Aisha Burns never imagined she would be a professional musician. The only reason she picked up an instrument to begin with was out of jealousy—an emotion far removed from the work she would later write on her own.
In elementary school, Burns would hang around after school to catch up with her best friend at the time. The two were 10 years old, as eager to learn about the world around them as they were excited to declare they had it all figured out. But suddenly, her friend had a violin in hand and was attending an hour-long after-school music program. Burns immediately wanted to do the same.
“I remember thinking it was the most nerdy instrument. I teased her relentlessly,” says Burns, laughing. “I remember asking her, ‘What is this nerdy instrument? You’re playing violin? You’re in an orchestra class? What is that?’ But then at some point, I got curious about it and picked it up with a pompous attitude, thinking I could teach myself the instrument. I learned a few very simple songs and became very excited about it. When I joined the class, I immediately loved it. And looking back it’s funny, as I’m sure she’s moved on to other things these days whereas I clearly have stuck with it.”
These days, it’s hard to imagine that was the case. Aisha Burns, now 31 years old, is not only comfortable in her skin, but comfortable breaking out into a solo career after years of avoiding the main spotlight in bands. After releasing her debut solo album, Life in the Midwater, back in 2013, she’s back at it again with Argonauta, this year’s standout solo album. On it, her songwriting is richer, her arrangements more complex, and her voice more expensive. It’s a musical progression so stirring in its improvements that Argonauta has already garnered coverage from outlets like NPR and Stereogum.
Part of Burns’ growth, though not in the recorded sense, stems from her recent decision to leave Texas. At summer’s end in 2015, she uprooted to Beverly, Massachusetts. Though it seems random, the location was familiar to her because her partner lived in the area for seven years, including the months where the two dated long distance. Though he moved to Texas for her, they eventually decided to leave the Southern atmosphere and start over somewhere fresh. Beverly is a “dreamy area to live” with freshwater and dynamic scenes of nature, though the changes in landscape are only the first of several hurdles she had to jump over in learning how to call Massachusetts home.
“I’ve been learning what it takes for a place to feel like home,” admits Burns. “Of course, I travel a lot anyway while touring, but it’s taking some time to settle down here. I was surprised at how long it took for me to feel like I live here, to feel like I’m not vacationing in another town or somebody else’s house. Having the physical space change, of seasons changing and seeing it happen in real time, has impacted me more than I could have foreseen. And the hardest part was figuring out how to make my way into a new music community. Because I was in Austin for so long, I was nestled in well and had plenty of connections. So I’m using this opportunity to learn how to become acquainted with a new scene and new group of musicians.”
It’s difficult to move after spending years strengthening your roots in one city the way she had. After spending her childhood in San Antonio, Burns stayed in state and moved to Austin to pursue a degree at the University of Texas. College is a chance to reinvent oneself, and she was intent on doing so the same way thousands of incoming college freshman are each year. Burns wanted to shed her orchestral past. She tried to put her violin away. Her 19-year-old self saw 2006 as the year for big personal change. Instead, she accidentally outed herself early on. While talking about her violin roots in class one day, another student overheard the conversation topic and introduced himself. He invited her to join his friend’s folk rock band. It was the beginning of the biggest lesson Burns would learn: There was a world of music for violin beyond black-tie quartets and rehashed classical standards.
“I kept telling him that I didn’t know how to play in a band setting, that I had never done that before, that I wouldn’t be a good fit, that I had never written my own music,” she says. “He kept gently nudging me to come to the show and see what I think. So I went to the show … and loved it. I was extremely nervous going to the first rehearsal. I remember pretending to know how to sit in a room with musicians or how to write music from thin air. But that led me into this path of pursuing music in the way that I had been.”
Burns went on to join the folk rock group Alex Dupree and the Trapdoor Band and, in 2007, the instrumental ensemble Balmorhea. But over time, she began to realize her skills didn’t just lie in her abilities as a violinist. Burns had begun playing around with acoustic guitar and singing in the comfort of her bedroom. The first solo recording came about simply because Burns wanted to know if she could do it. So many years of her life had been spent playing in projects that others were at the helm of. The biggest, they wrote collaboratively but most structures and themes were defined by the two main members of the band. Playing violin in a folk rock band was a similar situation, where the main songwriter, Alex Dupree, would decide what each song should feel like. She wanted to know what she would make if she was the one calling all of the shots—and the one singing.
“Not many people knew I could sing, or even wanted to,” she says through a smile. “I was fortunate enough to be a part of a community of very welcoming, patient songwriters. We had a house show we would throw once a month. I told those friends I had been playing guitar a little bit. When they found out I had been singing in my room too, they threw my name into the hat to have my name drawn as a performer for the night. So anyways, they tricked me into performing and I, by proxy, learned I actually liked performing on my own.”
But now, she’s eager to share that voice whenever she can—and she’s very much ready to do so, as her story on Argonauta is hers alone. Single “We Were Worn” sees Burns questioning how to handle the loss of a loved one, going so far as to embrace the biological elements within her from her mother who passed away. Other songs, like “Must Be a Way,” confront depression head-on, as Burns tries to create a literal and figurative image of what the physical manifestation of depression would look like. Her songs stride into dark territory, no doubt, but the way in which Burns articulates these stories, through her words and through her guitar, gives the feeling that you’re watching someone come into their own despite the world showing its fangs at every turn.
“With Argonauta, I wanted the arrangements to be more developed to create a greater sense of atmosphere,” she says. “So I spent a lot of time trying to take songs from an acoustic guitar and vocal line part to then utilize strings more fully. I determined the arrangements and produced the album. My partner plays guitar on this record, and there’s a wider use of strings, and I spent time figuring out what everyone’s roles could be to create more developed arrangements. Those additions were part of how the record is different from Life in the Midwater.”
By creating a broader sonic landscape this time around, she’s learning how to be more open. In that, the biggest strength of this album isn’t necessarily what the songs are about lyrically, but Burns’ ability to reach for honesty and truth while reflecting about grief and depression. It’s the feeling and process more so than the final product. In trying to heal and move on after losing someone, whether that’s mentally or physically, she had to learn what works for her. And that, of course, just took some time.
AISHA BURNS, CLIFF NOTEZ. FRI 10.26. ATWOOD’S TAVERN, 877 CAMBRIDGE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 10PM/21+/$10. ATWOODSTAVERN.COM