WHEN GEORGIE JAMES—the duo comprising Q and Not U's John Davis and singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn—mysteriously disappeared off the map in 2008, it wasn't clear if Burhenn would choose to return to her solo career. And she didn't, exactly. Instead, she retreated to Cottage Grove, Oregon, a small town just south of Eugene, and in the studio of Richard Swift created one of the finest pop albums of the year. "We finished the record and I wasn't sure if I should release it under my name—should it be a solo singer/songwriter project, should it be band name?" says Burhenn. "I really didn't want to release it as a singer/songwriter; I didn't really want to be pegged or pigeonholed."
She elected to release it under the name the Mynabirds. Recorded during last summer's Northwest heat wave and played almost entirely by Burhenn and Swift, the Mynabirds' What We Lose in the Fire We Gain in the Flood is a warm, neo-soul gem, carrying high the torch of Dusty Springfield. Now, Burhenn—who is based in Omaha—is touring the songs with a five-piece band (minus Swift).
"I always said, for years and years, that I would like to do a record that sounded like Neil Young doing Motown. So a friend of mine, her father had sent her sister a list of female characters from James Joyce novels. She was pregnant at the time and was trying to find a name for their daughter. And one of the names on the list was Mina, and for whatever reason it caught my eye and I was like, 'Hmm. Mina, Myna, Myna bird. The Mynabirds. Ooh, I like that!' So I thought, well, let me just Google that to see if there was another band called that, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I found the Wikipedia page for the Mynah Birds: a band signed to Motown featuring Rick James and Neil Young. My mind was blown. So I thought, well, maybe this is it! And I sort of misspelled it a bit, and I thought, well Neil Young isn't going to come after me, and I felt like, Motown might get some help, selling some extra singles," she jokes.
It's a perfect fit for a record that embraces the gospel-tinged pop of classic Motown as well as the unclouded emotion of Neil Young's best work. What We Lose in the Fire stemmed directly from the sudden breakup of her previous band. "I don't usually talk about it in articles and if someone asks what's the official word, I don't really know," Burhenn says of Georgie James. "I guess it came down to basically artistic differences. It was one of those things where everything was going fine, and then all of a sudden people weren't happy, people were upset, and I was sort of like, 'Okay, how can we fix this? Let's do this, let's do that to change it.' Suddenly the only answer I was getting was 'No, we have to break up, that is the only possibility.'
"So this record ended up being a lot about that. A lot about loss and personal recovery," Burhenn continues. "Before Georgie James I had gone through a personal breakup, so I was like, 'What is happening? Is there something about me? Am I missing some lesson that I'm supposed to learn?'" The good news is that if the Mynabirds' excellent album is what is gained from the loss of Georgie James, it's a worthwhile trade indeed.