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From pop star to producer, Louise Burns brings her own flair to any project | Vancouver Sun
“I’m doing everything online and haven’t seen a lot of these people I’m working with anywhere but over Zoom. So there is all this music that feels like it only exists online to me that is getting released.” — Louise Burns
Louise Burns knows all about the ups and downs of the musician’s life.
As the bassist of Lillix, she was signed to Maverick in 2001 at age 15. Maverick boasted a roster of such stars as label co-founder Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Erasure and released two albums by Lillix. When the label folded, along with so many others in the early 2000s, the band kept going long enough to put out an independent release in 2010.
Titled Tigerlily in honour of the group’s original name, the record was probably the best by the band. Lillix still imploded.
Burns set about launching a solo career.
In 2011, Mellow Drama came out on Light Organ Records. Longlisted for a 2011 Polaris Music Prize, the album introduced a songwriter with an ear for tight hooks, dramatic delivery and a persistent sense of melancholic groove. The Midnight Mass followed in 2013 and the track Emeralds Shatter was nominated for a SOCAN Songwriting Prize the year after. Young Mopes arrived in 2017 and also made the Polaris longlist.
By 2019’s Portraits, reviewers were referring to Burns as a Canadian gem.
What they weren’t noting was how the musician was turning up all over albums by other artists, working behind the boards as a producer. From folk/pop duo FIONN to acclaimed singer-songwriter Jody Glenham to the debut LP from rising singer Molly Annelle, Burns is busy as ever during the pandemic.
“I’ve been in the bubble for the past five years of working in production, particularly at 604 and Light Organ — who I’m signed to — which gives me opportunity to work with up-and-coming new artists signed to either label,” said Burns.
“But I’m also getting more and more calls for people outside of that tight-knit family, which is really interesting. I think I’ve always found being a producer and songwriter more enjoyable than the whole live experience in many ways.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic making concerts pretty well impossible, Burns says that hunkering down in her Amethyst Studios in East Vancouver is the perfect thing to be doing. This doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit weird.
“It’s the right time in my life to be doing this, but it’s also odd,” she said. “I’m doing everything online and haven’t seen a lot of these people I’m working with anywhere but over Zoom. So there is all this music that feels like it only exists online to me that is getting released.”
The key thing to Burns is that she is confident about the work she’s doing, openly admitting that she took a lot of knocks to get to that point.
“After I left Lillix, I began a journey through the Vancouver music scene that took about five years playing bass for any, every, band that asked me to,” she said. “Then I came back as the solo ‘me’ by 2011. A lot had changed by that time.”
One thing that changed was the arrogant macho posturing of grunge and the tedious “no sellout” pretentiousness of bands that — in the end — only wanted money and fame anyways. As a pop artist, Burns had heard her fill of criticisms levelled at her genre of choice. Her bio notes that she should have told all the poseurs “I sold a hundred thousand records before I was 18. What have you done?”
She didn’t say it. Instead, she let an endless fascination about what it was that made some music so much crisper and alive than other — even when it wasn’t always remarkable — guide her into production.
“After spending so much time trying to perfect the skills to write the best songs possible, you come to the realization that so much of it really comes down to the production,” Burns said. “It’s OK to be the person in the room calling the shots instead of asking for direction, and it took awhile to understand I was allowed to trust my own instincts in the studio after being told what to do. There still aren’t a lot of females in audio engineering to refer back to, to kind of help you admit that you are a producer and here I am.”
Like any other producer/co-writer, Burns has her own distinct way of working. She breaks down her method in discussing how the song Masquerade by new artist Michaela Slinger came together.
“Michaela brought most of the song to me and Kevvy Mental with a pretty crafted idea of the chorus and lyrics bare bones on acoustic guitar,” said Burns.
“My main mantra for songwriting is that if I can’t remember it, I’m not doing it. The hook and melody needs something that sticks or it’s probably not that good. Michaela had great lyrics and good melodies, Kevvy added the beats to solidify it and I just made the chord progression in the pre-chorus stand out to really lock it in.”
It’s an approach that has worked out well for her so far. In fact, the demand for that melodic knack that makes her own material such as the single Just Walk Away standout just keeps growing. Burns says that every production job she does just elevates the skills she can apply to her own solo recordings.
It’s a direction she wants to see more women in the industry pursue. To that end, she has just joined We Are Moving the Needle, a new initiative started by Grammy-winning engineer Emily Lazar. The organization aims to get females scholarships to attend top audio schools as well as mentor newcomers.
Burns is in fine company on the advisory “soundboard” with Brandi Carlile, HAIM, Linda Perry, Sara Quinn of Tegan and Sarah and many others.
“Honestly, I thought by now after decades on the periphery of this business, I would have become bitter, jaded and shrivel up and die,” she said. “But it’s such an exciting time now, with the gatekeepers completely losing control. I’m really inspired and excited by it all.”
She’s putting all this energy back into her new album, which she is co-producing with Jason Corbett of the excellent local band ACTORS. The album is due out some time in 2022.