Austin, Texas’s Aisha Burns makes music that confidently drifts far away from the mainstream–it is a sound that one could imagine being just as relevant in the ‘70s as it is today. Though their sounds differ greatly, like Tracy Chapman, who emerged in the late ‘80s unencumbered by its fluorescent pop sheen— violinist, singer, songwriter Burns is crafting her own idiosyncratic sound that is so out of place in a Beyoncé/Rihanna/Katy Perry/Miley Cyrus world that it feels perfect, like a breath of fresh air.
As the Winehouse wraps up its first NXNE spotlight series, Burns talks about her early Fisher Price music making days, the solitary–and empowering–making of her solo album, Life in the Midwater, and the one and only Nina Simone. Chaka V.
Q: How long have you been performing and what is the first thing you remember about music (playing the violin or singing) as a child?
A: I’ve been performing professionally for about 8 years, though I grew up playing violin in school orchestras and recitals. I think my first memory of singing takes place when I was about 6 and [involves] my next-door neighbour and me singing over TLC and Montell Jordan cassette tapes into one of those little Fisher Price Microphone & Tape players for kids. We loved to make up parody lyrics to pop songs and record them for fun. We’d do that all the time.
Q: Violins are still kind of an uncommon instrument used in mainstream indie/pop or folk music? How instrumental is the violin in your sound and creative process?
A: For this project, the violin work always comes last for me. Because I’ve spent the vast majority of my musical energy over the years accompanying other artists with the violin, I’m excited that my solo work gives me a space to make my voice the focal point. People have said that my singing and violin playing mimic each other–It’s entirely subconscious, but I’ll take that! I think strings are unique in their particular ability to behave like a human voice. In my writing, [the] violin helps give the guitar and vocals some company, and since I don’t work with a band, it definitely fills out the sound and provides warmth in a way that I love. But the string arrangements are always the last piece of the puzzle. This could change, but for now, I like to write knowing that the songs could stand alone with just guitar and voice if they had to. It makes me feel like they’re solidly built.
Q: One of my favourite singer-songwriters of all time is Joni Mitchell. I hear a bit of Joni Mitchell in your voice. Which artists and/or records have influenced your style?
A: Thank you. I really love her album “Blue.” “Time (the Revelator)” by Gillian Welch is also huge influence. Nina Simone’s voice and gusto is a continual influence to me. She just seemed so fearless in her writing and delivery and I love that. She was one of those people that seemed to sing with her whole body, you know? When I listen to her, I never question that she was giving of herself completely. Tiny Vipers’ is another one. Her songs are in a minimalist hue, but all so striking. I feel like St. Vincent takes straight forward song structures and introduces a bit of weird into each of them, and I love that too.
Q: You released your album Life in the Midwater last year. Can you share with me the making of Midwater? What was your goal and vision for the album? And did you enjoy the process?
A: The goal was to capture a snapshot of these songs that were a little autobiography of my life at that time. Almost a year before I recorded the record, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I left Austin to take care of her. She and I were super close, so it was incredibly rough. A lot of the songs were my way to sort of process and try to find a way to accept what was happening and confront some foggy ideas of the divine. After she passed and I got back to Austin, all I could do was make that record.
I’d been singing most of those songs for a while just in houses and I really wanted the artifact to represent that sound: very acoustic, natural and intentionally very stripped down. More significantly though, I wanted to see what kind of record I could make if I were sitting at the helm. That record is the first batch of songs I’ve written entirely on my own and invested in, and it was the first time I didn’t have 5 bandmates to turn to in the studio to help decide how everything should sound. So, the recording process was a bit terrifying–parts of me are so perfectionist and anxious about irreversible things. I didn’t want to regret anything. I think I tend to feel some tension in the studio, a mild discomfort at the fear of letting myself down. But, in the end, it was also unfathomably empowering. Maybe it’s a bit how a runner might describe running a race or something. It definitely takes all of you and some stress to make it happen, but crossing the finish line in a way you’re pleased with is some kind of unbridled joy.
Q: I have to say congratulations for being one of six Austin musicians selected by Music across Borders to attend NXNE. How did it feel to be chosen when Austin is filled with such incredible talent?
A: Thank you! I’m so excited and quite honored to be chosen. There’s a lot of music here and so many artists working hard to make something happen. It feels great to be recognized by the community and to be in such talented company on this trip! Pretty special.
Q: You’ve performed at SXSW recently? What does being part of NXNE mean to you?
A: Yes, between my solo work and the other band I play in, Balmorhea, I’ve performed at South By in one way or another for the last 6 years or so. SXSW in the past has been a great opportunity for me to see bands I’d been hoping to catch but also to just wander into a place and discover something new that I loved. I’m hoping this time that maybe someone will have the same experience with me on the other side of the stage. I’ve never been to Toronto, so I’m thrilled for the opportunity to play at NXNE. I love that what I’m guessing may be a vaguely similar style of festival is happening thousands of miles away. Somehow, it makes the world seem quite small.