When writing Portraits, Vancouver songwriter Louise Burns went back to where it all began: Los Angeles, the same city where she got her big break two decades earlier as the bassist of teen pop band Lillix. But while those early years had been full of dizzying highs and crushing lows, she now had the poise and self-assurance of a seasoned songwriter.
“L.A. is a very specific place for me,” she reflects. “It reminds me of some really bittersweet memories — some really happy ones and some really awful ones. This record was about embracing my past rather than trying to hide it or be self-deprecating. It’s okay for me to feel proud of having done all this weird shit when I was really young.”
Louise spent a wildly prolific month in Los Angeles in early 2018, working on sparkling electronic pop songs with collaborators like Damian Taylor (Arcade Fire, the Killers), Stint (Carly Rae Jepsen, Santigold) and Jasper Leak (Sia). This was the first time Louise had worked with co-writers on her own material, and it helped to unlock some of her most emotionally forthright songs yet.
“I normally don’t like telling people how I feel,” she admits. “Pop music allows me to be vulnerable. I’m hiding behind seemingly joyful, danceable music, but I’m getting away with saying something more substantial.” Damian Taylor acted as Louise’s co-producer and right-hand man, and he encouraged her to get autobiographical with her lyrics.
Unlike her prior albums — 2011’s Mellow Drama, 2013’s The Midnight Mass and 2017’s Young Mopes — which had been shrouded in reverb and gothic mystery, Portraits is unflinchingly direct. The towering “Cry” sets lyrics about emotional repression against a backdrop of towering hooks and shimmering new wave guitars, while “Just Walk Away” is a bubbly blast of tropical pop. The sighing dream pop anthem “Cheers” presents stark lyrics about growing up in the music industry and the resulting eating disorder, and “Everything You Got” splits the difference between pulsing dance grooves and heavy-lidded soft rock.
The soaring melodies are instantly catchy, and the twinkling sophisti-pop synth-scapes are the result of Louise’s burgeoning side-career as a producer. Having built her own Amethyst Studios in her East Vancouver home, she’s been co-writing and producing for other bands, and Portraits is the first time she’s put those new skills to use in her own music.
After the initial sessions in Los Angeles, she went back home to Vancouver to perfect her new material. She took a hands-on approach during every moment of making the new record, acting as curator for a dream team of collaborators. She got additional synths from Matt Robertson (Björk, ANOHNI), jazz sax from Dominic Conway, guitars from Darcy Hancock (Ladyhawk) and Jason Corbett (ACTORS), percussion from Pedro Dzelme (who also served as audio engineer), and drum samples from David Prowse (Japandroids). Singers Hannah Georgas, Alanna Finn-Morris (Fionn) and Jody Glenham contributed to some of the backing harmonies.
This process was a culmination of everything Louise has experienced in her 20 years in the music industry — both a celebration of her past and a bold step into the future.
“When I first came out as a solo artist, it wasn’t really cool to be a pop artist,” she reflects. “A lot of my indie rock peers were these really serious people who thought it was silly. I should have said, “I sold a hundred thousand records before I was 18. What have you done?’”