Laura Burhenn, The Mynabirds

First year writing courses, those introductory classes that many students are required to take in their first semester of college, can sometimes be a challenge for teachers. I taught it as a TA when I was getting my PhD.  To be sure, I always loved it because I got to expose first-year students to lots of great writing from a variety of genres.  I wanted my students to be as enthusiastic as I was about writing and about great works of literature. But the reality is that not everyone shared this enthusiasm.  However, every so often a student would show up on that first day of class whose obsession with literature matched mine, whose eyes also lit up at the mention of a Galway Kinnell poem.

Enter Laura Burhenn, leader of the Mynabirds, her new band.  I was Laura’s first year writing teacher.   Laura and I caught up on the eve of the tour to support the band’s acclaimed debut What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood on Saddle Creek Records. Given the amount of literary references she drops in this interview and the impressive awareness of her writing process, I’ll take credit for most of her success!  Ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but you won’t see many songwriters who claim Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop as influences.  Laura’s writing process is very animated—literally—and she is a big believer in freewriting as a way to generate ideas (she thanks one of her college professors below—ahem—for teaching her about it).  As you’ll see, she has a keen sense of what works for her. 

The Mynabirds have been riding a wave of impressive national exposure.  They were featured on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” spring music preview here, and NPR’s Ken Tucker gave their album a glowing review here.  They’ve also gotten great reviews on and in USA Today (for more, see here).

What are the inspirations for your songs/writing process?

The inspirations for my songs come from everywhere—people I meet, strangers on the street, other songwriters, friends and fellow artists, articles in the New Yorker, poetry, philosophy, physics, talking a long walk through the woods, skipping a stone across the water—really everywhere. With this latest album ("What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood"), I started with the idea of loss and recovery and drew from a few literary sources: Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Carl Jung, some ancient Eastern proverbs, and some Sufi poetry, “The Guest House” by Rumi in particular. I take a lot of time with lyrics. And with this album I wanted it to read like a story—a cycle of loss and recovery that happens twice, each song a sort of chapter in a book, the whole story ending with love, reassurance. As far as the songs go, though, I wrote a lot of this in the shower actually. I wanted to focus on simple melodies instead of leaning on the muscle memory of my fingers. The idea of vocal muscle memory is much more interesting—singing melodies that are somehow hard-wired into your subconsciousness.

Take me through your writing process, from the time you get an idea to the time you start recording

Well, like I said, I wrote a lot of this album in the shower. And stomping around my dining room with a tambourine. Once I had an idea for a melody, a little seed of a lyric in tow, I'd sit down at the piano and learn the chord progressions. From there I just let the songs work themselves out. There's a real mystery to the songwriting process for me, and I'd rather not ruin it by trying to over analyze it. I'm very much from the school of "I'm a conduit and good songs are already written.  I'm just channeling something that's waiting to be found." I read somewhere once that nothing is ever created anew (actually, maybe that was philosophy—the idea of "gold mountain" from David Hume), that we're just finding different ways of piecing together things that we already know. I'm okay with that. I think there's still a way to make them sound and feel fresh.

photo courtesy The Mynabirds

photo courtesy The Mynabirds

Do you set goals each day for how much you are going to write?  Like a certain amount of time or a certain number of words?

Oh God, I wish I did. I got an old typewriter two Christmases ago and set it next to my bed. I was going to try and type freestyle, stream of consciousness every morning as soon as I woke up, I was still in that half dream state that's so good and rich for the creative process. I still haven't changed the ribbon. That said, I try to rely on my subconscious, have faith that it's working out some mighty fine melodies and lyrics while I'm busy doing things like planting flowers in the yard and making spreadsheets for tours. I really do believe in stream of consciousness writing.  It’s especially good for writer's block. But you've got to use a pencil or a pen and real paper. No laptops or keyboards or iPads allowed. I had a great professor in college who taught me about freewriting: write and do not stop to think, just let it all out. You stumble onto some real gems that way. And I have a soft spot for Jack Kerouac's approach. Reading "Good Blonde & Others" really influenced my writing style.

Are there any quirky parts of your writing process that help you write?  Is there anything you must absolutely have with you in order to have a productive writing session?

Mostly just a free schedule is good. Nothing lingering on the horizon (like taking out the trash, or any other sort of mundane thing). It's easy to get caught up organizing your closet or cleaning your fridge and avoiding writing altogether. I've stopped beating myself up about not being in the mood to write and just going with the ebb and flow. That said, I try to drop everything when the mood does come. That can be tough if you've got plans with other people or deadlines to meet. But I try to work with it as best I can.

If you are stuck in a rut, how do you jump start your writing?

Stream of consciousness writing. A sit-down session at the piano where I don't have an agenda and don't pick my hands up from the keyboard for at least an hour, regardless of how bad it sounds. Read something else. Go see a movie. A good art exhibit really gets me going. A lot of the metaphors I tend to write are very visual in nature. So putting myself in a visual state of mind helps my brain get into the right space. It can also be good to just have a conversation with another writer/musician/artist, find out what they're up to. The best thing I did for this particular album was to go on tour with another band, play their songs and not think a bit about mine for awhile. I went out with O+S (fellow Saddle Creek artists) in the spring of 2009 and came home with a slew of new ideas.

Is there anything regular about your writing process, like the time of day you write?

I write best late at night (just before bed) or first thing in the morning when I wake. Again, I think there's something to that dream state window, the twilight of our awake-ness. That said, I've recently been really into writing around 3 pm. It's kind of nice when there's no chance someone will bother you. People are usually deep into their day at that point, trying to finish up a project or something. It's my own version of afternoon tea, I guess.

How does living in Omaha affect your writing?  

