Find Your Place

By:
11/15/2007

By 2 a.m., the Blisspop Dance Party had finally fizzled out. Discarded bottles and decorations were strewn across the floor of the 9:30 Club. Weary-eyed concertgoers chatted softly, soaking in the wee hours of Sunday morning as they eyed their watches. Only a few tenacious partiers seemed ready for another round.

The atmosphere made sense, given the past few hours of entertainment. Between dance music and three bands, the crowd had been grooving and boozing non-stop since 11 p.m. Many seem ready to go home and decompress, including the club’s staff.

Amidst the waning momentum, one last group takes the stage with two performers at the forefront: John Davis, a husky, middle-aged guitarist, and svelte keyboardist Laura Burhenn. The pair fiddled with their instruments for a few moments, then checked to see that the rest of the band is ready. John turns to the crowd.

“Hi, we’re Georgie James from Washington D.C.”

“It was a weird night because it wasn’t our show,” Laura said, reflecting on the show two weeks later, “We were headlining at 2 a.m.”

John was more blunt: “Yeah, I wouldn’t call that a show.”

But from the audience’s perspective, there was no indication of anxiety on stage. The band cycled through most of its forthcoming record Places without a hitch, and thanked the event organizers despite the awkward performance time. Their set was abbreviated but well-executed, and the crowd applauded in earnest before heading for the exit. The band had averted a potentially tart moment of entertainment saturation.

“It’s always a mix,” John said. “Some shows are better than others.”

Having just released their first album, Places, Georgie James, the project of two D.C. music veterans, stands at a point of transition—much like the music industry itself. As the dynamics between artists, labels, venues and consumers have shifted over the past two decades, the ability for new bands to develop a fan base has expanded enormously. But in an age where more and more bands scramble for attention, Georgie James exemplifies qualities that far too many artists lack: humility, repose and sensible ambition.

Formed in May 2005, Georgie James is the “new” pet project of Burhenn and Davis. The two teamed up after discovering a shared interest in 60s and 70s pop music and collaborating together in D.C.’s Brookland Studios. The pair concieved the band name Georgie James as a fictional songwriter “with all the characteristics of their favorite writers[, agreeing] on something a little androgynous, a little bit glam.”

Their music fuses a melodic pop foundation with contemporary sensibility the and modern production techniques. Basically, the group plays indie-pop.

After playing a series of shows and making a demo, John and Laura sought the expertise of friends to help record Places during the summer of 2006. The pair then sent a few of the tracks to Saddle Creek Records in Omaha, Neb.—the home of other popular acts such as Bright Eyes and Cursive. Saddle Creek agreed to sign Georgie James and release Places in September 2007, a little over two years after the band’s inception.

“I definitely think we got it right,” Laura noted, in reference to the new record. “We really took our time with everything.”

“There’s really not that many [things to change,] which is pretty unusual,” John agreed, “And I think that’s a result of spending the amount of time that we did. I’ve never come close to spending that much time on a record before.”

This patience has come with experience—neither John nor Laura is a newcomer to writing and performing music.

Laura was born and raised on a farm in Western Maryland, where her parents fostered her enthusiasm for music. Her mother played piano and sang. Her father did technical work at theatres around the area, including a stint at the Warner Theatre in the District. Burhenn began taking piano lessons at the age of 5 and sang in choirs and musicals in her teens.

“Growing up I was just around tons and tons and tons of music,” she said. “It was the way I learned to communicate.”

John’s parents fueled his musical interest. His father was a program director at WLite, a local soft rock radio station in D.C., and worked a few years at DC101 as well. Davis recalled going to these radio stations and attending concerts at an early age, where he became intent on developing a musical career of his own.

“I always had wanted to be in a band for as long as I could remember . . . make up my own band, make my own records,” John explained.

John picked up a guitar around the age of 12 and formed his first band, Enormity, with his drummer friend Mike.

Maggie Reynolds

Laura beat him to the punch by about two years, starting an all-girl group “Black Leather, Red Roses” when she was 10. Unfortunately, the other members of the group ousted her from the band after a heated argument during a sleepover.

