It wasn’t until Lisa Gerrard collaborated with Dead Can Dance bandmate, Irish composer and musician Jules Maxwell, to co-write several tracks for Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (The Mystery Of The Bulgarian Voices) that she fully understood the sonic scope of all the female folk choir. Touring with the Bulgarians for three years, who she’s had a deep affinity for since her earlier days with Dead Can Dance, the choir’s work influencing many of the band’s songs, including “The Host of Seraphim,” off The Serpent’s Egg (1988), Gerrard began learning how to write and sing around their sound.
“The Bulgarian singers have always been something really close to my heart,” says Gerrard, who learned how to bend her vocals to adapt to the Bulgarians’ quarter-note scales. “There’s something about it, in my singing that feels like a rejoicing, because I was very excited and waited such a long time to work with the Bulgarians.”
Initially asked to work with the Balkan collective on their first album in 25 years, BooCheeMish (2018), Maxwell was one of four composers commissioned to write several songs for the album. Maxwell joined Gerrard in Australia, where the two ended up with sketching out more than the three songs that were used for the Bulgarians. “Everything came out of pure fascination and pure incentive and inspiration, because we were working completely within the unknown at that stage,” says Gerrard. “We hadn’t actually physically been in the room with the Bulgarians when those pieces were written, and didn’t understand the complexity to the fullest degree.”
Initially wanting to bring the choir into the 21st century, the album evolved into a more traditional route, leaving the remaining tracks of Burn. “I aspired for it to sound a bit more progressive, sonically, and that’s what ‘Burn’ essentially became for me,” says Maxwell. “It became the record I was hoping the Bulgarian album might have been.”
Burn meditates through solitary confinement, a blossoming of the psyche and soul, and a greater connectedness to the natural world, from the hypnotic “Heleali (The Sea Will Rise)” and soaring incantations of “Noyalain (Burn),” which Gerrard calls a song of “welcome,” to bursting “Deshta (Forever).” Throughout, Burn is immersive in the mystifying flux of “Orion (The Weary Huntsman),” and “Keson (Until My Strength Returns),” an insightful look into the soul, and final sense of fulfillment on “Do So Yol (Gather the Wind).”
For Maxwell, who has toured as Dead Can Dance’s keyboardist since 2012 with founding members Gerrard and Brendan Perry, nothing was calculated around Burn. “When I play with Jules in Dead Can Dance, we’d start with one note, and then everything would grow from that, and every night it was different,” says Gerrard. “I love that. It takes the fear away of writing because it starts with one note, one chord. It doesn’t start finished.”
Produced by James Chapman, who Maxwell gave carte blanche to in terms of how the songs would relay sonically, there was never a clear idea around concept, he says, but something materialized around the album’s theme and cover art (a photo of an elephant), in the process.
“There was a serendipity appearing at this time in terms of pandemic resonances of where we are as a global population and our responsibility or relationship with nature—the beasts of the world the other living things on this planet,” says Maxwell. “I never intended specifically that there would be an animal on the front cover, but the image compels. You’re complicit within it.”
Visually, each song is accompanied by a small film, all reflecting the seven elements of Burn, from “Noyalain” by Polish director Jacob Chelkowski to “Deshta,” directed by cinematographer Michael Sosna.
Calling the album “slightly provocative and slightly unbearable,” Maxwell says the unsettling, mysterious elements are the true essence of Burn. “There are primal qualities within the titles that we’ve chosen, and the sort of prism by which people listen to the work subsequently,” says Maxwell. “It’s a bit unsettling. It sort of relates to elemental force and destructive force as well.”
Reflecting shifting perceptions, times, and spaces, Burn still unravels.
“Everything is a response to the present or some kind of reality, whether it’s an emotional experience, or it’s even something you look at, especially in the music that you hear,” says Gerrard. “It’s a response to that immediate thing. That’s the thing that I really love about music. It’s already there. You’re just molding and shaping what it is. All it requires is enough attention and inspiration.”