The night Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Laura Burhenn was living in Washington D.C. and had an amazing night. “I drank champagne on the street with strangers in front of the White House,” she says. “Joan Baez was randomly there next to me.”
It was the complete opposite in 2016, when Donald Trump won the election. Burhenn was on a solo tour, and on election night she was in Portland, Oregon, in shock. She finished out her tour over the next month in a zombie haze, trying to understand what exactly happened.
“I felt tired and traumatized. I’m sure that’s how most people felt even if they were at home. I thought, ‘I don’t know what to do with this,’” Burhenn says. “I felt like I was feeling not only my own feelings, but everybody else’s feelings as well.”
It was in January, after watching the inauguration and experiencing the Women’s March in L.A.—where she now lives—that everything really clicked for her. She spoke with a friend of hers, Patrick Damphier, about recording an album for her group Mynabirds. Over the course of two weeks, she wrote and recorded the passionate, New Wave-inspired indie pop record Be Here Now, which was released on Aug. 25 last year.
“I felt like I was a journalist in making this record, where I was making a record of the time. But it wasn’t like, ‘here’s the facts.’ It was like, ‘here is how everyone is feeling.’ The album to me sounds like a mood ring,” Burhenn says.
Trump’s horrific presidency continued to fuel her record even as she was making it. She recalls being in the studio when he announced the Muslim ban, and the airport protests that shut it down. The song that came from that, “Hold On,” spoke about the issues facing refugees in these times. She even enlisted a Burundian refugee choir to sing backing vocals on the song.
“In those two weeks, America changed in ways that didn’t seem possible. There were all of these executive orders being passed,” Burhenn says. “I thought, ‘oh my god, I’ve got to write a song for refugees.’”
Writing and recording an entire record of material in such a short period of time was a first for Burhenn. Although she had addressed political issues on her albums before, she had never written something so immediate. She didn’t want this material to become dated while she waited for a label to release it. She instead opted to release the album as a couple of EPs as quickly as possible, before releasing the album in its entirety later in the year.
“I didn’t really care about making money on this. I didn’t even know if I’d tour it,” Burhenn says. “I was afraid that if we don’t get these songs out now, they’re not going to be timely. They’re going to be totally irrelevant in a month or two, which is hilarious wishful thinking looking back on that now.”
The feel of the music jumps around from song to song because the feelings that Burhenn was going through at this time were so complex. The title track “Be Here Now” is an optimistic call to action inspired by her experience at the Women’s March.
“I expected to feel a unity of anger. But instead, what happened was this overwhelming sense of joy. That’s where the song ‘Be Here Now’ came from. That was the greatest party I’ve ever been to. It was complex. My experience wasn’t just one particular emotion. It was an overwhelming relief,” Burhenn says.
It’s hard for Burhenn to believe that she recorded the album not even a full year ago—so much has happened since the inauguration, it feels like hundreds of years ago. Looking back now, she can’t help but laugh at the urgency she felt to get the songs out. One line in “Golden Age” mentions “punching a Nazi.” She was referring to Richard Spencer, who’d been recently captured on film being punched in the face.
“I didn’t know that Charlottesville was going to happen. I didn’t realize what a part of our dialogue white supremacy was going to become,” Burhenn says.
She’s also still processing the meaning of the album, in the middle of the Trump administration.
“I think with this record, I tried to just sit with each feeling. That’s why I called it Be Here Now, to get to that Zen principle of meditating to let thoughts and feelings come and go, and just recognize that feelings are fleeting,” Burhenn says. “That feeling doesn’t define us. And finding wisdom amidst chaos is a matter of sitting with the emotion and letting it turn into whatever it will.”
The Mynabirds play at 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 23 at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $12/adv, $14/door. 429-4135.