A boom of protest music is underway in response to the increasingly intense dumpster fire of American politics, with artists as diverse as Fiona Apple and Run the Jewels speaking out to fist-pumping effect. Laura Burhenn, the L.A.-based singer-songwriter behind the Mynabirds, says it's an encouraging movement. She's been making politically charged music since the early 2000s, and she's never understood why more artists didn't protest the Iraq War specifically and the George W. Bush era in general.
"I remember thinking, 'Where's the protest music? People should be upset about this,'" she says. "There's been this ongoing debate about whether music should be political or just entertainment, and I'm excited to see this resurgence. In my mind, even when times are good, there's always something that needs to be fixed."
That's why writing and recording the Mynabirds' most recent record, Be Here Now, felt so urgent to Burhenn. The process was completed over a two-week period following President Trump's inauguration and the Women's March on Washington, D.C., and the album reflects the personal turmoil she felt at the time.
On the single "Golden Age," Burhenn sings sweetly over somber piano: "My heart's full of love / And all kinds of peace / But I think even I / Could punch a Nazi in the face." Burhenn fast-tracked the release of "Golden Age" last August, soon after throngs of white supremacists and protesters clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"I was like, 'I need to get this song out because America is going to come to its senses and all of this will be irrelevant soon,'" she says. "But since then it's just been more of the same."
Speaking to the Inlander from Los Angeles ahead of the Mynabirds' Sunday show at the Big Dipper, Burhenn explains that she started writing songs at age 7, starting with "very pro-Jesus" music she picked up from going to church. As a teenager, she progressed to emulating the chamber pop of Tori Amos, releasing her early recordings on a DIY record label she launched in high school.
"At the time, I thought it was so different and my own thing," she recalls, "but looking back on it, I was definitely trying to be Tori Amos."
Somewhere along the way, Burhenn developed into a force to be reckoned with, a songstress with electrifying energy and mad-crazy pipes. The Amos influence is still there — listeners may catch traces of Florence Welch, as well — but she's definitely settled into her own sound.
In 2013, she served as a keyboardist, backup vocalist and vibraphone player on the reunion tour of Ben Gibbard's electronic project the Postal Service. Similarly, when the time comes to tour with the Mynabirds, she recruits a rotating cast of friends to round out the live ensemble.
"It always feels like summer camp on the road," she says. "We have a magical time with each other playing songs for people. And in the studio, too, I collaborate with different producers."
In creating Be Here Now, for example, she holed up with multi-instrumentalist producer Patrick Damphier at his huge warehouse space in Nashville. At the time, Damphier's landlord was threatening to kick him out because the building was set for demolition to make way for new condos.
"Following Trump's election, I asked if we could make a record in that studio, because it felt like a metaphor for what was happening in America," Burhenn says. "We were getting pushed out of this space where we felt really safe, where we thought we were going to be forever. As we were writing the song 'Cocoon,' it was very much about the larger scale, but also about what was happening to the studio."
As for Burhenn's songwriting process, she usually doesn't sit down and consciously hash out a song note-for-note. Most of her musical ideas tend to strike while she's doing something mundane, like walking her dog or taking a shower.
"Sometimes, I feel like a conduit," she says. "There's no ego involved, and I'm not trying to force this vision to happen. It's more like there's this song already out there in the universe and I'm just tuning into it and putting it on record. That's when I feel like I've done something worthwhile."
And she's never shied away from tackling hot-button issues. For example, on the Mynabirds' 2012 album Generals, Burhenn reflected on the travesties of the Bush era.
"When I put it out, I really thought about the fact that we were in this kind of golden age [of politics]," she says of the Obama years. "But whatever, nobody's perfect. I can agree with someone's politics and still disagree with drone strikes and murdering civilians in the name of protecting American interests overseas. ... What I've come to realize over the last few years is that I'm always going to be political. I'm always skeptical when people say, 'Well, now things are good.' You've always got to keep your eye out." ♦
The Mynabirds with Lenore and Mama Doll • Sun, Jan. 21 at 7:30 pm • $10 advance, $13 at the door • All-ages • The Big Dipper • 171 S. Washington • bigdipperevents.com • 863-8098