On Friday, April 4, at 11 AM, local band Georgie James will be joining us for our very first arts & entertainment chat. Bandmates Laura Burhenn and John Davis will answer any questions you might have about touring, the local music scene, and their album, Places, a vibrant collection of indie pop tracks that seamlessly blend Burhenn and Davis’s vocals with catchy percussive beats and handclaps. Pitchfork described the album as “power pop all the way.”
The result of a series of practice and writing sessions between Davis and Burhenn at the Brookland Studios in 2005, Georgie James has appeared on the Conan O’Brian show, toured Europe and Japan, and recently performed at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, alongside other DC bands.
Not familiar with Georgie James’s sound? Listen to some of their best tunes here, and check them out when they perform live at the Black Cat on April 5.For the full archives of arts & entertainment chats, click here.
I love how unique each of your songs are and how you play with so many different sounds – what do you consider your biggest musical influences? What experiences do you draw on when crafting your lyrics?
John: Thanks. I'm glad you like the music. Biggest influences are a little hard to pin down. We're definitely fans to varying degrees of a lot of the canon (Beatles, Beach Boys, Kinks, The Who, Bowie, etc.) and then we go off into our own places on lots of other music. There are loads of bands or singers that I love that Laura probably doesn't like or perhaps merely tolerates and she likes a lot of music that I don't really like. I'm glad, though, that our tastes diverge in places, as I think it helps in the long run. From my perspective, some of the biggest influences on the record are The Beat, Elvis Costello, The Flamin' Groovies, The Beatles, The Jam, Bread, The Who, Todd Rundgren, The Kinks, Richard & Linda Thompson, The Buzzcocks and scads of faceless power-pop bands of the late 70s and bubblegum bands of the late 60s. There's plenty more in there, but I won't bore you by parsing out each influence for each song. Lyrically speaking, for the songs in which I wrote the lyrics, my songs on this record have generally been about looking back on where I've been and where I've come to. I think the eye to the past was a wary one and the attitude I have now is gratitude at being in a good place. I don't know if that's what future songs will be out, but that seemed to be a general theme on this first record. It gave me a chance to reflect on my life so far and led me to realize I'm glad to be here.
What's your favorite venue to play at in the city?
Laura: It's great to see how many new venues have been cropping up across the city over the past few years — and not just brand new venues like the Rock & Roll Hotel or the Red & the Black, but non-traditional places that have been reinvented as venues — like the Synagogue at 6th and I. That said, it's been great to play at non-traditional venues like Fort Reno (one of the very best traditions in DC) and St. Stephens (for Positive Force). Of course, the 9:30 Club is always wonderful. And I'd have to say the Black Cat is my personal favorite. I've still got my fingers crossed for a show at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre though.
I'm actually really curious about the name of the band. How did you guys come up with it?
John: Once we started writing songs and knew we were probably going to start a band, we started thinking of possible names. It took a couple of months and we eventually agreed that we liked "stage" names, if you will, like Georgie Fame, David Soul, Chris Rainbow, etc. We agreed on "Georgie," but we couldn't come up with the last name. After a couple weeks, I suggested "James" (inspired by spying a James Taylor biography perched on my bookshelf) and we agreed on Georgie James. I'm not a huge fan of the name, but it works.
What are some of your musical influences?
Laura: John and I have some similar musical influences that bind our music together (the Beatles, the Who, the Zombies, the Kinks, Simon & Garfunkel to name only a few). But there are also some places where our influences diverge a bit, which gives our music some good flavor, I think. I try to keep my ear on the sounds from the newest bands, and would personally cite Neil Young, Carole King, Nina Simone as a few musical influences from the formative years. But I tend to draw on other things besides music — poets, authors, people in the news, and people I pass on the street. Songs are stories for me, so I don't limit myself to musical influence just.
Are you guys working on a new album? When can we expect some new music from Georgie James?
