Louise Burns Is Happy But She Still Wants to Write Sad Songs
The former pop-punk musician talks about breaking her hip, meeting Madonna, and her new record, 'Young Mopes.'
Photos by Jennilee Marigomen
Louise Burns is only 31 years old, but the Vancouver native is already in her third decade as a musician. At the age of 11 she co-founded the Cranbrook, BC-based pop-rock outfit Lillix (originally Tigerlily) while she was still in elementary school. Like any kid at that age, there were dreams of becoming pop stars and, in their case, touring the world with their future BFs in Hanson. And you know what? That dream of theirs nearly came true.
In 2001, the band signed to Madonna's label Maverick Records, which made stars out of Candlebox, Alanis Morissette, and Deftones. They met the Queen of Pop, got her seal of approval, and then changed their name to Lillix (another Tigerlily existed) and moved to Los Angeles to make an album. Unfortunately for Lillix, another Canadian star was born first and the next year Avril Lavigne changed the game for teenage pop stars. Overnight, the label forced an insincere image on the girls to cash in on the "pop-punk princess" trend. Lillix released two albums – 2003's Falling Uphill and 2006's Inside the Hollow – but despite minor hits like "It's About Time" and a cover of the Romantics' "What I Like About You," neither managed to crack Billboard. Things only got worse when after the release of Inside the Hollow, Maverick folded and all of a sudden Lillix were without a home. The band would soldier on, but not without Burns.
Instead of continuing to play music she felt detached from, Louise Burns decided to pursue a solo career. It took her some time to decide if that's what she wanted, but in 2011 she worked with renowned producer Dave "Rave" Ogilvie on her debut album, Mellow Drama, which found its way onto the Polaris Music Prize longlist. The next year she joined the Arts & Crafts-signed indie band Gold & Youth, whose 2013 album Beyond Wilderness was released just two months before her next solo album, The Midnight Mass (co-produced by Colin Stewart and the Raveonettes' Sune Rose Wagner). In the span of two years, Burns had released three albums – one more than Lillix had released in twice that time.
Burns now returns with her third solo effort, Young Mopes, an album that once again came at a time of serious reflection in her life. Just before she began making it, Burns broke her hip in the line of duty, and the recovery – once she realized what had happened – allowed her time to reconsider her career path. Luckily she chose to continue, because Young Mopes is her sharpest collection of songs, and one that finds her expanding on the scope of her '80s-inspired goth pop to include such disparate influences as country music and the sitar.
Noisey caught up with Burns during a ferry ride to Victoria, where she was en route to play a gig with Yukon Blonde, to discuss her unique 20-year-long musical journey.
Noise: One thing that is quite shocking from the album's press release is that you are a 20-year veteran.
Louise Burns: It's pretty ridiculous. I think that because every five years what I'm doing is so completely different. Like small-town girl band, then major label record label, touring around the world, and then back to Vancouver's indie scene to what I'm doing now. Every phase has been very different. In some ways it's definitely kind of weird. But it's all I've ever really known, so it's hard to compare it to not being in the business.
Was there ever a point where you were felt you were done with music?
Yeah, definitely. I think that right before I began recording this record I wasn't sure if I could keep doing it. I broke my hip on stage at a show after Midnight Mass came out and I was playing with Gold & Youth. It was just kind of a wake up call for me, like, "Hmm… I guess I'm not invincible and I won't be young forever and I can't keep living my life the same way and ignore things that are eventually going to screw myself up physically." So there was a time when I just stepped back and thought about whether it was something I wanted to keep doing. It had been a long time and I didn't know if it wasn't going in the direction I wanted it to. Did I really want to put up with another ten years of this? And the answer was yes. But I did feel reflective going into the recording of this new record.
How exactly did you break your hip?
Well, I was on stage and I had two guitars I had to load off at the same time, just to make it a quick changeover. And the stage was on the back of a truck, this temporary thing in a parking lot for the Red Bull Music Academy, and there were cords everywhere. So I tripped while carrying these two guitars, and it caused a stress fracture. I didn't know it was broken for a year. That was the issue I had to get reflective on. I didn't even take care of it! I just kept going. It was stupid of me. I went to so many doctors and they all just said it was a pulled muscle, and then finally I went to a chiropractor because I was walking like I had scoliosis or something. My mom is a physiotherapist and she said, "You're fucked! You need to get that checked out." This was a year later. And then my chiropractor made me get an x-ray. So sure enough, that was when I discovered it. And yeah, it permanently healed in the wrong direction. In the grand scale of things, I'm lucky. It's not that bad, but in the future it's gonna come back to haunt me. But what can you do? Life lessons, right?
