Origin: Vancouver, British Columbia
He definitely wasn’t thinking about Buddy Holly when the composer Chopin wrote the words, sometime in the late 19th century, “Simplicity is the final achievement.” But it’s Buddy Holly who comes to mind, and Chopin’s wise aphorism certainly applies, when you hear the relentlessly cheerful yet hurting songs of Louise Burns, the album “Mellow Drama” from a distaff Western Canadian gunslinger who’s already an industry veteran at the age of 24, and whose solo debut has been too long coming.
“What Do You Wanna Do” is the first single off the record, with a Holly-meets-Joe Meek vibe, all slathered in tambourine and acoustic guitar, then marshaled with a woodsy sounding snare drum. A restrained solo and upbeat-yet-plaintive vocal complete the picture on this instant classic, which happens to be its author’s favourite track on the record.
“It’s exactly what I wanted to do,” says Louise Burns; a desperately sought bassist who co-founded all-girl, twice Juno nominated rockers Lillix at the age of 11 and who has played ace wing-person to a slew of Vancouver bands ever since, most notably for her blood-sisters in the Blue Violets.
“I’m really obsessed with ‘50s and ‘60s pop music and rock ‘n’ roll – that’s my favourite thing in the world,” she continues. “There’s no bullshit. They didn’t have access to all these whistles, bells, and autotune, and no matter what you do with it, it’s just a good song.”
She applies this principle across the board on Mellow Drama, an album that weds ringing clarity to emotional truth over 11 Burns originals and one gorgeously wrought cover. Even in the circling, endlessly recursive swirl of the Mazzy Star-esque “Clean” or the minatory shoe-gazey ballad “Ocean Grey”, Burns and her production cohorts Dave Ogilvie and Kevin James Maher keep it trim.
With their handsome remake of Leonard Cohen’s “The Gypsy’s Wife”, the trio strike up a gothic folk feel that’s equally uncluttered, even with sonorous cello and piano parts. The mood is carried over into “Island Vacation”, with Burns implacably sinking beneath her own vocal range as she describes macabre dreams and nosebleeds, investing the song with a sweetly honest performance. Equally, “Sea Song” could be a folk standard, or an outtake from The Wicker Man soundtrack with its slightly dissonant chorus. In all cases, there’s a splendid absence of fuss.
Burns allowed Mellow Drama to percolate for a long time, only hitting the studio in late 2009 between school and juggling “at least four bands”, and then after a protracted process of “finding who I was, as an artist” – although she squirms a little at the statement. “That sounds like the worst sentence ever,” she sighs, “but it’s honestly how I feel. I had to take a break and reevaluate music in general.”
She puts her artistic overhaul down to the demands she faced with Lillix during its stint on Madonna’s Maverick label, explaining, “Basically we were trained to write for radio, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can really fuck with your ideals and what you think is good and what you think you should be writing. That tremendous pressure just ruins it for you. I hated music for so long after that, and I hated the idea of writing. But at the same time I’m really grateful for the perseverance that I developed. Now I have a really high standard, before I even show anybody a song. I am grateful for that part of it.”
Burns grapples with what she calls “emancipating myself from that world of uncertainty” on the wonderful “Chinook (Sing From the Valley of Doubt)”; a chunk of nostalgic pop-country built on the dual poles of Burns’ tremulous voice and a thick, sure bass part. It was composed while horseback riding through the mountains in Cranbrook, BC. “I wrote a lot of songs that way, because I’m a hippy,” she chuckles. “It’s about waking up every morning with a sense of dread and a sense of doubt, because I’m nervous of the idea of not doing music, and that if I keep doubting myself it’s going to prevent me from doing it.”
It seems unlikely that anything would ever stop Burns from making music. She plays nearly every instrument on Mellow Drama. It’s a pure expression of musicality and talent, and not something you could ever put a lid on. More importantly, Mellow Drama finally opens the book on a personality that was submerged during the artist’s long apprenticeship years, ringing with all the influences Burns breathlessly lists – “The Pixies, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Harry Nilsson, Sam Cooke, The Shangri Las, and the Smiths, too many to name, had a massive impact on who I am…” – but never at the cost of her own voice.
Folding so much into a crisp statement that she’s only waited more than half her life to make might be Burns’ final achievement with Mellow Drama. And she makes it sound like simplicity itself.