John: We're writing independently, but we haven't gotten together to work on new songs yet. There isn't a schedule for that, so I'm not sure when it'll happen. So, I can't give you a timetable for a record yet. But new music IS being worked on, so maybe we'll get together and write some songs together before too long.
If you guys weren’t musicians, what would you be doing as a career?
Laura: While I occasionally get the itch to drive a taxi or pilot a plane (I'm not sure why), I would probably be teaching in some capacity — songwriting, literature, creative writing. I'm most impressed by what the Sitar Arts Center has done in DC and could see myself doing a similar thing (working f0r or even starting an arts center for disadvantaged kids) even when I'm still playing music and putting out records at some point down the line. I was lucky to have art in my life growing up. It really shaped who I am as a person, and I think so many kids could reap the benefits of having the opportunity to express themselves creatively. I can't speak for John, but I know he'd be an amazing DJ. He knows more about pop music than anyone I've ever met. Just going through his record collection, listening to him "iPod DJ" in the van on tour can be a great learning experience. So I guess that even if we weren't musicians, we'd be involved with music in some direct capacity.
When can we see a Q and Not U reunion?!? 😉
John: I do miss playing with those guys and playing the drums regularly, although, I'm happier getting to play guitar and sing in GJ. But playing in Q And Not U was a very different thing and it was a great experience. I learned so much from it and it really defined a big part of my life. Those guys were great friends of mine and I hope to work with them again someday, at least in some capacity. There is a Q And Not U project in the works, though, as we're putting a together a DVD. It's still in the very early planning stages and I'm going over footage with Scott Mueller, the director (who also co-directed the "Need Your Needs" video for GJ). Not sure of the direction of the Q DVD yet, but I hope we finish it off by the end of the year. There's a lot of good footage and I think the three of us would really like to get a document of our live show out there. It was a huge part of what the band was, so I want to make it available.
How did you guys get together originally? I know you were doing your own thing, Laura, and that John was just out of Q and Not U. Did you guys know each other beforehand?
Laura: In early 2005, the person I was dating was a big supporter of my solo music (I'd been releasing records on my own and playing out since 1999) and was secretly sending my CDs to some people around DC — one of whom was John. When I found out, I was pretty mortified. In the end it worked out okay, though. Things with Q and Not U were winding down (I was and still am a huge fan of theirs, by the way). So John and I decided to get together to play some songs and see what could happen. Pretty quickly we'd written an entire album and went in to Silver Sonya (in Arlington) to record some demos. The rest, as they say, is history.
Laura, what are some of your favorite local bands?
Laura: It's great to see so many bands flourishing in DC these days. I really love These United States, Vandaveer, the Aquarium, Mary Timony, Kitty Hawk, Carol Bui, and Jukebox the Ghost — just to name a few. It's great to see Dischord still doing the good work, putting and keeping bands on the scene, and a label like Gypsy Eyes bringing new things to the table. All in all, it's a pretty exciting time for DC music.
Where do you guys hang out in the city? Any favorite spots?
John: That weird giant atrium cafe at the Portrait Gallery? My wife and I love that place. The gardens at the National Cathedral. The Amazon exhibit at the Zoo. Roosevelt Island. The Arboretum is probably my favorite place in the city, especially in the spring, of course. The McLean Gardens tennis courts and the adjoining public garden. Joe's Record Paradise for LPs, out in Rockville/Gaithersburg. Marathon Deli in College Park. Nolte Field in Silver Spring. Video Americain in Takoma Park. The vestibules at Cabin John Mall in Potomac when the summer is at its hottest. The heat and that weird, stuffy, metallic smell just bring me right back to when I was kid and I would walk over there with my brother to buy Duran Duran or Michael Jackson heat-transfer t-shirts and then saunter on down to the strip mall to watch movies at the now long-gone Roth's movie theater. There are plenty more spots, but I've gone on enough.
