Inspired by Richard Avedon’s 1963 photo of “The Generals Of The Daughters Of The American Revolution,” Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds decided to present a new image of a revolutionary woman and write a protest record. Generals, out June 5 via Saddle Creek, is the Mynabirds’ sophomore album, a follow-up to their 2010 debut, What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood. We recently talked to the former Georgie James singer, who told us about reuniting with Richard Swift, where she got her live show stomp boxes and why it’s time to recognize a new type of revolutionary.
How did you find Richard Avedon’s photo?
Well, I was in Washington, DC, and there was an exhibit at the Corcoran museum called Portraits Of Power, and it was all Richard Avedon portraits. So there are all these iconic artists, musicians and politicians, actors and people of note from the 20th century, and I had read something in which he talks about the photo, and he says, “This is an image of men who are generals in the Civil War in the faces of these women.” As I was standing there looking at it, I thought, “Huh, my idea of what a powerful woman looks like is very different from that.” So I am thinking about American women who are revolutionaries and are not necessarily wearing a satin gown. They probably have a child in one hand and a briefcase on another. Their hands are dirty because their lives are busy, so it is many different things. That is where it started from. It was this idea of imagining what modern-day revolutionaries look like.
Your “The New Revolutionists” photo project sort of runs with that idea of what modern-day revolutionaries look like. Was that inspired by the photo?
It was. When I started thinking about album art, I just wanted to shoot a portrait that was like what I thought my portrait would be if Richard Avedon would come and shoot me as this general of the Daughters Of The American Revolution. I asked a couple of my friends who I think are kind of revolutionary in their own right. In my mind I was thinking of someone who does something that requires courage in their daily life and is about moving themselves, their community and America forward.
So we did the album art, and I had a couple of my friends come and take portraits. One of them was Amy Klein, and she used to play in Titus Andronicus, and she is a great musician and thinker and writer and has a blog and is often writing about interesting subjects. So we did these portraits, and I was like, “Maybe I’ll use them in album art, and it will be me on the cover, and I’ll have portraits of other women inside, and it will be like we are thinking of these new generals of the Daughters Of The American Revolution.” Once we did that, I thought that it would be amazing to expand this into a whole portrait project, and that is how it started.
Why did you decide to make this album a political protest record? What are you protesting?
Before I wrote the last record, What We Lose In The Fire We Gain In The Flood, I started writing these songs that were pretty political in nature and pretty much about being angry at the state of America. It has been something I have been meditating on a lot, this idea of the promise of America and where we could be based on the ideals in which America was founded and where we find ourselves. So I just think it is a very delicate time in our history and time for people to stand up and demand better. It is insane to see what is happening, and it starts being a protest about what is going on and being really pissed off and saying, “Look what is happening all around us. We cannot sleep. We have to be awake to what is happening.”
At the same time, I don’t want to come off as a self-righteous bitch. So the album for me had to go somewhere. I had to take all that anger into somewhere positive, and I said that the album is a concept record, and the concept is this idea of starting in this place of awareness and anger and moving to something positive, leaning towards, “What can you do?” I read this book by Naomi Wolf called Give Me Liberty, and she was talking about being involved in this political process and actually how difficult that can be for an ordinary citizen to do because it takes a lot of money. So, towards the end of the album in the song “Buffalo Flower,” I sing, “I’m gonna do what I can/Right where I stand.” Which is like all it is, is me helping my neighbors and standing on my own two feet. It has to start somewhere.
This was your second time working with Richard Swift. How was it different from the first?
It was even better than before, which is funny because we had so much fun making the first record. Since then Richard and I have become really good friends, and he came on tour with the Mynabirds last spring and played guitar, and he even sang in the band with us when we opened for Bright Eyes. So on one hand I was really nervous to go after it because I was like, “Oh the last time was so fun,” but once I got out there it was like making a record with your best friend. When I got there I said to him, “I want to do something different. I want it to feel connected to the last record, but I want to experiment, and I want to take time to do daring things.” And he of course was all for that, so it was a great experience.
Do you expect the shows for this album to be a lot different than those for the last album?
They are definitely different. It’s more theatrical. There is this artist from Boston who made me a fox headdress, which is really amazing, so I wear it for part of the show. We have some samplers and drum machines and stomp boxes, which I borrowed the idea of from Tilly And The Wall. I am good friends with them here in Omaha, and I called them up and said, “You guys, I really want to do stomp boxes. What do you think?” And they were so funny. They were like, “Oh, we actually weren’t the first people with that idea. Take them.” So we actually borrowed their stomp boxes for this tour.
How are you envisioning the music videos for the songs from Generals?
We already shot two of them. One of them I think is going to be finished up next week. I cannot wait. I have seen some of the footage. We shot it in black and white, and the concept behind it is that there is this secret society of women, and we go out, and we are out to get these bad businessmen. I am posing as the leader of this band, and we corner them in this city restaurant, which we shot at Johnny’s Cafe here in Omaha, which is an amazing cafe that is from the ’20s and was renovated in the ’50s. There is taxidermy everywhere, like this buffalo with these weird laser orange eyes. It is so bizarre and amazing. It’s going to be really great. I can’t wait for you to see it.