Great music is everywhere for those with ears to hear. In other words, you have to be listening. My wife and some of our best friends had the unexpected treat of being as affected by an opening act as the headliner when we went to see local Dallas/Denton singer-songwriter open for Bill Mallonee, formerly of the Vigilantes of Love. Burr thoroughly impressed us all. Plugged says: “If Doug Burr’s not your new favorite singer/songwriter, it’s because you haven’t heard of him yet.” Leaving such hyperbole aside, we recently caught up with Burr on the release of his new album On Promenade to discuss life, art and everything in between:
- Where and when were you born?
- Were you raised in a musical home?
Not very musical. No one composed music anyway. Mom played old hymns on the piano a good bit. But nobody creating any music.
- When did you begin playing music? When did you begin writing?
I began playing guitar at sixteen. I probably began writing finished songs at about eighteen. Nothing from that era that I claim today though.Took me quite a while to hit my stride as a songwriter.
- Do you have employment other than music at this time? If music is not your full-time job, how do you balance a “work life” with your “creative” life?
Yes – I’m the breadwinner for my family – two kids and one on the way. So music can’t afford much but music gear and some recording here and there. I work by day as an HRIS systems analyst. It’s always a struggle with a full-time day job to try to consistently write songs, record, and perform live shows. But especially with kids since you don‘t have any time to yourself until awhile after they‘ve gone to bed. But then there‘s still the household chores to think about. So I’ve just gotten to where I stay up later and later to fit in time to create music.
- You have been nominated for and won several songwriting awards. Artists in your position often gain a lot of ground by having other artists cover their material. What song of yours would you like to see covered and by whom?
I’m open the idea of having a wide variety of artists cover virtually any portion of my material. I see it as a healthy thing for art in general, and also a great way to sustain a career in music. I love what Johnny Cash did near the end of his life with his records put out by the Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. He covered songs by Danzig and Depeche Mode. I mean who would have thunk it. But there it was – and it is just brilliant. I think that kind of cross-pollination can benefit both artists, and the material itself. So I’m certainly open to that and would just take it on a case by case basis.
- Do you hope to do music full-time? If so, what moves are you making towards that goal?
I certainly hope to do music full-time one day. It’s all that I think about all day, whatever I’m doing. It’s the thing I get most excited about; I’m just in love with the power of music.
- How do you balance the creative and business sides of music?
There’s not a huge business element to what I do with my music at this point. Really about the only business stuff I have to mess with is trying to be strategic about where and how often I book shows, what my website’s going to look like, what the t-shirt design should look like, who I’m going to follow up with regarding shopping my record…okay so there’s a few business items. But it’s all pretty small scale stuff. It certainly can keep me busy at times, but I’m just as eager to do those things because they pave the way for me to do what I love doing, which is making music for people. I also have to remind myself every time I hit a dead-end, that the songs – the music itself – is the one thing that has the power to drive everything else. So I try to never lose sight of the fact that there is nothing on the business end you can do to make this thing fly if the music is not excellent. And there is nothing that can stop it if the music is where it needs to be – it will find its way to the light if it’s good enough. So at the end of each day, I just focus on trying to get better.
- Are you married? Children? Is your family supportive of your art?
Yes – Twelve years. Two, and one more due in early November (2007). My wife is super-supportive, and I never would have made it this far without her constant encouragement and sacrifice to let me attempt such a ridiculously crazy alternate life.
- Were you raised in a religious home?
Yes. Grew up Southern Baptist. My parents, my parents’ parents – and on and on, from both sides.
- Do you consider yourself to be a Christian?
Yes, I do.
- If so, could you please share a bit about your salvation experience (your “testimony”)?
Well, growing up in a Christian home with good parents, it was a very logical decision for me, and at a very early age. I understood that Jesus presented me a choice – to choose His love or go without. As I grew, you begin to understand that at a deeper level, but it’s really still the same situation – the same choice. Depend on God, or depend on yourself.
- How does your faith affect your art?
It informs and inspires everything I do. My art is no exception to that.
- Are you involved in a local church? If so, what role does church life play in your faith?