Laura: Since we've been touring so much since the fall, we haven't been around DC that much to hang out, which is unfortunate, since we both love DC so much. I'm excited that it's finally getting to be spring as I love to hang out outside — DC has so much good green space. The Rock Creek Park, the Zoo, Malcom X Park… I love to take advantages of the museums when I can (the Hirshhorn's my favorite — particularly great when they do art after hours), go to shows at venues all over town. And I've recently become really partial to meeting friends at quiet restaurants for some one-on-one catch up time. That's the thing I miss most when I'm on the road — face-to-face time with good friends.
You guys both had such different sounds in your previous bands/solo careers. How did you come to arrive at the sort of poppy, jangly sound you have now?
Laura: It's true that Q and Not U sounds very different from the solo records I was releasing. But if you'd compare our record collections, pool together the bands and songs and sounds that have been the greatest influences on us, it wouldn't seem that crazy for our sound to be what it is. Our songs emerged pretty organically. That is to say that we didn't sit down and say, "Let's write an album that sounds like Richard and Linda Thompson [or the Jam or whatever]." One of us would have an idea for a riff (piano or guitar) and the other would get inspired by it. Layer by layer, part by part, the songs just took on a life of their own.
What's the process for you guys creating a song? Do you write your own songs, or do you collaborate – ie somebody comes up with the melody, the other writes lyrics, and so forth…?
Laura: Different songs call for different creative processes. Sometimes I'll come to the practice space with a song that's mostly finished and John will add drums, bass, guitar, harmonies, and offer up ideas for arrangement; other times it's the reverse. There are definitely some songs on "Places" that were fully collaborative efforts from start to finish. "Henry and Hanzy" is probably the most notable. I think, with this first record, it was exciting to experiment with the writing process. So we tried different approaches — and found that they all worked.
John, what are you listening to these days?
John: At the moment, I am listening to Wendell Stuart's "I Am Who I Am" (Stuart was a Bahamian pop star from the 60s/70s). I've also been listening a lot recently to The Wipers, Van Duren, Julius Wechter And The Baja Marimba Band, Black Flag, Chris Montez, The Four Freshmen, Tony Mottola, The Choir, ABBA, Paul Williams, etc.
How was SXSW? Share some fun stories!
Laura: SXSW was amazing — and one of the most exhausting experiences of my life. We played 7 shows in 3 days, often carting our equipment through the throngs of people and 90-degree heat (a taxing, but welcome change). The best part about the whole experience is getting to see so many musician friends you've made along the road, getting a chance to see and hear them live (if you can fit it into your schedule), and catch up over a quick drink. Playing the Saddle Creek showcase was a great experience — it was the first time we got to meet some of our labelmates. I feel like I must have some really amazing stories that I can't quite think of at the moment. Hmm… If you don't really know what SXSW is or haven't ever been, I highly recommend downloading Bob Boilen's two-part SXSW podcast from the All Songs Considered site. It's pretty intensive.
Laura, are you working on any solo stuff? I need new songs from you!
Laura: That's really sweet of you to ask — and demand! I'm always working on new things, and filing away some ideas and songs that are a little too introspective to work as Georgie James material. I'd like to record another solo effort down the line when the time's right. Obviously I wouldn't want to divert my attention from GJ when the momentum's still good.
Will you guys be playing any new songs during your show tomorrow?
Laura: I can't believe we haven't played the Black Cat since November! We're really excited to be back in DC and be playing there after such a hiatus. We've added some new covers to our set (including a pretty amazing Otis Redding song), but haven't had a chance to work on new material as our touring schedule has been so hectic. So we'll be pulling some "new to you" songs out of our hat anyway.
Every time I go to a show in the area, I'm always disappointed with the crowd. Nobody really dances—in fact, people don't really move at all—and I feel like a lot of people just stand there and chat with friends without really listening to the music. It drives me crazy. Do you notice that as the performers on stage?
Laura: The energy and attention (or lack of it) of the crowd is definitely something you notice from the stage. It can be tough sometimes if you get the feeling the crowd is distracted and isn't too into what you're doing — because a live show is really a symbiotic experience, meaning that the band draws energy from the crowd and vice versa. But crowds are so different from city to city, so you learn not to (or at least *try* not to) take it personally.
