A new breed of pop star: Louise Burns basks on the bright side

Monday 30th, January 2017 / 14:58
By Maya-Roisin Slater

Photo: Megan Magdalena

VANCOUVER — With long dark brown hair that flops over one side of her face, a young Louise Burns clutches her low hanging bass guitar and dons a rebellious expression. She is dressed head to toe in black, a choker necklace made to look like a piece of barbed wire is wrapped around her neck. At this moment in time Burns is performing in the music video for her first band Lillix’s soon-to-be hit single, “It’s About Time.” She is 18. This project, which launched her musical career, was started by her and three other friends in the small town of Cranbrook, B.C. when Burns was only 11. Through a series of miraculous events involving a bogus small town record producer, the SOCAN phone directory, a lawyer with faith, and the then thriving record industry, Lillix was signed to Madonna’s label, Maverick Records, on the spot in a happenstance meeting in L.A. Burns was then thrust into the spotlight at 15, she was gold in Japan and very heavily in the music industry’s clutches.

Photo: Megan Magdalena

“I hated the game. I really didn’t enjoy being in a pop band and at the time I thought it was quite miserable,” says Burns. “There’s a lot of stuff [that comes with] being on a major label. We were blackmailed to lose weight before our first record came out. We recorded most of it and they said great but two of the members have to lose weight or we’re not going to release it. So they sent them to a very expensive retreat in the Okanagan and they went for like two weeks, super strict eating plans, fitness, crazy. And we were too young to say ‘no, fuck you,’ feminism or whatever. We didn’t know about any of that shit.”

Reaching a breaking point with the pressures of the industry intensifying, Burns left the group at 19 and moved to Vancouver, trying to rekindle her love for songwriting. Joining other people’s bands, she drifted from her childhood dream of pop and experimented with genres like psyche and punk. After a few years trying out different groups she decided to embark on a solo career, collecting all the songs she’d been writing over the years and releasing them as her debut album on Light Organ Records, Mellow Drama. A throwback record with heavy 1950s and 1960s pop influence, the songs on Mellow Drama are soulful and nostalgic.

“The first record I was obsessed with old music, it was part of who I was at the time. I don’t think I listened to anything modern at all. It was a bit much. I wanted to make the opposite record of what I’d been doing with Lillix,” she explains. “So I played everything myself except for drums. I sang everything and I wanted it to be as organic sounding as possible.”

Her second record The Midnight Mass takes on a more 1980s feel, peppered with dark synths and drum machines. Burns attributes this shift to self apathy.

“It just seemed so boring to just go back to what I was doing, I wanted to keep going and play with new technology,” she says.

The extensive touring which followed the release of The Midnight Mass took her all over the world, to the US, Europe, China, and even rural Mongolia. Along the way she took a live band and this experience letting other musicians influence the work is what landed her with the distinct sound featured on her latest release, Young Mopes.

“I didn’t want to think about any referential era because I’m really aware of people thinking I base it on decades, which I don’t. I just let it happen. And I didn’t worry about it being a schizophrenic record. One song is country, one song is 1980s pop. Whatever, I don’t even really care, I had fun with it and that’s my approach,” Burns explains. Young Mopes came together slowly over the time between now and her last release. Songs — some fully formed, others just skeletons — collected over time on her computer until she was finally ready to sort them, and decide which ones would end up on tape.

Photo: Megan Magdalena

“I picked what I thought were my best songs at the time. But it’s hard to really narrow them down because I’m never satisfied with what I’ve written. Nobody ever is, you just have to put your foot down and say ‘fuck it,’” she says with a sardonic giggle. Burns is excited for the record’s release, upon which she can return to touring, a consistency she’s come to crave.

From her beginnings as an early-2000s Canadian pop star, to her time hopping between genres as she found her footing as a solo artist, Burns has now arrived at a time in her career where she is nothing more than herself. Quite an incredible feat for someone who’s been inundated with music industry jargon from a young age. Her new record combines all her past musical selves, with an overarching quality of wisdom to it. Wisdom which comes from one too many run-ins with smarmy record producers, misogynistic sound guys in Saskatoon, and the terabytes of song ideas that come along the way. Along with producing her own records, Burns is moving on to coach other young songwriters on their paths to success. She also continues her side gig as a music journalist, contributing pieces to the CBC on a regular basis. She took a coding class to get a better idea of the technical side of electronic music techniques. She was late for this interview, scrambling to catch the bus. And now she’s sipping her glass of wine in a local bar joking about how, at 15, she was big in Japan. 

Louise Burns performs February 4 at the Lido (Vancouver).

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