So, let's talk about the beginning. I hate to admit it, but I knew of Louise Burns before Lillix. Your first band totally passed me by.
[Laughs] That's hilarious.
I know Lillix wrote and performed their own music. How often did the band have to remind people that you weren't just puppets?
All the time. Actually, I have a funny memory of being interviewed by Ed the Sock in Toronto. He was really sweet to us. He knew about us and that we weren't manufactured, but as we were talking to him he stopped the interview and said, "Why are you girls so defensive? I'm not accusing you of anything but you're acting like I am. Chill out." And we had a moment where we realized it was true. We were so used to telling people, "Yes, we do write our own songs. Yes, we do play our instruments. We're not a manufactured band," even though that was the era for them. But that is something we had always done. Every interview we were defending ourselves to prove we wrote our own songs. It was pretty boring. But yeah, I even brought some of that into my own career later on. It's funny though. You're a young girl and people think you don't do anything yourself. Makes a lot of sense, I guess. Unfortunately.
I bet that's because most people don't know of young teenagers who spend their time writing music. Especially pre-internet days.
That's very true. Or at least music that ends up getting a record deal. We were pretty lucky. It's kind of crazy actually.
So for people like me that aren't familiar with Lillix's history, how did the band form?
Two of the sisters grew up playing music together, and they asked me to join in seventh grade. They passed me a note in class that read, "Wanna join my sister's band?" We had our first songwriting meeting and thought we were gonna be famous. We thought we were gonna meet Hanson [laughs]! We were very serious. We would practice every day after school and write songs all the time. We had this weird focus. I think it was because we didn't get into hockey or other small town activities. We just had all of that. It was pre-internet, and there wasn't a whole lot going on for teenagers. So all of our energy went there.
How long did it take for things to happen for the band?
It took about four or five years to get to a demo. We had this guy in Cranbrook who approached us and offered to get us a record deal if we paid him $20,000. And my dad asked a lawyer, whom he found in the Socan directory, and that lawyer was Jonathan Simkin (Founder of 604 Records, Light Organ Records, Simkin Artist Management). He told us not to sign and asked to hear our demo, because he thought it would be hilarious to hear music by 13-year-old girls from Cranbrook, BC. But he thought it was really good and shopped us a deal. Maverick responded and flew us down to L.A. And they signed us the same day they saw us play.
What was it like signing to Maverick at 15 years old?
It was nuts. We were crying when we found out. We were so excited. But at the same time I don't think we really understood how big of a deal it was, because we were from a small town and we weren't really aware of the real world yet. We were sheltered teenagers. We thought Hanson would take us on tour and everything would be great. And then two years later we were broken down, busted teenagers, totally traumatized. It was amazing, sure, but we just didn't understand the full scale of what happened until we were older.
And you got to meet Madonna?
We did, yeah. We were on a trip down to L.A. to meet up with producers the label wanted to hook us up with. And then Guy O'Seary, who was the head of the label and now manages Madonna and U2, he was like, [adopts silly voice] "Oh, uh, there's one more producer I'd like to introduce you to." We go upstairs to his office, and sure enough there is Madonna sitting on a couch, just waiting for us. It was kind of funny because we didn't get that nervous. We were a little too young and too naïve to really know that this was in fact Madonna. So we giggled and played her some acoustic songs and she gave us some advice, like, "Stay in school. Don't be a dummy." And then she said, [adopts high voice], "Come babysit my children some time!" Which I'm sure she genuinely meant. And that was it.
So what era was this? I think that would be the time Music came out?
I think it was the year Music came out, so 2000? I think we met her in 2001, so just post- Music.
You moved to Los Angeles, correct?
Yeah, we lived there for a while, on and off— four months here, three months there, five months here. But we'd be down there every month for at least a week or two. So we spent a great deal of our teenhood there and in San Francisco, recording the album.