I've been having a lot more fun with writing in Omaha. The other artists and musicians I'm friends with have a really fun attitude towards the whole creative process (i.e. Tilly and the Wall with their tap danced/stomped percussion) that's underscored by some seriously amazing pop sensibilities and smart writing. I've tried to pare down, focus on the simpler things like good friends, strong relationships. So I think my music feels a bit more like that—wholesome, Midwestern maybe. It's also helped me get closer to who I am. Living in Omaha is the first time I've really been away from home (besides previous tours and a brief time I lived in New York City), so I've had to recreate home in myself, if that makes sense. It's almost like I've been aiming to get back to my roots since I'm further away from them. On another note, people might talk about how flat the land is out here. But if that's all you focus on, you miss the big sky. So many amazing storms, great sunsets. 

If you could create the ideal writing environment. What would that be?

A big circular aerie with windows all the way around. I really love light. I can't stand to write in basements, in the dark. I'd love a grand piano, a drum set, a floor space full of percussion, an organ, and enough room to spread out unfinished lyrics all over the floor. I hate to have to clean up my writing space. When it's disheveled, things are getting done. When it's clean, I'm not really writing.

How conscious are you of audience (in the literary sense) when you write?

I try to be incredibly conscious of audience in general. But with this album, I threw that out the window. I wanted to write songs that expressed a very specific thing, to me and for me. That said, when I got towards the finish line of the album, I tried to think about how the songs would connect to people, how they would internalize them. So I kept it a few paces from being a diary and tried to keep some of the ideas broad strokes. That way you have room to walk into the song, into the story, and make it your own.

What kind of reading do you do to make you a better songwriter?

Like I said earlier, I try to read everything. But I tend to shy away from books about other songwriters or books about writing in general. I can't get too inspired by other people's processes. I'd rather gather some good ingredients for songmaking and then start mixing it up. I'm more content reading a book by Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, than a book about my favorite musician or author. That said, I do love a good biography. I just don't want it to be about the creative process necessarily, unless perhaps it's about visual art. Something unrelated to songwriting.

What songwriters influence you?

I've been heavily influenced by so many and honestly have a hard time answering this question. All of the Beatles, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Elton John (an interesting pick since he was often putting Bernie Taupin's lyrics to music and I don't know that I'd be able to write lyrics without the melody or vice versa), PJ Harvey, Brian Wilson, Nina Simone, Nick Drake, Stevie Wonder. I was really influenced by hymns and standards, too. There's something wonderful about a lot of jazz lyrics: the use of simple songs, easy cadences, phrases that feel easy rolling off your tongue like they've been written for years. I probably have Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong's delivery in the back of my mind quite a lot when I write.

What are the two or three most valuable revising tips you would give writers? While the people who read this blog are probably not songwriters, one of the things I always tell writers is that good writing is euphonic--it sounds good.  We always react positively to anything that is pleasing to the ear. And in that sense, you have a lot in common with the readers of this blog, since words sounding good is obviously important to you.

Absolutely. Read what you write aloud. Record yourself doing it. If it's not convincing coming out of your mouth, it's not convincing to read on the page. I feel the same way about lyrics. I sing them first.  I never (usually) write lyrics first and then put them to music later. It feels awkward and forced to me. I do know many really incredible songwriters who do write lyrics first, however, and do really wonderful things with that songwriting order. I just personally can't do that process justice.

I have a great example of a long term revision. One of the lyrics for this record is, "You can move mountains with your point of view." I've been working on that one since high school. The idea came to me one day and I was so proud I'd thought of it. Only problem is that in my first iteration, I said, "You can move mountains just by changing the angle from which you are viewing them." I think that was my senior quote. Clunky!! It took me over a decade to mull that around in my subconscious and simplify it. The strongest sentences are often the simplest. Same thing goes with songs, I think.

You recently told me, "The lyrics are actually the most interesting aspect of songwriting to me. and this last record was really influenced by a few key pieces of literature."  Talk more about this.

Wallace Stevens' “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” heavily influenced “Ways of Looking.” However, I changed it a bit because “One to thirteen, there are so many ways of looking,” didn't roll quite as easily as “One to ten . . . .” Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" was the sort underlying philosophy for “LA Rain,” and the record on the whole, actually. You find it especially in the second verse: “And Elizabeth said, ‘Just lose yourself. It's an easy art for you to master.’” I think her use of repetition and simple words, particularly in her poem “Sestina” was subconsciously a big influence—the idea of using as few ingredients as possible, repeating them—it makes writing and listening back a very meditative experience. And as I said earlier, Rumi's poem “The Guest House” was a big ingredient, particularly in the song “Wash It Out”: “When the thieves come in, just let them take what they need.”

All of those pieces of literature are quite connected to one another at their heart. I used them like threads to weave the story together. And that's what I really wanted to do with this record: to make songs that better connect us one to another. So it makes sense that I was trying to find a common thread among these works of literature as well.

Do you exercise?  If so, what role does exercise play in your writing process?  Do you find that it makes you more creative or helps in your invention stage? 

I go through phases of exercising, but nothing regularly enough that I could honestly say, “Why yes! I totally exercise!” Yoga is the only thing I do on a semi-regular basis. I will occasionally pull my bike out of the basement, too. I do love to swim in the summertime. A good walk is the best thing I know of to clear my mind. That or a hike. Actually, hiking through the woods somewhere is my favorite thing to do—get some fresh air in my lungs, go somewhere I've never been before, try to see the world from a new perspective. It really opens my mind, helps me internalize the world around me. I think there's something about walking, about breathing a place in and letting it get into the soles of your shoes and the cells of your body that's almost the opposite and companion piece to stream of consciousness writing. There's something about the physical process -- soaking it in, letting it out -- that's the perfect ebb and flow for the creative mind.

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