Clare Burson is a Brooklyn-based independent singer-songwriter whose recent covers of Magnetic Fields and INXS songs have been getting a lot of notice. But the songs on her new album, Silver and Ash, are all her own.
In many respects, the record is the result of a lifelong exploration of family history for the Memphis-born songwriter. Burson says she was 8 when she first learned of the Holocaust at her Hebrew school.
"I came home that day and I asked my mom, 'Were Mimi and Granddaddy caught up in this?' " she says. "And she said, 'Yes, but please don't ask your grandmother about it, because she's very sensitive and doesn't want to talk about what happened to her.' So I didn't. But, of course, being told that I shouldn't ask made me very much want to know everything about her past."
Burson learned that her grandmother left Leipzig in 1938 — narrowly escaping Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed all over Germany — and moved with her brother to the U.S. Their parents stayed behind and didn't survive World War II.
A Holocaust Album
"I didn't set out to write a 'Holocaust album,' per se," she says. "This is a story about my family, and it's a story about people living through extreme times and how resilient the human spirit is."
Eventually, Burson did talk to her grandmother about her experiences. Many of the song ideas on the album come from those conversations. When she was a junior in college, Burson decided to study in Germany.
"[My grandmother] asked me, point blank, 'Why in the world do you want to go to Germany?' " she says. "We had a really frank conversation about why I wanted to go, and I used the word 'Holocaust' and 'Nazi,' which always seemed like very incredibly charged words to use around her. At the end of the conversation, she asked me why I had not asked her to visit me in Germany. I thought, 'Well, I never dreamed that you would want to go.' And she said, 'I will, for you.' "
Several months later, she did. They walked around her grandmother's childhood haunts in Leipzig and visited her old apartment building.
"We walked out in the back, and it was just totally dilapidated and gray," Burson says. "She said, 'It used to be so green back here.' I remember thinking after that trip, 'Wow, I finally have a sense of my grandmother as someone other than a grandmother.' "
Inevitably, their conversations touched on darker subjects.
"On one occasion, she told me that what she does vividly remember from being in Germany in the 1930s was hearing Hitler screaming on the radio," Burson says. "That's what I had in mind when I wrote the song 'Everything's Gone' — just trying to capture the emotional atmosphere that she might have experienced during that time.
Music critic Bill Friskics-Warren has been a fan of Clare Burson's since she first came on the scene in Nashville several years ago. He says that Silver and Ash takes her to new places musically.
"It's clearly a contemporary folk record, but there are loads of old-world folk influences; rhythms, you know, minor keys and chord progressions," he says. "What I think is really interesting, though, is that in bringing together old and new folk music, there also is kind of an indie rock undercurrent in any number of the songs that conveys sort of a resilience, a determination."
Burson says she considers the record the most meaningful work she's made as a musician. She hopes it'll keep the memory of her grandmother's experiences alive in the minds of listeners.
"It's important to me that people do know it," she says. "But I also want it to be able to stand on its own and be able to resonate with people, even if they don't know the story."