And this was like a Monkees or S Club deal where you guys were living together in an apartment?
Totally. On the first trip we had a parent chaperone. Our parents had to rotate because they couldn't spend the whole time down there due to work. So every two weeks we'd get a new parent to supervise us. But it was so fun! It was definitely full of teenage girl drama, but we were there during 9/11, Aaliyah's death, an earthquake—it was a crazy time for us. We have a lot of funny memories, but also a lot of painful teenage memories too.
What kind of control did Lillix have over the music and image once you signed to Maverick?
I wish we had more. We definitely stuck to our guns and either wrote or co-wrote – that's a big thing—our songs. A lot of people in the industry say they wrote their music, but it actually means they are one of several people that wrote the songs
True. Just look at any Beyoncé or Adele song. There is anywhere from three to 20 songwriters attached.
You're never getting any pop star that has 100 percent of the writing credit. That just doesn't happen. So we had quite a few songs on the record that were 100 percent. And then our singles there were several songwriters. Like the Matrix co-wrote "It's About Time" with us, which was our very first single. And our other song with Linda Perry we wrote with just her. It was a very amazing experience, like going to songwriting school with people who had legit success. That's crazy! To this day I still take a lot of that and use it in my own writing. They did kind of mess with us a bit though. Songwriting became about commerce as opposed to art. As I get older I think that's actually smart, but at the time it was confusing.
With the image thing, it was definitely a lot of the label trying to make us look like Avril Lavigne. They tried to push this punk look on us and we kept saying, "We don't wanna be punk! We don't know know what that means!" And we weren't punk. But that was the early 2000s when it was all about Avril Lavigne's fashion or whatever. So there were some confusing and conflicting things going on with our image and music. And I think why Lillix maybe didn't go farther was because everything was a compromise and just done half-assed instead of fully committed. So it was pretty damaging to both our image and music, because no one understood what we were and we weren't allowed to be genuine and work with people we liked. The label was really trying to get on the radio by imitating the current sound, which still happens to this day.
So did you find that Linda Perry and the Matrix were on your side? Or were they just there to do the job and get paid?
Every person that we worked with, save one or two, was very nurturing and thoughtful. They were also doing their jobs, but they were supportive of what we were doing. We learned a lot from the experience. Linda Perry told the band, except for Tasha - who was considered the lead singer - that we didn't matter and we had to do what Tasha said. And we were like, "No, you don't understand us." That was probably the worst thing she said to us, but she was also very encouraging. She told us to get on the road and pay our dues. And then the Matrix were just three very nice people who lived in Brentwood with this studio mansion and they just invited us to write a song. Everything was all breezy, but then we get the track back and it's all auto-tuned, it wasn't us playing the instruments, they had replaced everything. But at the time, it's hard to say, we were trying to be on the radio. We weren't trying to make this honest, indie rock record. So I get it now, but back in the day it was quite painful for us to be considered replaceable. Either way, it was a huge learning experience. I'm old enough now where I can let go of that bitterness I felt for such a long time.
I read somewhere that the label sent members of the band to a weight-loss camp?
Yeah, so the two sisters [Tasha-Ray Evin and Lacey-Lee Evin] were both beautiful teenage girls who did not need any help at all, but the label wanted them to lose weight. I remember sitting in Cranbrook on a nice sunny day, and I got a phone call from Jonathan [Simkin], who said, "I have some awful news. I'm so sorry but the label won't release the record until the girls lose some weight." It was so insane. We had already been working on that record for about two years. Like, seriously hard work. And that was kind of the final straw. And the best part of the story is that the girls – who were sent to a yoga retreat type thing in BC, which was very expensive – came back with incredibly fit bodies, but they hadn't lost a single pound [laughs]. It was the best "fuck you" ever. They did it. You can't say they didn't try. But they came back in great shape, looking like athletes, instead with these willowy thin, Kate Moss bodies, which is what I think the label wanted.
Lillix played the Warped Tour in 2004. Was that at all satisfying or at least an escape for you?