Fast forward a little over a decade and you’ll find both musicians pursuing more serious endeavors. John drummed for the popular D.C. band “Q and Not U” for seven years, which allowed him to tour worldwide and even appear on television. The group released three full-length albums on D.C.’s own Dischord Records before calling it quits in 2005.

Meanwhile, Laura started her own label, Laboratory Records, in 1999 to release her first solo album, Not Ashamed to Say. She released a second album, Wanderlust, five years later before meeting John through mutual friends.

Through these experiences, both musicians made the connections necessary to subsist in an increasingly competitive entertainment market.

“You can’t get anywhere without the help of friends and other people in the artistic community,” John said. “[The] friends we’ve made, people we’ve worked with—it all adds up. It all adds up and you keep a rapport from there.”

Contacts at Saddle Creek, for instance, expedited the process of finding a label to release Places. Davis has been familiar with Saddle Creek as far back as the mid-90s, when it was known as Lumberjack Records. During this period, he ran his own fanzine, “Held Like Sound,” and Lumberjack would send him promos to review. Davis formed ties with some of Saddle Creek’s employees, including co-founder Robb Nansel.

“When John started doing the Georgie James stuff, he sent me some early recordings,” Nansel said. “We really liked them.”

Without these connections, it’s unlikely that the label would have listened to any of Georgie James’ recordings at all.

The majority of the demos that Saddle Creek receives either go “unlistened to or get stacked in a pile [until] they get listened to haphazardly,” Nansel said. Like many labels, an unsigned band is much more likely to grab the attention of Saddle Creek if a recommendation comes from “people that [they] respect the opinions of—other people within the industry or friends.”

“We just get so much stuff that it’s so hard to actually sit down and listen to everything with a good ear,” Nansel said. “It’s all about who you know, right? Isn’t that what they say?”

Despite the “who-you-know” factor, opportunities for self-promotion have increased exponentially with the rise of blogs and social networking websites such as Myspace.com and Facebook.

“I think [those outlets] make it easy for bands to just exist and promote themselves,” Nansel said. “Those tools are great, I’m glad they’re there and we use them to get the word out.”

Maggie Reynolds

This increased visibility has come in conjunction with an equally expansive accessibility to music. Purchasing sites such as iTunes, Mp3 blog posts and P2P networks all give consumers the power to learn more about obscure artists with ever-increasing ease.

“There’s such a clutter,” Nansel observes, “So much is being marketed and thrown at people that it’s overwhelming to keep up.”

Georgie James’ opinions on this topic remain conflicting.

“There’s a sort of overload” Burhenn said. “I think it’s a generational thing.”

Davis likened the process to a record store.

“That’s part of the fun of finding music: sifting through all that stuff. I like the work, I like [going] through stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks of records,” he said. “What is wrong with making it easy to find music? Nothing.”

As for the status of Georgie James, the band has been featured in Spin as “Band of the Day” and has risen to position 41 on CMJ’s top 200. Nansel reported that Places is “selling pretty well.”

But, he said, “My life is music. I devote my entire day to trying to keep up with it and I can’t keep up. So I wonder how someone who has to go to a job from 9 to 5 or raise a family can possibly keep up.”

Nearly two months after the hapless “Dance Party” show, Georgie James quietly set up their equipment in the back room of Soundfix Records in Williamsburg, N.Y. The pair had been taking a break for the past few weeks after an international tour through Britain and Canada, and reemerged to perform a few shows at the annual CMJ Musical Festival in New York City.

Unlike the burnt out vibe of the 9:30 Club, Soundfix was brimming with energy. Chic urbanites chat excitedly about the weekend, nursing their drinks in the warm haze of a dimly lit bar, and a small crowd gathered around the front of room to watch Burhenn and Davis set up their equipment.

Off-stage, the two performers have distinct, if not opposing personalities. Davis is stolid, collected and soft-spoken. Burhenn is animated, whimsy and more outwardly amicable. They share their common taste in music and a love for D.C., but they maintain differing opinions on everything from band competition to the dynamics of touring. These distinctions manifest themselves in their songwriting as well—the first song that Burhenn ever authored was a hymn entitled “Jesus is the Worker in my Heart” while John’s early output included “Six Feet Under,” a song about “the hard life of being a male sex worker.”

