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One afternoon this past January, Laura Burhenn is scrolling through an iPod between gear shifts in an effort to explain her band’s recording philosophy. She and her bandmate, John Davis, are driving to Baltimore to record an acoustic set on WTMB-FM. They’re stuck in rush-hour traffic, don’t yet have a label, and recently scrapped much of the early sessions of their debut album. Their band’s Web site asks, “Who is Georgie James?”
“We realized it was the production that was lacking,” Burhenn says from the driver’s seat, discussing the early problems recording their debut full-length, Places. “We realized all of our old loves took their time in the studio.”
To prove her point, Burhenn finds Melanie’s “Brand New Key” on the iPod.
“This song wouldn’t have been as great without the production,” she says. “Listen to the bells.”
An epiphany about production values might have been the last thing anyone expected to hear from Georgie James, considering Davis’ background. Before Georgie James, Davis was the drummer of Q and Not U, a Dischord band that followed the label’s DIY philosophy, recording its records as quickly as possible. The unapologetically crafted pop of Georgie James is the last thing many expected from Davis—and both he and Burhenn have gotten flak for it.
For a two-year-old band, Georgie James has led a charmed life, getting more attention than most young acts. The duo went on a three-week tour with Camera Obscura in the summer of 2006 and has played the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and San Francisco’s Noise Pop festival as well as the 9:30 Club, the main stage at the Black Cat, and Fort Reno. Georgie James was Spin’s band of the day in April, and Burhenn has appeared in a fashion spread in Express. The gigs and attention, at least, have been easy. But getting the band’s first album out—that’s been a different story..
After Q and Not U dissolved in 2005, Davis was eager to start another band. This time, he was looking for someone who shared his adoration for polished, Pet Sounds–style pop songs. Davis started out as a guitarist in the ’90s bands Corm and the Elusive, and he wanted to get back to the instrument. Shortly before his old band broke up, he met Burhenn through mutual friends and played her parts of songs that he was working on. “Pretty quickly we had a few songs, and that was enough to convince us that it was worth putting the time into,” Davis says.
Burhenn was an unlikely collaborator. A Hagerstown native, she grew up on traditional hymns, choral music, and the country music her grandmother enjoyed. She began studying piano at 5 and started her own record label in high school. She moved to the D.C. area in 1997, and her earliest performing experiences were at Zig’s in Alexandria. “The first solo show I ever played when it was full was a fireman’s convention,” she says. “Here I am with my piano trying to play these heartfelt songs, and there are a bunch of drunk guys screaming ‘Free Bird!’ Which is totally depressing.”
But though Burhenn and Davis have little in common besides perfectly mussed blond hair (and the fact that both have dressed up as lambs in church plays), they shared the same affection for the Beatles, the Zombies, the Who, and Hall & Oates. “There was an idea [of what we wanted our sound to be],” Burhenn says. “John made me mix CDs. We sat down and talked a lot about our favorite music and the kind of sounds that we liked.”
After recording a seven-song demo, Demos at Dance Place, they entered Arlington’s Silver Sonya studio in August 2006 to work on a full-length with Beauty Pill’s Chad Clark. Burhenn and Davis thought making and releasing the record would be a quick process, partly because Davis was used to the Dischord tradition of working fast. “It was clear to me when the two first came into the studio that they had a vision,” says Clark.
But the recording stretched out into two months. Davis initially wanted to make a retro album, mic-ing the drums the way the Beatles used to. But that idea—and some of the drum tracks—got scrapped. “I didn’t want to make a record that sounds like other records that are out right now,” says Davis. “But we’re not going to make a record that sounds just like Tommy or pick-your-Beatles record. We didn’t want to do something derivative.”
The extended recording process created logistical problems. Other bands had booked the studio, and musicians that Davis and Burhenn brought in had to leave town; Davis picked up bass, guitar, and drum duties, as well as vocals. Clark eventually convinced his brother Kimani to let the band use the basement of his home in Rockville to finish up vocals and guitar parts. By November, they were finally finished.
“When I started playing music, you would finish the recording on Sunday night and drop it off in the mail, and you got it back in, like, a week,” says Davis. “And two weeks later, you had your record out. I didn’t understand the concept of a band’s time, or even a release date.”
“There’s no one who doesn’t get it,” Clark says of Georgie James’ sound. But there are lots of people who don’t “get” it. There are Q and Not U fans who are surprised by the band’s confectionary-pop aesthetic, and there are people who think the buzz floating around the band is undeserved. Bloggers and blog commenters have flung terms like “superficial dookie,” “rehash,” “undeserved,” and “fluff.” (Telling someone that you are writing an article about Georgie James often elicits a similar response.) The album isn’t out, and the backlash has settled in. “All I ever read about is Georgie James, Georgie James, Georgie James,” as one person lamented online.
“There will be some who aren’t impressed by Georgie James,” says Davis. “But Fugazi, when they came out, was very confrontational with how different it was. Georgie James is completely fueled by the spirit of those bands in D.C.”
“What I have come across is a kind of folded-arm reaction,” says Clark. “People tend to think ‘craft’ is antithetical to heart and passion.”
He adds: “Both positive waves and negative waves are going to hit you when you do something like this. That’s a lot to take on without the support system of a record label.”
And just as with recording the album, finding a label took longer than Davis and Burhenn expected. Mostly working through Davis’ contacts, the band spent the end of 2006 talking with both indies and majors. Some labels expressed interest but couldn’t put a record out until after 2007; some blew them off.
“We weren’t hearing anything for a while, and we weren’t sure what we were going to do,” says Burhenn. While they waited, they released an EP, Need Your Needs, on Burhenn’s Laboratory Records, hoping it would generate more interest.
Though Dischord helped distribute the EP, Davis wanted to find a new home for the album. “I love that label and the people there,” he says. “I worked with Dischord for a long time, and I know what they do. We just decided that what we wanted to do was outside of what they are up for doing.”
Among the places that Georgie James’ music landed was Omaha-based indie Saddle Creek, home to Bright Eyes, the Faint, and Cursive. Davis had sent the label Georgie James’ first demo, but it wasn’t until Saddle Creek heard the full album at the beginning of the year that it seriously considered signing the duo.
“We’re turtles,” says Jason Kulbel, label manager at Saddle Creek. “We just take forever to make a decision like that.” Two months after hearing Places, label staffers caught the duo play at South by Southwest; in May, they signed the band to a one-record deal.
Usually, Kulbel says, Saddle Creek bands have an established relationship with someone at the record label or are products of the Omaha scene. “For that band, more than any band we ever worked with or signed, it was all about the music,” says Kulbel.
At the moment, the signing doesn’t change a lot in their daily lives. Davis and Burhenn work day jobs—he manages the Takoma Park Video Americain store; she works part time at the American Wind Energy Association.And though the recording process was more of an extra burden than they’d expected, they they’re happy with how Places came out. “We could’ve done this album in two weeks or put it out on a smaller label or maybe even put it out ourselves, but in the end, we have something we’re really proud of,” says Burhenn.
The album is set to come out Sept. 25, and though the music is done, there are plenty of other tasks to take care of before then: filming a video for “Need Your Needs,” finalizing album artwork, and putting together a fall tour.
“I think there’s a ‘hurry up and be brilliant’ attitude,” says Clark. “For that, they have my sympathy.”