Aisha Burns possesses a stunning, emotive voice with amazing range and impressive character. She’s been playing violin and contributing vocals to the Austin, Texas group Balmorhea for years and finally decided to release a solo album. Exquisite violin melodies create amazingly complex and emotional songs that combine her classical training with tender layers of Americana and folk. On her debut album, Life in the Midwater [out September 17 on Western Vinyl], sweetly sad songs echo the depths of the bell jar, walls closing in, the salty splashing tear drops. How enviable be so talented, grounded and sensible in one’s mid-twenties. Burns reminds me of solo artists Neko Case, Cat Power and Beth Orton.
I recently interviewed Aisha.
Amy Steele: When did you start playing violin?
Aisha Burns: I started playing when I was 10 through an after school strings program at my elementary school. My best friend was playing. And one day after school I picked it up, tried to teach myself a song from her beginner’s book and got really into it. If it hadn’t been for her and that class, I wonder if I would’ve ever found my way to it. It all definitely makes me feel really strongly about music programs in school. Sometimes, it takes being exposed to something before you realize that you might really love it.
Amy Steele: What do you like about the violin?
Aisha Burns:I think I love its ability to be so forcefully emotive. Something about it has always sort of affected some deep part of me. I love the strings more than any other musical family. There’s nothing like the sound of a string section.
Amy Steele: What does your classical background bring to your songwriting?
Aisha Burns:That’s difficult for me to pin down exactly, but it definitely comes into play while writing the string arrangements. I understand the violin through its classical context, so I’m sure that’s in the back of my mind while I’m putting the parts together. I’ve had people say that my vocal melodies are similar to the way a solo violin might behave in a song. Maybe that’s a part of it too.
Amy Steele: You sing in Balmorhea and you’re also a member of Idyl, led by Alex Dupree. Why’d you want to go solo now?
Aisha Burns: That’s just sort of the way it worked out. I’d been writing songs for a while, but had publicly been spending my energy contributing to projects led by other people. I think I wanted something that I was in complete control of–partly because I had something different to express and partly because I think I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. As I got more comfortable singing and playing, it just felt right to capture the songs and make a record.
Amy Steele: What’s been the best aspect of being a solo artist and the greatest surprise?
Aisha Burns:The best aspect has been having control over all aspects of the music. I love playing in bands, but its been nice while I’m writing to have the freedom to play exactly what I’m hearing in my head at all times. There’s no one else to compromise with, no one else’s arrangements to write around.
The greatest surprise might be that I experience the dynamic between audience and performer differently in my solo set. I think I tend to take everything more personally. Or maybe I just feel more vulnerable. it’s not a feeling of, “oh I hope this crowd is into the band,” rather its “oh I hope this audience likes me.”
Amy Steele: Austin’s well-known for SXSW, is it a cool music scene other than that. How did it help you to grow as a musician living in Austin?
Aisha Burns: Definitely. There is such a friendly community of musicians here that I think I often take for granted. I forget that this type of scene is rare. And that so many genres can exist well in the same town. There are so many places to perform, and after being here for a good while, it seems like nearly every working musician I know is connected to someone else I know. The first band I ever played in was here. I didn’t know them at all beforehand, they just sort of welcomed me in. That inclusive, positive spirit has made it easy to learn from others. It’s been amazing to be surrounded by talented people. Good songwriting rubs off, I think.
Amy Steele: You have such an emotive voice and distinct vocal style, where did you do all your secret singing to know that you were talented enough to share it with others?
Aisha Burns:I had a group of friends that moved to Austin from North Carolina who effectively changed that season of my life. They were all really creative and encouraging and truly believed in community and bringing people together. So they started hosting these house shows once a month. We’d all have a potluck dinner together and then whoever wanted to play would draw a number out of a hat and play three songs. I played the first song I was really proud for a couple of those friends before the show. They went on to put my name on the list without me knowing and kind of forced me to play! I was terrified. But when I finished the last song, I realized that I’d survived, and that I actually kinda liked it. I got a lot of great, unexpected, encouraging feedback. I went on to play nearly every one of those shows for about two years.
It was the perfect place to build confidence in singing publicly. Everyone, even the new people that would show up were so interested in sharing and receiving whatever others had to offer. It was a very warm, safe, packed house. I met so many amazing musicians there. Those shows don’t happen anymore, but man, they were a powerful force for me while they lasted.
Amy Steele: On your Facebook page you list some great books like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Middlesex. Who are some of your favorite authors? Are you reading anything at the moment?
Aisha Burns:I’m horrendous at choosing favorites for anything, but Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is one of my favorite books, as is Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. I’m reading a couple of things now: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and a non-fiction book about food politics called Stuffed by Hank Cardello.
Amy Steele: What does the album title Life in the Midwater mean?
Aisha Burns:It’s from a book about the ocean that describes the Midwater, a specific layer of the ocean, as this dark place where fish who have a capability to shine and produce light sort of timidly sit in waiting. They’re too afraid to move because if they bump into another light producing fish, it’ll expose them to their lurking predators.
To me, it’s about being in a state of such confusion where everything feels so tense and fragile that you’re almost afraid to move. There’s great potential, but there’s also a feeling of impending danger. It means a lot of things to me and its specific meaning changes. Almost depends on what day you ask me! But that’s the gist of it, I think.
Amy Steele: In college you majored in journalism so you clearly like to write. What kind of songwriter are you?
Aisha Burns:I do love to write–it’s true! That’s a tricky question to answer. I just write what feels true. My songs are portraits of a feeling or specific situations. I think I’m most concerned with communicating a feeling in an interesting way.
Amy Steele: What inspires you?
Aisha Burns:Ah, I don’t want to come off too weepy, but in truth, sad songs. And difficult emotions. The poet Rilke talks about art being made out of necessity. Some of my songs that I’m most proud of are those that were written almost spontaneously and in direct response to something that happened that day. It feels really cheesy to say that life and complex emotion are my biggest inspiration because, well, that’s probably true for anyone that’s not some sort of machine. I don’t think that’s unique, but that’s what begs me to sing.
Amy Steele: What makes a good song?
Aisha Burns:It’s all so subjective! You mentioned my journalism degree earlier–writing music reviews was difficult for me because there were things that I didn’t like even though they were “good.” But to me, I’m drawn to a really honest, creative expression. A lot of heart, a strong melody, something to latch onto. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but I think those pieces are important.
purchase at Amazon: Life in the Midwater