'I've Discovered My Voice': Aisha Burns Navigates Love In The Wake Of Her Mom's Death

May 26, 2018
Originally published on May 26, 2018 1:50 pm

Love and loss often inspire creativity. Aisha Burns' second solo album Argonauta is about the places where grief meets hope. What makes this album distinct is that it was written in response to a great loss in Aisha Burns' life — her mother's death — which occurred alongside the beginning of a great romance.

The singer-songwriter and violinist spoke to NPR's Scott Simon about the emotional process of handling her mother's death while moving into a new relationship, as well as discovering her voice while she was already in a touring band. Hear the full conversation at the audio link.


Interview Highlights

On dealing with her mother's death in 2012

She was an English teacher for most of her life. And she was my confidant, and one of my best friends. She sang a lot, and she introduced a lot of wonderful music to me, too. And she loved like a lot of Motown soul, so, you know, I grew up listening to a lot of Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and The Temptations and the Four Tops, and all those things.

[Towards the end] I remember asking her, "Mom, like how did you know when you wanted to get married," or "How did you know when, you know, you were ready for these next seasons of your life," and we never had that talk like you see in a movie where like both characters know that it's the end of something and all of these conversations are like the last ones. And I kind of imagined, you know, her giving me like some really profound life advice that I would like write down and hold onto and that, you know, just never, it never happened. She never gave that to me.

On interpreting her mother's presence with the song "We Were Worn"

My sister and I, just the day after that my mother passed away, we both heard this like very pronounced sound of a knock three times. And we went downstairs to the front door, and looked and didn't see anyone outside, and there was no one at the door, and we both had spent many years in that house, we know exactly what a knock on the door sounds like. And we just kind of looked at each other like, "What was that? Do you think that was her?" And, you know, I guess I'll never really know, but that's the only thing that feels true about that moment.

On the romance that began just as her mother was departing

We met each other and I was so honest about the state of my life being sort of in the cloud of confusion and disarray from trying to repair myself after loss. He was really grateful that I had been honest, but also, a great person to have around in this time in my life, and now, and a great person to have around because he was so accepting of exactly who I was, even in that moment where, I might not have been the most fun to be around at all times. We just really hit it off and were dating long distance for a long time and taking trips to see each other. It was this really wonderful and warm beginning of a relationship that is still going on today. I feel really lucky and really grateful.

On learning to use her voice by performing with her band, Balmorhea

I grew up playing the violin. I started playing when I was 10, and studied classical music and was in orchestra growing up. I kind of stumbled into my voice, you know, years after I had already started touring. But, there are moments, especially in the later couple of Balmorhea records where I do get to do some singing and it's all wordless vocals, but kind of using the voice as an instrument and an additional texture. So it's nice now to be able to incorporate that into the band now that I've discovered my voice.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Argonauta," the new album by Aisha Burns, is about the places where grief meets hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVIN'")

AISHA BURNS: (Singing) You're leaving. And I'm dreaming of a new life - of the new life that we could call home.

SIMON: Love and loss often inspire creative phases. But what makes this album distinct is that a great loss in the life of Aisha Burns, the death of her mother, occurred alongside the beginning of a great romance. Aisha Burns, who writes, sings and plays violin, joins us now from member station WGBH in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

BURNS: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Can we start by talking about your mother?

BURNS: Sure, yeah. She was an English teacher for most of her life. And she was my confidant and one of my best friends. And she sang a lot, and she introduced a lot of wonderful music to me too. And she loved like a lot of Motown soul. So you know, I grew up listening to a lot of, like, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and The Temptations and the Four Tops and, you know, all those things.

SIMON: And your mother died in 2012.

BURNS: She did. Yep, yeah. She had - it was the second time that her cancer had come back. And we'd spent a lot of time, like, taking care of her at home after it was kind of clear that, like, treatment wasn't really going to help her recovery.

SIMON: It's been my experience - people often approach that period knowing that something's over the hill even if they don't know quite what, and they like to turn to those they love and share things.

BURNS: You know, she really didn't. And I so wanted her to. But she was a very insular woman in that way. And, you know, I remember asking her, like, Mom, how did you know when you wanted to get married? Or how did you know when you were ready for these next seasons of your life? And we never had that talk, you know, like you see in a movie where both characters know that it's the end of something. And, like, I kind of imagined her giving me like some really profound life advice that I would, like, write down and hold on to you and that never happened. She never gave that to me.

SIMON: Well, the lessons are often in someone's life.

BURNS: Yeah, I think that's true.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WERE WORN")

BURNS: (Singing) Of course, we were worn. In a dream, I then saw you stretch out your sweet arms like the world had just taken you back on a trend of fighting.

My sister and I, you know, just the day after that my mother passed away, we both heard this like very pronounced sound of a knock three times. And we went downstairs to the front door and looked and didn't see anyone outside. And there was no one at the door. And we both, you know, had spent many years in that house. Like, we know exactly what a knock on the door sounds like. And we just kind of looked at each other, like, what was that? Do you think that was her? And, you know, I guess I'll never really know. But that's the only thing that feels true about that moment.

SIMON: What can you tell us about the romance that began just as your mother was departing?

BURNS: We'd met each other. And I was so honest about the state of my life being sort of in a big cloud of confusion and, like, disarray from trying to repair myself after loss. And he was really grateful that I had been honest and - but also a great person to have around in this time in my life and now - and a great person to have around because he was so accepting of exactly who I was even in that moment where, you know, I might not have been the most fun to be around at all times. But, yeah, we just really hit it off. And we're dating long distance for a long time and taking trips to see each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DO I BEGIN")

BURNS: (Singing) Close to the case in which we would fade away and try to forgive.

It was this really wonderful and warm beginning of a relationship that is still going on today.

SIMON: Oh, that's terrific.

BURNS: Yeah, I feel really lucky and really grateful.

SIMON: You're in a band, I gather, called Balmorhea.

BURNS: Yes.

SIMON: And you play instrumental music.

BURNS: Yes.

SIMON: With your beautiful voice, why would you do something...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...That keeps that voice from being part of it?

BURNS: Well, it's funny. So I grew up playing the violin. I started playing when I was 10 and studied classical music and was in orchestra growing up. And I kind of stumbled into my voice, you know, years after I had already started touring. But there are moments, especially in the later couple of Balmorhea records, where I do get to do some singing. And it's all wordless vocals - but kind of using the voices as an instrument and as an additional texture. So it's nice now to be able to sort of incorporate that into the band now that I've discovered my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOULD YOU COME TO ME")

BURNS: (Singing) It's not your fault time moves on in life.

SIMON: Aisha Burns, her new album "Argonauta." Thanks so much for being with us.

BURNS: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOULD YOU COME TO ME")

BURNS: (Singing) But I'm dancing... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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