Louise Burns escapes with her epic Element
There is a rural village located in Baja California Sur, with buttery sand and warm turquoise waves that fall into perfect breaks, prime for surfing. Before the pandemic, Louise Burns had been spending a lot of time there, at the beach. The easy roll of the ocean and the chirping birds and their flapping wings offered relief from her daily grind, where Burns had been working to the bone to prove herself as a producer and musician. The beach, and its calming effect, would also inspire her new album, Element, a stunning collection of songs out on April 21.
“I think I make better art when I'm in a space of curiosity,” Burns tells the Straight, cradling a mug of tea in her hands, sitting outside the Federal Store in Mount Pleasant’s crisp winter sun. “It just reignites my passion for being creative.”
When she was bound to her Vancouver apartment, Burns held on to that beachy feeling, wanting to channel the breezy energy into something when the time came. It was tough, at first. She felt blocked as she attempted to write again. But suddenly, a switch flipped.
“I just started writing and I realized it was really creating a sense of escapism,” Burns says. She sought to craft something that evoked a sense of wanderlust and that purgatory state where you’re so jet-lagged you don’t know where you are. “I love that feeling. And I wanted to make that into my art. And that became a little bit of an obsession for me. It was just like this wonderful thing I could do for myself.”
It was also the longest stretch of time Burns had been home since 2001. Back then, she was still living in Cranbrook and was one-quarter of the girl group Lillix. It was just before the pop-rock band signed to Madonna’s record company, Maverick, and Burns was rehearsing every day after school in between horseback riding, snowboarding, and doing “normal early 2000s teenager stuff,” she grins. “Watching Blue Crush, having a picture of Brandon Boyd on my wall, like, all the classics: wearing hemp necklaces, puka shells. That was me.”
After Facing Uphill—Lillix’s 2003 debut that featured MuchMusic mainstays like “It’s About Time” and “Tomorrow”—Burns never lived full-time at home again. She was traveling constantly. Being in her formative years, it embedded a restlessness in her, that she must always be on the move.
This time, stasis forced the dust to settle. It helped that Burns is an introvert and thrives in solitude, anyway. But the isolation allowed her to embrace the anxiety and fully dive, headfirst, into her work. “I was like, ‘Fuck it,’” she says with a laugh. “‘I’m just going to be a perfectionist. I'm going to be insane. I'm going to go into my headspace and I'm just going to stay there.’ And it was actually really fun. I enjoyed it a lot, because I allowed myself to be more lighthearted about it and less worried, I guess, of what the result would be.”
Building on her previous albums—the gothic pop of Young Mopes, the hookiness of Portraits, the electronica of her remix EP, Silhouettes—Element is Burns’ most epic yet, and showcases the meticulous brilliance of her craft. It’s a hypnotic sonic experience that soothes like a sun-drenched daydream, with a sparkling soundscape that breathes, layered with satisfyingly lush synths and real rhythms of whales, waves, and birds.
Burns’ voice unfurls in haunting and euphoric tones as she sings of loving, longing, and letting go in the tripped-up “I Don’t Feel It Like I Used To” and the intoxicating “Play Pretend.” Compassion underscores the shimmering title track, with Burns imploring, “Could you imagine anything as good as the feeling of being understood?” As is her signature, though, the lyrics are more psychedelic than literal. “The diary entry-style of writing is not something I've ever enjoyed or been particularly good at,” she notes, adding that, to her, the best thing is when lines materialize seemingly out of nowhere and everywhere, like a gift from the cosmos. “That's what I live for, that feeling of a good idea that you don't have to think about. It just comes out.”
Element was co-produced with Jason Corbett (who also fronts the post-punk band ACTORS). Corbett and Burns are old friends, which lent a built-in sense of trust and respect that translates beautifully to the music. In 2020, they paired up on a heady cover of Depeche Mode’s “See You” and it set the tone for a dream collaboration that Burns describes as a perfect match.
“We have similar influences, as well, and I could reference, like, early ’90s rave music and Depeche Mode and all kinds of things. He totally gets it,” Burns says, adding that Corbett made her feel safe to freely explore her wide palette of musical interests, from Enya to Aaliyah (“She's always been a huge influence on me,” Burns notes of the late R&B star).
While working on Element, Burns was also reading The Beach, the novel by Alex Garland, later adapted into the Leonardo DiCaprio film of the same name. She got obsessed: with the book, the movie, the soundtrack.
“It totally just blew my brains apart,” Burns shakes her head. The themes of Gen-X and ennui and how they remedied it by running away and backpacking in Thailand to figure out what the real world was about—she couldn’t help but wonder: was Mexico her version of The Beach?
“Am I being an asshole tourist? Am I being an adventure tourist or a sort of existential crisis tourist? I got really, really deep into thinking about what it was that I was doing, searching for something, always travelling, always leaving, always moving forward. What am I running from? I don't know if I can answer that… Travel is one thing, but making a point to escape something? That's interesting.”
Element is out on April 21.