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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.

From left, directors Cooper Roberts and Ian Schwartz and cinematographer Pat Scola have been nominated for SXSW Best Music Video for the work they did on artist Mr Little Jeans’ “Good Mistake” music video.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ian Shwartz | Daily Texan Staff

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

Directors Ian Schwartz and Cooper Roberts’ music video for “Good Mistake” by Mr Little Jeans is nominated for SXSW’s Music Video Competition. Mr Little Jeans, the stage name of dance-pop singer-songwriter Monica Birkenes, released her debut album, Pocketknife, in 2014. The video premieres Tuesday at the Alamo Ritz Drafthouse. Before arriving to Austin, Schwartz and Cooper spoke with The Daily Texan for
a Q&A.   

The Daily Texan: How did you create the concept for the music video?

Ian Schwartz: It was a long time ago that we came up with this concept, but it was really open-ended from the record label. We were inspired by the lyrics. We knew we wanted it to totally have a darkness, and we came up with this trucker character. We wanted to see both sides of someone who’s a little bit tortured but somebody who we can see an emotional side of as well.

We had all of these meetings for the story and almost all the people that saw the video didn’t get it. They came up with their own interpretations. They had their own cool theories for what it was about. My mom had this theory it was about this serial killer who was dancing with the ghosts of his victims.

DT: Do you tell people what you intended it to mean, and does that impede on their own interpretation? Or do you just let them have their own story?

IS: It’s supposed to be an ambiguous narrative. It’s a fine line between something where people go, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make any sense,’ and something that people find intriguing and can add their own meaning to. That was our intention — to have this character not a lot of people have actual relatable experience to but somebody who has emotions and are in a place in their life that might be more universal. 

DT: The video takes place at a gas station. Were you allowed to just take it over?

Cooper Roberts: We searched all over southern California looking for the right truck stop; the stop in Victorville was the winner.

IS: Yeah, I think we went to every truck stop within a 60-mile radius over a week. The location was really important because most would be set there, and we wanted to find a place in the middle of nowhere without a ton of light around it.

DT: Tell me about the final scene with the trucker and the woman sitting in the front seat of the 18-wheeler.

IS: Yeah, that was an emotional scene. I mean, those women are supposed to be truck-stop prostitutes called “lot lizards.” But we wanted to subvert the idea and make them more like motherly figures to him. It was kinda a tender moment with the “lot lizard,” I guess.

DT: What are you looking forward to in Austin? 

IS: I think the last year, we tried to get into a lot of music showcases, but it’s really hard. This year, we were saying we’re going to try and see more films if possible, which is also hard. It’s really hard to get into things at SXSW — even if you win an award. We talked about going on a little one-day trip somewhere, maybe going fishing.