Clare Burson: Songs Of A Haunted Past At age 8, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter learned that her grandmother narrowly escaped the Holocaust, leaving behind her home and parents. The memories her grandmother shared partly inspired the singer's new album, Silver and Ash.
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Clare Burson: Songs Of A Haunted Past

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Clare Burson: Songs Of A Haunted Past

Clare Burson: Songs Of A Haunted Past

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Clare Burson is a Brooklyn-based independent singer-songwriter. Her 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 her own.

Jeff Lunden has more.

JEFF LUNDEN: When Clare Burson was eight years old, she went to Hebrew school and learned, for the first time, about the Holocaust.

Ms. CLARE BURSON (Musician): And I knew my maternal grandparents were from Germany, so I came home that day and I asked my mom: I learned about this thing that happened in Europe. Were Mimi and Granddaddy caught up in this? And she said, yes, but please dont ask your grandmother about it, because shes very sensitive and doesnt want to talk about what happened to her. So I didnt. But, of course, being told that I shouldnt ask made me very much want to know everything about her past.

(Soundbite of song, "The Only Way")

Ms. BURSON: (Singing) Someone said you left there just in time when I was on the other side waiting. And I can see you standing with your suitcase in the lamplight there without me. It was the only way...

LUNDEN: In many respects, "Silver and Ash" is the result of a lifelong exploration of family history for the Memphis-born songwriter. Clare Burson learned that her grandmother left Leipzig in 1938, narrowly escaping Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed all over Germany, and immigrated with her brother to the United States. Their parents stayed behind and didnt survive World War II.

Ms. BURSON: I didnt set out to write a Holocaust album, per se. This is a story about my family and its a story about people living through extreme times and how resilient the human spirit is.

(Soundbite of song, "The World Turns on a Dime")

Ms. BURSON: (Singing) The girl with a smile on a boat with her brother, sailing for a visit of the year. She says goodbye to her home and all things familiar, cause the world turns, the world it turned, the world turns on a dime...

LUNDEN: Music critic Bill Friskics-Warren has been a fan of Clare Bursons since she first came on the scene in Nashville several years ago. He says "Silver and Ash" takes her to new places, musically.

Mr. BILL FRISKICS-WARREN (Music Critic): Its clearly a contemporary folk record, but there are loads of old-world folk influences, rhythms, you know, in minor keys and chord progressions. 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodbye My Love")

Ms. BURSON: (Singing) Back when the picture were silent, back when the music was new, back when remember was just reminding...

LUNDEN: Eventually, Burson did talk to her grandmother about her experiences and 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.

Ms. BURSON: She asked me, point blank: Why in the world do you want to go to Germany? And 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. And at the end of the conversation, she asked me why I had not asked her to visit me in Germany. And I thought, well, I never dreamed that you would want to go. And she said: Well, I will, for you.

LUNDEN: And several months later, she did. They walked around her grandmothers childhood haunts in Leipzig and visited her old apartment building.

Ms. BURSON: And we walked out in the back and it was just totally dilapidated and grey. And she said: Oh, it used to be so green back here. And just to hear her have that sense of reminiscence in her voice and memory, which is just something we didnt know anything about. And I remember thinking after that trip, wow. I finally have a sense of my grandmother as someone other than a grandmother.

(Soundbite of song, "Goodbye My Love")

Ms. BURSON: (Singing) Follow the cobblestone walkway, as the bells ring overhead. The garden was green through the picture window...

LUNDEN: Inevitably, their conversations touched on darker subjects.

Ms. BURSON: She, on one occasion, told me that what she does vividly remember from being in Germany in the '30s was hearing Hitler screaming on the radio. And thats what I had in mind when I wrote the song "Everythings Gone," just trying to capture the emotional atmosphere that she might have experienced during that time.

(Soundbite of song, "Everythings Gone")

Ms. BURSON: (Singing) Go to the market in the morning and stay home at night. Keep your head down, keep your mouth shut tight, because the radio is loud, the radio is clear. Everything's gone but we're all still here. And there's no way out. There's no way...

This body of work, because of that story, has been the most meaningful album Ive made, so far - the most meaningful piece of work Ive made. So its important to me that people do know it. But I also want it to be able to stand on its own and be able to resonate with people, even if they dont know the story.

LUNDEN: Clare Burson is currently on tour, performing songs from "Silver and Ash."

For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of song, "Everythings Gone")

HANSEN: Listen to songs and watch a video Burson sharing her "Silver and Ash" button set at

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, Liane Hansen.

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