Are any of your songs inspired by DC or about the city?
Laura: I can't speak for John, but both "Cheap Champagne" and "Cake Parade" are very much politically-charged songs. They may not be about "DC, the city" exactly; but they're definitely about "DC, the seat of world power" for sure. I'd love to write some love songs for DC. It's such a great place. It's easy for people (particularly outsiders) to miss the best parts of DC because they're focused on the political atmosphere.
Aside from yourselves, who do you think are the best DC bands that deserve more attention than they're currently receiving?
Laura: Any of the local bands I mentioned earlier deserve a ton more attention — and I hope they get it! It can be tough to know how much time, effort, love, work your friends put into their bands — because you know how much you've put into your own project — and watch them get frustrated by a lack of broader attention. But I think what holds true is that the bands that keep working — no matter what — will eventually get the spotlight they deserve. That's the eternal optimist in me hoping anyway.
What's the most exciting city you visited while on tour for your album?
Laura: A lot of the European cities we visited back in the fall and winter were pretty amazing — it was my first time visiting a lot of them. I really liked Basel, Switzerland and Manchester, England. Of course, it was great to get to Glasgow, Scotland to see our friends from Camera Obscura. We'd seen them a couple of times at shows they played in the US. But in Glasgow, we got a little more time to catch up with them… I have to say that my favorite US city to visit was Memphis, I think partly because I wasn't expecting much. But we went for a tour of the Stax museum — it is one of the greatest museums I've ever been to, spelling out the history of that music so incredibly well. And it's a living museum, too — it has a music school connected to it. It felt incredible to be in that city with so much history, musical and otherwise; and everyone was so lovely. I even got to have vegetarian BBQ (made with portobello mushrooms) — I thought I was going to be excluded from that Southern tradition, but somebody was looking out for the vegetarians!
How often do you guys practice together and how much work is done on your own?
Laura: Practice time varies based on what mode we're in. If we're writing a lot or getting ready to record, we practice a lot. If we've got a show or a tour on the horizon, we cram. But in the down time, we keep writing on our own, putting ideas on paper and tape to bring to the next practice session.
What's your favorite song to play?
Laura: My favorite song varies from time to time. Sometimes it feels really good to slow down a bit and sing "Long Week" from the bottom of my heart. And sometimes it feels good to step back from the keyboard and sing harmonies at the top of my lungs and just play the tambourine. Other times, I love singing "Cake Parade" — I love to tell that story as much as I can. And certainly I love singing quietly, just John and I harmonizing together on a cover like "El Condor Pasa." The great thing about our music is that is has variety. So there's a season for it all.
How did the process of getting signed by Saddle Creek Records work out?
Laura: We finished recording "Places" at Silver Sonya with TJ Lipple and Chad Clark in the fall of 2006. We weren't sure what we were going to do with it. We'd hoped that someone would want to put the record out, but were willing to release it on our own if it came to that because we had so much faith in the music. John had known Saddle Creek through some of his earlier publicity work years ago, and also from touring through Omaha with Q and Not U (Saddle Creek often set up their shows when they came to town). In January of 2006, we went ahead and released the "Need Your Needs" single on my label, Laboratory Records, so we'd have something to enable us to tour and hopefully generate some radio interest. In the mean time, John sent a copy of the finished record to Saddle Creek, and they liked it. They came and saw us play at SXSW in 2007, liked our live show, too — and then we all agreed to work together. It's been a great experience working with Saddle Creek — I can't believe it's only been a year!
Laura are you seeing someone? Because if you're not, I'm available!
Laura: Too funny! I'm flattered, blushing. But do you know what these sorts of confessions do to my ego!? Just kidding… It's been great chatting with everyone. Thanks for all of your great questions. Take care. And I hope to see you at the Black Cat on Saturday night!