Yes. My wife and I believe being involved in a local body of Believers to be an act of obedience to New Testament Scripture, and very necessary to ongoing growth in Christ. To be a part of a church body is to be used by God for others sake and to be blessed, challenged, and encouraged by others as well.
- What role, if any, do you believe local churches should play in the arts?
I think churches should embrace art as a way to engage culture. But it seems that rarely do churches train, equip, or even dare to lend much support to this idea. I think it requires Believers to walk a line that is uncomfortable to be able to enter into this conversation with culture, and requires abandoning some of our insecurities that have become a false holiness.
- You are signed to Velvet Blue, which has been at the outskirts of “Christian” music for many years? What are your thoughts on “Christian” music?
Well, I feel like the term “Christian music” earmarks music as music that would be endorsed by the current-day Christian music industry. And as such reduces it to 3.5 minute sermonettes based on a pre-approved range of topics (not speaking to worship music here – music intended for corporate worship – that‘s a whole other topic). No longer is the artist free to write about anything that comes across his/her path – not free to follow the muse – no matter how important, urgent, or relevant, because it’s got to fit inside that list of approved topics. And that’s just not how life reads, and not how even the Bible reads. Certainly, there are bands that have been able to exist in the Christian music camp and still put out worthwhile and even great music. But I think it’s a very risky proposition, and it still virtually ensures that a ton of would-be fans who may exist outside the pews will never hear your name. So I guess I’ve found that I have the most freedom as a writer outside of the Christian market altogether. I think Velvet Blue is a good fit because Jeff Cloud – the owner – shares a similar perspective – he’s not out looking for Christian bands – just music he thinks is great.
- Do you listen to any “Christian” music? Are there any “Christian” artists you think are doing it right?
I usually avoid “Christian music” (talking commercial Christian radio and Christian record stores) because it gets annoying to me very quickly. But then again, so does mainstream pop country and pop rock these days. So to look for anybody doing things right, I try to pay attention to the live music scene – or publications that promote more independent stuff.
- Your first album focused much more openly on faith issues, but they are no less present in On Promenade. Did you approach this album any differently from the first?
The Sickle & the Sheaves is a gospel concept record. Much like Cash, Elvis, or Dylan put out gospel records, but that’s not all they wrote/sung about. There are other things also out there that warrant our time and attention, and that same gospel is ultimately part of those things, or those things are part of it.
- The connection between “How Can the Lark (My Dear Theo)” and “Should’ve Known” is obviously the Van Gogh brothers, can you elaborate a bit on how those songs work together?
Great question – “How Can the Lark” was taken from correspondence letters between Vincent and Theo Van Gogh. At that point, I had already written “Should’ve Known” which I wrote about a current-day descendant of the Van Gogh brothers – also named Theo Van Gogh – who was murdered as a result of making an independent film about abuses of women by Muslim men. I thought it interesting that Vincent had apparently gone insane, sending his severed ear to a lady for whom he had feelings, as if to say “Stop, and listen to me”. Was it coincidence that his descendent was stabbed in broad daylight on a German street for making a documentary that seemed to say ‘stop and listen’?
- What artists have inspired you?
Blind Willie Johnson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Will Oldham, The Clash, Bill Mallonee, to name a few of the ones having the biggest impact.
- What music are you listening lately and what are some of your all-time recommendations?
My CD-player in my car doesn’t work very well and has slowed down my intake – but all-time recommendations would be: Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) Master & Everyone, Bruce Springsteen‘s Nebraska, any Blind Willie Johnson recordings you can get your hands on (there aren’t many songs he recorded), the Anthology of American Folk Music by Harry Smith (put out by the Smithsonian).
- What are you currently reading and what are some of your all-time recommendations?
Currently: Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood, George MacDonald’s Phantastes.
All-time recommendations: Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train. I don’t know, I’m severely under-read, but I finished Moby Dick a year or so ago and loved it.
Well I’m going to be embarking on a project to record some of the Psalms I’ve set to music hopefully this Winter. It’s just a crazy idea I got a few years ago when I spent some time between jobs and was in a writing lull. But as I began to move it forward, I really fell in love with this idea, and the power these seem to have. Then within twelve months from now, I’d like to be finishing up a follow-up full-length to On Promenade.
Thanks for taking the time to ask me these questions!