Louise Burns Talks Flunking Out of Pop Star Boot Camp

The former Lillix singer invited a devil onto her shoulder. It’s been there ever since. But at least she got to meet Madonna.

Talkhouse writers are musicians, and they write with a passion, insight, poetry and empathy that you’re just not going to find anywhere else. That’s why we’d rank the best writing in the Talkhouse with the best music writing anywhere. This week, we’re celebrating some of our favorite Talkhouse pieces of 2014.
— Michael Azerrad, Talkhouse editor-in-chief

It’s 2002. I am in S.I.R. Studios in Hollywood with my band Lillix and Linda Perry, who had recently made the switch from being that person who sang for 4 Non Blondes to writing and producing gigantic hits for Pink and Christina Aguilera. We are jamming out a song with former Hole drummer Patty Schemel on drums. The guitarist in my band plays her a verse of a song she’s written, and Perry vibes with it. We grab our instruments, Perry starts to sing, and the chorus is written. A few more hours go by, jamming with Perry and Schemel, and we have written a song. It is called “Tomorrow,” and one of the lyrics is “I need to break out/Get me some takeout.” Tasty.

We record it at a very fancy studio in Burbank where Boyz II Men are also recording — I know this because in the collective lounge area they mutter something about my flat ass, hee-hee — and Perry tells us that we are not good enough to be pop stars, and the only person that matters in our band is our guitarist, the blond, beautiful and confident girl (now a woman) who gave her the initial song idea. This was my high school: songwriting sessions with professionals, and constantly being reminded that a simple love of writing music is not enough to make it in the big leagues. I didn’t have bullies, I had the music industry.

Flashback to 1997: I am 11, and Lillix, the first band I was ever in, is formed from a series of passed notes and our mutual love of the Beatles. Our formative years are spent playing children’s festivals, regional talent competitions and Canada Day celebrations. Then, through a series of divine/devilish interventions, the four of us girls are signed to Maverick Records, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers owned by Madonna. This is where my journey truly begins. From 2001 through 2003 we undergo a pop star boot camp: we are set up with “songwriters,” receive press etiquette training (aka how to figuratively kiss male-dominated media ass), photo shoots and video shoots that cost more than most bands will spend in an entire career. In fact, our first album racked up a debt of ONE MILLION DOLLARS. It was a different time.

We began recording our million-dollar album in 2001. We were flown down to Los Angeles after the label had received a demo from our then lawyer and almost immediately signed us. This was followed by months of courtship: classic music industry stuff like fancy hotels, fancier dinners and having a solid hour meeting with Madonna, during which we played a short acoustic set for her. Madge was very nice, and in her neon orange runners and tight leather jacket, left the room singing our tunes. Finally, we hit the studio.

Months upon months went by, working with songwriters such as Glen Ballard (best known for guiding Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill), John Shanks (who’d recently struck gold with Michelle Branch) and the aforementioned Ms. Perry, but our label still didn’t hear a hit. We met with still more songwriters: David Foster and Matthew Wilder (the kindest man alive, nobody gonna break his stride.) We talked to Lenny Kravitz on the phone about a possible collaboration; we were in the thick of a Hollywood haze and had no idea who we were anymore or what it was like to write a song without corporate intent. The last straw came after a very long, four-month session in San Francisco. We were exhausted, our spirits broken, and were so sick of fighting that we were vulnerable as fuck. So we went home to recover and try one more time to write a hit song, determined we could do it alone with the last bit of dignity we had. If I sound melodramatic, by the way, it’s because I was: this all happened before my 16th birthday.

So, finally, on a beautiful spring day in Cranbrook, British Columbia, I received a phone call from my manager delivering a message from our label: we would either fly back to L.A. and write with the Matrix, recently crowned the newest hit-makers after the success of fellow Canadian mall teen Avril Lavigne, or be dropped. So, after two long, hard years, we said OK, let’s do it. (I would receive a similar phone call a few months later with a similar ultimatum: lose weight or be dropped. I’ll save that story for another time.)

We got to work again, knowing that this would be our last chance. We got on a plane, flew to L.A. and started writing with the Matrix. In a few days we had written our first single “It’s About Time,”  a carbon copy of Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and the rest is a very modest history: a gold record in Japan and charting in Top 40 radio in the US.

This vague success was bittersweet, because my approach to songwriting had been forever changed. I could no longer sit in a room, take out my guitar and just write about being a teen. I had invited a devil to sit on my shoulder, and he is still there today. Every song I write, every album I make, he is there, reminding me that I am not good enough and if a song can’t get on Top 40 radio, it is unworthy of being written. I envy the likes of Sia, Ryan Tedder and Linda Perry. They are songwriters by trade, which, in a way, is one of the oldest professions in show business. They approach it without the preciousness of a folk singer and are able to write a song like a journalist writes a news article. It’s dry and neutral but incredibly efficient and effective, depending on your taste. It’s not for me, but I respect it. It’s a job, after all, and if I employed the same work ethic, perhaps I’d be a more prolific and, dare I say, commercially successful artist today. But I can’t. I just can’t do it. And yet that devil remains on my shoulder.

Today I am on tour with my band Gold & Youth in San Diego, and currently in the process of coming up with new material for my third solo album as well as this band’s second album. And I am so fortunate that we do not have the same kind of pressure my first band had; no one is expecting a radio hit out of us. No one is expecting anything, really, except maybe genuine artistic expression, god forbid. But somewhere, deep down inside of me, I wonder. What if I approached this all differently? What if I brought out my inner Linda Perry? Will the floodgates of creativity open up, releasing a cathartic rush of radio-friendly hits and a future as bright as a freshly botoxed forehead?

Tomorrow, the California sun will cast its golden rays through our dingy minivan windows as we drive to L.A. for a support gig at the El Rey Theatre. We will meet silly, self-important industry types who circle the West side like vultures, and we will quietly nod our heads as they bestow promises of a bright future upon us. Perhaps we should try writing something more commercial? Let me give you my card! Hey, check out my demo! And I will laugh, tickled by a hollow déjà vu. Because now, an older, somewhat wiser version of myself doesn’t have to care about this artistic bullying anymore, or believe the glamourous facade this industry tries so hard to maintain.

I can’t wrap this up with some poetic statement affirming my faith in my life choices… but for now I’m good. I’m free. Nothing but me, my bandmates, the minivan and a future as uncertain as the next San Andreas earthquake. I’ve graduated pop star boot camp with a failing grade, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

For now.

Louise Burns is a singer/songwriter/musician-type living in Vancouver, British Columbia, who has been in the biz for almost two decades (for better or worse). She performs as a solo artist and has two records, as well as playing with Gold & Youth. An occasional guest host on CBC Radio 3, as well as a blogger and creative writing student,  she spends her free time watching YouTube documentaries on Mary J. Blige. You can follow her on Twitter here.