Do what you can, with what you have, wherever you are. This maxim usually serves as inspiration for artists with global ambitions but local restrictions.
Mimi Burns is a singer-songwriter who has followed that rule of thought with some notable exceptions. A couple of years ago, Burns was doing what she could with what she had - in San Francisco, where she was becoming a regular on the folk scene and hosting her own radio show dedicated to independent music and musicians. But all of that changed when she and her husband Steven saw an article touting Fort Wayne, Indiana as one of the best cities in the U.S. to work, live, and raise a family.
Eager for a change of pace, and armed with the knowledge that she could write songs anywhere, Burns and family decided to pack it in and go provincial.
"Coming from the music scene in the San Francisco Bay area, I was somewhat frightened to come here," Burns admits. "I wasn't sure what we could do here musically, but I've since been astounded by the talent here. The talent here is right in line with what you'd find in Nashville or other bigger markets, but people here are friendly and willing to help each other out."
Burns' commitment to cooperation among artists goes back to her days as a DJ at 91.5 KKUP, a public radio station in the bay area. As host of "The Rock Show" and "The Woman Show," Burns found ample opportunity to provide exposure for an eclectic mix of music. "I'd get musicians from all over the world to send me discs, and we would do interviews," she said, "I was getting stuff from everywhere - Germany, Australia, South America, and I came across some real characters. We were on between 2 and 5 in the morning, so we could get kind of wild."
With an audience of more than 500,000 listeners, Burns' shows became required listening for music lovers looking for something off-beat on the radio dial. "I learned that people just like good music beyond the 50 or so artists that commercial radio pushes," she said. "There are so many great musicians out there that don't get heard. There are really just a few that break through."
Burns takes pride in having helped break at least one of that elite group, like the band Train. "We were the first to play them because a friend knew their manager, and it's cool to be able to say, 'hey you heard it here first.'"
While Burns has no immediate plans for a radio show in the Fort Wayne area, she is busy putting her big city expertise to work providing other outlets for local and regional musicians. She is currently putting the finishing touches on a folk festival for August 2 that will feature at least 12 bands. She's also negotiating with an Indianapolis-based agency to head up their music department and act as a scout for regional talent. And perhaps most timely, she's working with an entertainment attorney on developing a reality TV show involving musicians. Her main focus remains, for the time being, her beloved songwriters group.
While working at Toast and Jam, Burns became acquainted with a number of local musicians. She soon noticed a common interest in getting together to commiserate on their craft. "It is so fun," she said with a laugh. "I wanted to get musicians together in a casual workshop environment. A lot of times musicians will just sit in a room, write their material and maybe sometimes play it for other people, but most of the time they won't for whatever reason. I wanted to provide an atmosphere where people can try out material and get immediate feedback and critiques from other writers and musicians or even just listeners ... people who don't write or play an instrument are welcome too."
Burns hosts the group in her home every other Sunday at starting at 7 p.m. She provides the tea and cookies, and what's more it's free. "So far we've been able to keep it free and easy for people to take part. That's why I call it a group and not an association, because that implies dues and all that. We have a fairly regular turnout of people who bring demos or play something live."
There are a few rules, however. "We try to keep each tune to around five minutes or less so that we can get around to everybody's stuff and hear everybody's comments," Burns said, "and we encourage the listeners to provide some proactive feedback by pointing out the strengths as well as weaknesses as you see them."
Burns is committed to her various musical ventures, but she is first and foremost a singer and songwriter who loves to perform. She has toured Europe and received critical acclaim for her unique brand of Celtic-inflected folk. She is currently working on a new record and enjoying the local performance scene.
"Things are so different here. In San Francisco, you were just one in a million. Sometimes it seemed like you were going through the motions," she said. "It really freaked me out when I played at the Blue Lion up in Warsaw, and between songs people were asking about the stories behind the songs and expecting me to chat a bit more. I really found that refreshing."
When Burns compares San Francisco to the Fort, she is even more enthusiastic about her newfound home and the community of musicians she's fallen in with. She is also quick to point out however that many folks are missing out on some of Fort Wayne's best kept secrets. "In the bay area there were a lot of musicians playing live who honestly didn't have a lot of talent," she said, "and I thought it hurt the music scene there. Here it seems there is a lot of talent that doesn't have as many opportunities to even be heard."
What is her solution? "I'd really like to see musicians from all areas support each other. In my experience it's the musicians that really get things started for other musicians, whether you're in a punk band or a 56-year-old violinist, I'd like to see people support one another. That's why I started the group."
Burns encourages musicians and listeners alike to take part in her songwriters group. For info call (260)480-2259 or visit www.mimiburns.com.
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