Louise Burns is drawn to songs of sadness
Besides being a sort of jack-of-all-trades when it comes to musicianship, Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Louise Burns knows a lot about astronomy.
“I’m a big fan of space,” says the former Lillix bassist and singer in an interview at an Oak Street deli. “It’s one of my things.”
Burns gushes over the late astronomer Carl Sagan’s ’80s television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, alluding to the “Symphony of Science”, a series of YouTube videos featuring the Contact author.
“Somebody took episodes of this [Cosmos] and they Auto-Tuned clips and made it a song. It is so ridiculous!” she says, before noting that Sagan might have been an inspiration if she’d chosen a different career.
“If I were to be a scientist, I would be that [an astronomer],” the songstress reveals.
Luckily for fans of the 25-year-old folk-pop artist, Burns stayed on the path of music, releasing her solo debut, Mellow Drama, in April on Light Organ Records.
The 12-track disc is a dreamy, revivalist album with pop sensibilities. While sometimes teetering on the edge of country, the record ultimately shows Burns to be a master of classic pop songwriting, with numbers like “What Do You Wanna Do” evoking pioneering rock ’n’ roller Buddy Holly.
While the songs are filled with relatively upbeat tempos, especially on the hand-clap-and-tambourine-heavy “Chinook (Sing From the Valley of Doubt)” and “Drop Names Not Bombs”, Burns argues that Mellow Drama really isn’t a cheerful album, and not just because it’s also influenced by mopey postpunkers like the Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
“The lyrics themselves are not happy lyrics,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever written a happy song. I just don’t find it inspiring, you know?”
Burns has been writing songs for 15 years; amazingly, she started performing at age 9.
“Mellow Drama is sort of a comment on how the lyrics are almost borderline profoundly earnest because they’re pretty much directly from experience. I wanted to use it [the title] as a disclaimer and not take it too crazy-serious,” she says.
But personal experience isn’t the only thing driving the disc’s emotional songs. Burns admits that over-the-top sad tales have always resonated with her.
“Some of the lyrics are fictional. I’m a big fan of old country-music story lines—like Patsy Cline’s ”˜Walkin’ After Midnight’. I enjoy that romantic, sad story line that it has. Like Roy Orbison was always singing about being lonely—and I love that. Some of the songs are about self-doubt, about not ever thinking I could actually do a record and release it because I felt a little defeated by the Lillix experience. I was overcoming that.”
For those who blinked and missed its, Lillix was of course the early 2000s, Cranbrook-spawned girl group that was supposed to blow up bigger than Avril Lavigne. Despite fawning coverage in magazines like Blender, and a deal with Maverick Records, things didn’t exactly turn out as the suits at the majors planned.
Burns’s switch from grrrl-group bassist to solo artist wasn’t totally without anguish, especially when Lillix was dropped from Maverick in 2006. But turning singer-songwriter seemed a natural evolution.
“It’s just what I listen to, you know?” the songstress says of her departure from power pop. “I never listened to the stuff we did in Lillix. I didn’t listen to Top-40 radio, I wasn’t a fan of Avril Lavigne. I don’t like that music at all. I think that once I got to the age where I discovered all the bands that became definitive of who I was as an artist—like the Cure, or Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Velvet Underground, and of course the whole Neil Young world and Joni Mitchell—that was kind of what I listened to and where it’s a reflection of: my influences.
“I think pop music, in a Top-40 sense, makes me really miserable, so I had to escape that for a while,” she notes.
That’s not to say Burns doesn’t miss playing in a band. Fresh from her West Coast tour with the five-piece Red Cedar as her backing group, the singer beams when talking about her supporting musicians.
“I have a lot of admiration for bands and the dynamic that they create, because I’ve been in bands my whole life, and being a solo artist, it’s a lot harder to create that. I’m actually really lucky to be using Red Cedar right now, because they are such a good band. They’re amazing. The sound they make on-stage is very thought-out, and you can tell they’ve been a band forever. That’s really admirable to me,” she says.
With or without Red Cedar, Burns definitely has plans for the future.
“I’m going to be releasing a few 7-inches from this record, the B-sides,” she says. “I’m writing my second record right now. I don’t know—we’ll see what happens. I’m not too sure what it’s going to sound like yet, but I’m definitely thinking about it already,” she says, noting that she hopes to have the album written by the end of this year.
There is no question that Burns is on a roll, musically. The only surprise here is that the self-proclaimed astronomy geek has said virtually nothing about plans to secure Mellow Drama its own laser show at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. Yet.
Louise Burns plays Khatsahlano! The West 4th Music and Art Street Festival on Saturday (July 23).