Once on-stage, however, focus becomes Georgie James’ common thread. After setting up their equipment on the Soundfix stage, the band began to perform amidst the din. Davis and Burhenn opted to play an “acoustic set,” using only John’s acoustic guitar and Laura’s keyboard in lieu of the full five-piece touring band. Chatter in the back of the room drowned out most of the songs and only the people near the stage truly paid attention.

As in the 9:30 Club, Georgie James remained intent on putting on a proper show, bantering with the audience and thanking Soundfix Records and the opening bands that preceded their performance.

“That’s the problem with playing in bars” Nansel, who was in attendance, said. “When you play that [acoustic] music, the downfalls of being in a bar are multiplied a billion times. If they would have been playing as a full band, that chatter probably would have gone away.”

Similar situations occur frequently in D.C. According to Davis, “the bar circuit” has become the central hub for local and out-of-town bands to perform in the city.

“Shows these days are always at the Black Cat, 9:30 Club, Rock and Roll Hotel, DC9—bars,” he said.

In his youth, John recalled going to see bands in “non-traditional spaces,” such as St. Stevens, Century Theatre, the Wilson Center and St. Margaret’s Church in Dupont Circle.

Though he accepts the need for the “circuit,” Davis said he’d prefer to see more shows take place in alternative venues.

“I’m not saying it’s better, but to me it’s more interesting,” he said. “It’s much less interesting to go to a bar than it is to go to a community space … a bar’s a business.”

Dante Ferraro, owner of the Black Cat, notes the essentiality of “income from liquor” in order to keep his club afloat.

“There’s no way to run a nightclub without a bar,” he said, “The cost of just day-to-day operation of a business makes it such that you’d have to charge too much for a show … they’d cost 30 dollars a ticket.”

However, Ferraro agrees with Davis that “a lot of those other alternative venues are really cool.”

“I just don’t think you can do a regular club like that very easily—not a club this size.”

In terms of the conflict between music and socializing, however, Ferraro maintained a mixed attitude.

“There’s a smaller portion of the crowd that are die-hard music fans that are going strictly to see their band,” he said. “There are a lot of people going out [because] they like the band and they want to see their friends.”

Like Robb Nansel, Ferraro asserted that chatter during shows typically depends on two factors: the volume of the music and the patrons interest in the performance.

The added factor of Internet buzz has further compounded the issue. Ferraro admits that “over the last five years or so,” the added exposure has increased the public’s willingness to “go out and check out a new upcoming band.”

“At the same time that you’re having people coming out more frequently, you also have less of the bands that have the solid slow growth where they come and do 100 people one year, 200 people the next, and 300 people the next,” Ferraro said. “It’s almost replaced by the media hype factor.”

In light of their still burgeoning reputation, Georgie James remain focused on touring in the near future.

“We’re at a beginning again,” Burhenn said. “Now we have to go tour and we’ll see what happens.”

Burhenn and Davis did not set long-term goals for the band other than to continue putting out records and rely more on the project as a source of income over time. For now, both are satisfied with their lives in D.C. and remain content with the steady progress of their project.

“I really love D.C.,” Laura said. “It’s one of the weirdest places ever … there’s something that’s always new and old about it at once.”

“There’s no city that looks anything like D.C.,” John added. “And that’s certainly due to the culture.”

John expressed his admiration for the District’s musical history, citing its role in the development of genres like Punk, Go-Go, Jazz, R&B, Country and Folk. He maintains that D.C. has a history “that can compare to almost any other in the country . . . especially per capita.”

“I always get really annoyed when I hear people who haven’t been [in D.C.] that long say that they’re going to ‘put D.C. on the map’ … I’ve heard that many times in the last 3 or 4 years. We don’t need [new bands] to put D.C. on the map. It’s fucking on the map.”

This in mind, Georgie James seem less worried about their exposure and more interested in exploring what’s next musically.

“This is just our first record,” Laura explains, “I think we both feel like we’ve just scratched the surface.”

— Georgie James will be performing this Friday at 9:00 at the Black Cat — $10

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