It was terrifying. We got asked because Kevin Lyman put us on this Girlz Garage Tour earlier that year. His daughter was a big fan so he offered us the whole Warped Tour, and we said yes, even though we weren't sure the audience would get us. Sure enough we did four dates – Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Calgary—and we got bottled [laughs]! Obviously. We were four girls making pop on this pop-punk tour. It was confusing, but it was fun though. Our first show there was Anti-Flag and then the Casualties were standing behind us just in case anything bad happened. They were like our protection. It was really sweet, actually.
So what happened after the label went under in 2006?
We were so devastated because it was tough. It wasn't just the label dropping us. The label went under. Warner Bros. picked up Alanis Morissette, Deftones, Michelle Branch and a few others, but they didn't pick us up. We got dropped in that way. It was really hard because we had been touring and riding off label money for a long time. All of a sudden we had to do it alone. For a while it was fine. We toured with Yellowcard and Marianas Trench, so we were still active. But I just wasn't happy. I wasn't enjoying myself. I didn't like the music, never really did. So I decided if I was going to make music I was going to do it by myself.
Wait, so you didn't like the music you made with Lillix?
No, not at all [laughs]. I think there was a time where I was excited about the way it was going, but the label took it over and changed it, so I wasn't really happy with that. It wasn't what I was listening to. I never liked Avril Lavigne. None of us ever listened to that kind of music. But I guess we were just too aware of the business perspective behind it to complain.
How did you feel about music at the time?
I needed to convince myself and try to rediscover the passion behind it, because I definitely didn't feel any of it after Lillix. If the only reason to make music was to make money, I didn't want to be a part of it anymore. So I took some time and moved to Vancouver, joined some bands and played bass and keyboards, and had some fun again without any pressure or a label. And that is what got me back into writing and putting out records again.
Is it true you played keyboards for Carly Rae Jepsen when she toured with Justin Bieber?
No, it didn't happen. Some bad blood happened and it wasn't a good ending. She asked me to, and she's asked me to play in her band a few times, but it's never worked out.
How hard was it to rebrand yourself just as Louise Burns, singer-songwriter?
I think I was nervous with the first record because I thought maybe people would consider me this Lillix member riding the coattails of my past. So I didn't really play it up much when I was putting that record out. I was definitely nervous. But once I had that first record out and it was received well, I chilled out.
Why was turning 30 such a freeing, positive experience for you? Most people dread the thought of it.
I think before I was so preoccupied with success and youth because that's what a lot of musicians are praised for. And I was sort of scared that when I get older no one will care anymore, and my chance would be up, which is totally crazy and total bullshit. But when I turned 30 I realized that this is the era where all of my favourite artists put out their best music. It was just the beginning for me. But I was really nervous about it. In Lillix our drummer was always told to lie about her age. So those kinds of things were always in the back of my head, and then one day I just didn't care anymore.
A year ago you spent a month in the Yukon as the songwriter-in-residence at the Dawson City Music Festival. Did you find it to be a productive experience?
I did. I wrote a lot of songs. I don't know if I would record them as an album today, but I did a lot of writing and experimenting. But it was also a different kind of writing. I felt like I was in a rut. I had just finished [ Young Mopes] and I didn't know what to do, so it was a nice time to fool around without any real commitments. I came up with a lot of demos and ideas that I think can be the building blocks for my next record.
How do you think Young Mopes differs most from The Midnight Mass ?
[Laughs] Midnight Mass is kind of a dark record. I wrote it when I lived in a basement apartment going through my mid-20s. And this one I just sort of enjoyed myself. I was more in control and clear-headed. I stopped worrying about a theme and a genre, and just went ahead and did it. It was pretty liberating for me. And I co-produced it, which was exciting.
There is more diversity to this album. Like, a sitar, for example.
It was definitely not a real sitar [laughs]. We thought about it but it was too expensive to get the player that we had in mind. But yeah, it's all over the place and I'm really into that because that's who I am. I'm a scatterbrain.
In an interview you did for your first album you admitted, "I don't think I've ever written a happy song." Has that changed?
No, I don't think it has. I'm not necessarily writing sad songs. But I'm definitely more influenced by the darker side of my emotions. I don't find happiness that inspiring. Obviously I want to be happy. I'm a happy person, but I don't want to write about that. I just don't know how to do that and not sound corny. I like when it's done well but I don't think I can do it well, so I just don't.
Cam Lindsay is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.