HR Specialist by Day, Rock Star by Night
By John H. Tucker
Smoke permeates the nightclub, almost like a David Copperfield stage from which the illusionist makes a great escape. The magician on this stage, singer/songwriter Laura Burhenn, has escaped into an alternate world inhabited by her and her music. Eyes closed and ear cocked toward her magic carpet keyboard, she coos out seductive melodies that beckon listeners to enter into her world.
“I know I’m having a good show when I get lost on stage,” admits Burhenn, a CUA alumna and staff member in CUA’s Office of Human Resources who moonlights as a rock artist/chanteuse.
Though singing is not her full-time occupation, Burhenn is rapidly becoming a Washington, D.C., musical success. Last year she won three Wammie nominations (Washington’s version of the Grammies, run by the Washington Area Music Association) — for best new artist, best rock recording and best rock vocalist. She has gained “artist of the week” status on national satellite XM Radio’s Unsigned channel, where her songs “Helicopters” and “White Noise” climbed to No. 1 and 20, respectively, on the request list. Washington’s City Paper has written that “the Burhenn bandwagon will be taking off for the top of the charts soon, so you’d best get on board now while you can.” On the Web, Burhenn’s tracks have been named top-10s by Audiostreet.net and Radioindy.com, two sites devoted to independent, or “indie,” American rock music.
Burhenn performing live at the New York City nightclub, Rothko. The CUA alumna also has been seen at Washington, D.C., venues, including the Velvet Lounge, DC9 and The Black Cat.
For the musically unschooled, Burhenn explains that “indie music is hard to define because it encompasses so many sounds and styles. It got its name originally because it was produced either by the artist or by a small, independent record label. It was typically very DIY [do-it-yourself], had small budgets and, one could argue, a slightly punk rock aesthetic.”
While Burhenn’s music lacks the intensity of punk rock, it can be edgy at times. “My music is kind of like sushi,” the 24-year old CUA employee says with a chuckle. “It’s very raw, but it’s wrapped up neat and tidy with the rice and the wasabi.”
Burhenn labels her genre as “alternative singer/songwriter,” with a style that borrows jazz and blues from Nina Simone, complexity and eccentricity from Tori Amos, and the political lyricism and folksy style of Joni Mitchell.
Burhenn’s music style didn’t always lean toward alternative. Classically trained in piano and voice since the age of 5, the artist squirms with embarrassment when she mentions putting on her Amy Grant records as a child and crooning into her “Mr. Microphone” toy.
“I thought I was going to be a pop star,” recalls Burhenn, who grew up on a farm in Hagerstown, Md. “I remember lying in bed as a 7-year-old planning out what my first stage show was going to look like.”
When a broken arm at age 13 sidelined Burhenn from the piano, she vowed to become a writer and began composing her own songs. After graduating from high school, she entered CUA’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music and declared a piano performance major. The curriculum didn’t incorporate writing, however, and the musician felt slightly out of place.
The summer after her freshman year, Burhenn registered for an English course called “Southern Poetry and Rock,” in which 10 students and professors Chris Wheatley and Ernest Suarez took a two-week road trip to explore the American South’s lyrical and musical history. The group, composed mostly of English majors, met an assortment of poets, blues players and jazz musicians. Having the time of her life, Burhenn resolved that the English department was where she belonged.
“Writing and reading so much at CUA made me grow in a way that I never anticipated,” the songwriter attests.
Throughout college Burhenn performed at small venues and student pubs, and by the time she graduated in 2001 she had created her own record company, Laboratory Records, and recorded her first album, Not Ashamed to Say. She began to perform steadily and by 2004 had recorded her second album, Wanderlust, started getting radio airtime and print reviews, and was making routine trips to perform in New York City.
It hasn’t always been easy, and the human resources staff member is only left with time for her music and her CUA job, where she helps to write CUA policy statements, monitors work authorizations for international faculty and interprets computer data. “I’m either working full-time, or working full-time,” Burhenn jokes.
"Laura is a very valuable employee in human resources," says Schlain Schmidt Faust, manager of compensation and human resources management systems. "She is a team player. She does not back down from challenges, but instead faces them with zest and vigor."
The songstress says she is very happy on the CUA campus. Her father, Bob Burhenn, is employed by CUA as the director of energy and utilities management, but the singer feels as though her family extends throughout the entire university.
“After my working at CUA for three years, people really support me here,” Burhenn relates. “It means so much to know that the university community cares not only about my CUA job, but also about my music.”
Among the university faculty and staff, Burhenn can claim a few groupies and many more fans. One of the latter is her very first English professor, Chris Wheatley, who is now CUA’s vice provost and dean for undergraduate studies.
“Laura is extremely talented and, as an English major, she won the university’s poetry competition,” recalls the professor. “We have an agreement that I will support her with her music, and when she becomes wealthy and famous, she will endow me with a chair.”
For the time being, Burhenn acts as her own manager, booking gigs and doing promotions herself. She lands on many bills by contacting bands on her own, and markets herself and her latest CD through her Web site, www.LaboratoryRecords.com, where visitors are able to listen to some of her music. Burhenn’s independent record label, “Laboratory Records,” incorporates the artist’s initials (LAB), and conjoins “labor” and “oratory,” two words that Burhenn values. In addition, the singer points out, “‘laboratory’ is something experimental. You experiment to further music.”
|Burhenn (pictured here in her human resources office) has landed reviews in Washington Post Express, Washington City Paper, Harp Magazine and On Tap Magazine.
Currently, Burhenn is exploring bigger labels and has received interest from Sony, Epic, Atlantic and Columbia.
Burhenn realizes that image is vital, and that focusing on her image enables her to sell records. But the CUA alumna has eluded the pressure that the mainstream music industry puts on young female artists to become superficial and sex-conscious.
“You can be a sexy woman without wearing skimpy clothes,” she says. “I think that it’s sexy to be intelligent and to write smart songs, so that is an image in and of itself.”
Burhenn draws her lyrics from personal experience, most often choosing to focus on low points in her life. She feels that by using her lyrics to empathize with others, she can indirectly make them feel better.
“There is no higher compliment than knowing that someone can come home at the end of a bad day, put on my record, and feel like somebody else understands exactly what they’re going through,” she muses. “I look at myself as a conduit. Once I touch on a song, it kind of goes through me and to the listener, and we’ll share something for a moment there.”
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