Singer-songwriter Megan Burtt has always been a gifted musician with a rich and vibrant voice. But her career hasn’t always gone the way she anticipated. After graduating from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2008, Burtt moved to Cleveland, Mississippi. The town is about an hour south of Clarksdale, hailed by many as the birthplace of the blues. “I moved down to Mississippi after college with the intention of becoming a heavy blues musician,” Burtt says, “sort of following in the footsteps of Bonnie Raitt, who’s always been my hero.... She spent a lot of time studying and playing with Southern blues musicians.”
Burtt had initially planned to spend a year in the Mississippi Delta, where she hoped to find an old blues musician to take her under his wing. But not long after arriving, she developed a potentially life-threatening infection and had to scrap her plans and move back to Denver to seek treatment.
After she recovered from her illness, she started writing songs for her debut, 2010’s It Ain’t Love, which she said was mainly focused on theory and the musicality of the songs. “Coming right out of Berklee and having all these tricks up my sleeve was a big part of that record,” she says.
She intended to record a followup in November 2012 in Mississippi, where she’d picked a studio. She booked local musicians and bought her plane ticket, but her plans were derailed once again when the album’s producer, Louis Cato, a drummer who was touring with famed jazz bassist Marcus Miller, was hospitalized following a tour-bus accident in Switzerland.
Burtt says she took it as a sign that she wasn’t supposed to be in Mississippi. “I’m just taking the cues. Maybe I’ll get my time to dig into that, because I love the music that has come out of that part of the country. I believe that that’s where all of our music comes from. It comes from the slave music and the music that came over from Africa. That is, I think, to be respected and nurtured, and for me, especially, just knowing where it all comes from feels important.”
The recording sessions were moved to March 2014, and the resulting full-length, titled The Bargain, was released last week. Burtt will mark the occasion with a performance at the Oriental Theater on August 29, accompanied by a string quartet. It will be her last local show of the year; she’s embarking on a month-long American tour, then a European tour (her first) before heading to Africa for a week. After that, she’ll begin her annual tour performing at prisons around the country.
Although Burtt began work on The Bargain about two and a half years ago, the inspiration for the album's songs dates back seven years ago, when she was struck by illness in Mississippi.
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“The experience inspired all of them,” Burtt says of the songs. “They’re all really about that time and the years after, of sort of figuring how to get over that. I don’t think, upon the first or even the tenth listen, anyone would completely realize that, which is what I wanted. It’s taken me a long time to put this out there, because I don’t want to publicize the tragedy and I don’t want to talk about a sob story; that’s not really what it was. It was a hard time, for sure, [but] people go through stuff all the time.
“I didn’t start putting this record together [until] five years after all this happened. So I think, personally, I had to get to a place where I was like, ‘I’m ready to talk about this. I’m ready to share.’”
Megan Burtt CD release, with Strange Americans, Julian Peterson, Saturday, August 29, the Oriental Theater, $12-$25