and being unfamiliar with your surroundings. They are all songs I wrote when I first moved to Austin. The name Annotations I came up with is ‘cause it just reminded me of annotations of things I think about in life. Like going through these day-to-day activities and these situations that are really awkward or weird or uncomfortable and it's my little side notes.

DT: So the band is going on tour in July, what are some of the cities you are just so ecstatic to visit and play?

Greer: New York is always exciting. We're going to be playing Providence, RI, which I heard is really cool. Chicago. We're playing in Akron, Ohio on the Fourth of July for the Fourth of July bash so that should be cool.

DT: What are you packing?

Blake: Oh my gosh, we were just talking about this.

Greer: I was like I think I'm just going to bring all summer dresses and just roll them up so I can like fit 12 in there. [laughs]

Blake: [laughs] I was like I guess I'll bring accessories so I can wear the same thing every day, dress it up.

Greer: Girly girls on tour is always hard.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen returns with his twelfth album, Old Ideas (Photo courtesy of Leonard Cohen).

“He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” begins Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home,” the opener for his latest release, Old Ideas. Talking to a fictionalized self, Cohen battles with his own thoughts and his desires to live a pure and personal life stifled by self-criticism. This is a world that Cohen is all too familiar with; embracing the bleak, but seeking redemption and insight along the way.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, 77, has endured a long and difficult journey, experiencing the pains of isolation and depression throughout his career. These themes, accompanied by ideas about sexuality, interpersonal relationships and others, came to fruition in Cohen’s 1967 musical debut, Songs of Leonard Cohen. “And you know, she’s half-crazy,” somberly croons Cohen in the album’s opener “Suzanne,” as the vast, atmospheric arrangements paint a vibrant picture that is unusual, yet absolutely compelling. Songs of Leonard Cohen foreshadowed Cohen’s inevitable success, serving as the introduction to a man of misery.

Old Ideas, Cohen’s first release since 2004’s Dear Heather, is a testament to the self; the acclaimed singer-songwriter portrays himself as a man still beaten down by his own internal emotions, an indicator that even with age, our minds still play tricks on us. For those unfamiliar with Cohen, “Going Home” serves as a beautifully dark introduction into Cohen’s world.

“He will speak these words of wisdom, like a sage, a man of vision,” explains Cohen. “Though he knows he’s really nothing, but the brief elaboration of a tube.” Such lines reveal Cohen’s psyche; there is a wanting to be this man of significance and importance, but his ambivalence stops him from becoming so.

Although the album flourishes with orchestral grandeur and beauty, it is Cohen’s lyrical content that makes Old Ideas so powerful. The poet turned singer-songwriter in distress is present throughout the album. “I’ve got no future, I know my days are few,” grimly croons Cohen with a rasp that is ghoulish and frightening, the lone warrior’s testimony resonating on top of bluesy keyboards and body-shaking vocal harmonies.

“Amen” is just as opaque, the dark crescendos and morose atmosphere acting as the sequel to Cohen’s memorable and euphoric “Hallelujah.” “Try me again when the angels are panting and scratching at the door to come in,” Cohen sings dryly, the lyrics providing a morbid illustration of judgment day, with Cohen observing in the distance.

As Leonard Cohen collaborator Jennifer Warnes once stated, Cohen’s music is “the place where God and sex and literature meet.” Old Ideas is proof of that, with the album’s title veiling its true importance. How Cohen manages to stay relevant is through his vulnerability; he questions himself and his beliefs, and he is brave enough to make statements that are cynical, but memorable.

Channeling his beginnings as a poet, Cohen makes the album easier to digest for both fans and new listeners as he addresses recurring themes such as love, desire, regret, suffering and others, that most listeners have endured at least once in their lives.

At the end of it all, “Show Me the Place” seems to sum up Cohen’s struggle perfectly: “Show me the place where suffering began,” sings Cohen, a question the self-deprecating singer-songwriter is still trying to find the answer to. Until that answer is discovered, we can only hope that Cohen remains in the median between light and darkness.

Printed on Tuesday, January 31, 2012 as: Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen releases 12th album