August 13, 2010 / 11:15 PM / 7 years ago

Songwriter explores family stories of Nazi Europe

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Brooklyn-based, Memphis-born singer-songwriter Clare Burson mined generations of family history for her new album, “Silver and Ash.”

Due September 14 on Rounder Records, the set was inspired by the story of her grandmother’s exodus from Germany in the ‘30s and funded by a Six Points Fellowship for Jewish-themed projects.

Billboard talked to Burson about translating her family’s stories to music -- and a very special wedge of cheese.

Billboard: How did you get the idea to base an album on your grandmother’s life?

Clare Burson: You can start with me being 8 years old and learning about the Holocaust at Sunday school, then coming home to my mom and saying, “Hey, my grandparents are from Germany. Were they caught up in this?” And her telling me, “Yes, but don’t ask them about it. We don’t talk to your grandmother about this.” So that set me off on a lifelong journey of trying to understand the context in which my grandmother had grown up, and then, once I got a little bit older, deciding to defy my mother’s orders.

Billboard: What is the story, roughly?

Burson: She was born in 1919. Her parents came from Eastern Europe and ended up in Leipzig, and they lived what seems to be a pretty wonderful life there. Then when Hitler took over, my great-grandmother started making arrangements for my grandmother and great-uncle to come to the United States; they had relatives here. They actually left the morning of Kristallnacht in 1938 and came to Memphis, of all places. My great-grandparents went to Riga, Latvia, and wrote letters for two years, and then the letters stopped right when the Wehrmacht (German forces) came in to Latvia. Through my own research and documents we’ve found over the years, we know what happened to them, but my grandmother still doesn’t know. She’s conflicted about wanting to.

Billboard: Even with this specific story, the songs on the album are open to broad interpretation -- it’s not literal storytelling. Why did you take an impressionistic approach?

Burson: That idea came from a 117-year-old wedge of cheese that was given to my great-grandfather -- on my dad’s side, this time -- by his mother when he left Lithuania in 1893. He took the cheese with him from Lithuania to South Africa and then to Memphis, where he got married and had four daughters -- one of whom was my paternal grandmother. He never ate the cheese; it made the whole journey with him. I inherited the cheese, so I have this wedge of cheese in my bedroom. When I found out about the fellowship, I thought, “I can make an album like the cheese! A totally fascinating artifact that can also stand on its own as a piece of art.”

Billboard: When you were writing, did you start with the stories or the music?

Burson: It was all mixed up. When I write, I tend to be motivated by acute emotional reactions to things. So the songs are all inspired by this, whether it was something my grandmother told me or a photograph. Actually, one of the first songs I wrote, “Look Close,” was inspired by looking at these old photographs and thinking about how my grandmother keeps telling us that my sister looks just like her mother. And I was thinking about what that means, to be able to see your own features in someone else’s face, and time travel.

Billboard: What did the Six Points Fellowship provide for making the album, and how did Rounder get involved?

Burson: It was a very generous fellowship -- I had a living stipend and I also had project-specific grant money that I had to apply for every six months. I used the grant money to go to Eastern Europe for a few weeks, then used the rest to record the album. I’d been in touch with Jim Horan at Rounder for years, so when I was done, I sent it to them and they liked it.

Billboard: Have you thought about publishing these stories and photos in any other form?

Burson: When I debuted the songs a year and a half ago at Joe’s Pub (in New York), I put together a narrative that weaves the songs together in a live setting. It was purposefully vague, because I didn’t want it to just be “Story Hour With Clare Burson.” So I printed up a little book that has the stories behind the songs, with some artwork that friends created.

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