Rachel Burns truly is a Wonder Woman, figuratively and literally.
The cancer-surviving mother of two has been an outspoken activist both on the streets, where for years she dressed in a Wonder Woman costume protesting the Trump administration, and in her music – using her voice as a beacon of positivity and a vessel for change. A graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music with a degree in Classical Vocal Performance, Burns has always had at least one foot in the music world, captivating audiences in Boston as well as her native Washington, DC with a mix of pop, country, jazz, and blues songs. After 25 years working in business and playing music on the side, she was ready to let her inner songbird soar.
It wasn't until more recently that she found her calling as a songwriter: 2022 saw the release of Burns’ debut EP Living My Breast Life, a five-track collection that employed a mix of humor and hope to tell her breast cancer story in a unique way.
For Burns, songwriting is her way of celebrating life and spreading joy.
“The emotion of joy is a higher frequency,” she says. “I love how live music transforms an audience into joy. My concerts aim to uplift – after a few songs I love seeing people dancing and laughing! It’s so important to move our bodies. Laughter, dancing, all of that moving and shaking is really good for our bodies and our souls.”
Burns brings that same animated spirit and unique personality to her sophomore EP What a Nasty Woman, a record of resilience and protesting the patriarchy while celebrating the power of feminism.
“What a Nasty Woman is about breaking through barriers of our societal conditioning-it’s a humorous call to evolve from the past.” Burns says. “There are some outright silly songs on it, but they are based on truth, putting a satirical lens on the patriarchal conditioning that we’re all used to existing within.”
Blending soul, pop, country, and more, Burns’ new EP is at once theatrical and emotionally charged, with deeper meanings embedded in every song. She sets the tone with “Mansplainin’,” an upbeat tongue-in-cheek soul song that speaks to an all-too frequent experience too many women know all too well. She puts her own spin on an Elvis classic in “All Shook Up,” a sultry, sexually empowering song about women owning their bodies and their power. In the melodramatic, Napoleonic “Tiny Hands,” she offers a theatrical and satirical take on men – one in particular – who have tiny hands, yet build giant skyscrapers to the sky, drive sleek red sports cars, manipulate the masses, and try to overturn the world’s biggest superpower. “It is getting to the unspeakable root of some of the major-or in this case minor-cause of some of the most toxic traits of the patriarchy,” she laughs.
The EP hits its high on “Triple D’s,” a titillating song about the three things a powerful man wants in a woman: Demure, diminish, defer. “The patriarchy wants women to be subservient, to diminish our personality, and they want us to defer to men,” Burns explains. Traditionally, and still in many circles of society, men-especially those in power-want a woman who is obedient, diminutive and supportive of whatever a man wants. I believe women have strong instincts and intuition to be strong leaders-not followers. Unfortunately, a lot of women throughout time have disassociated from and suppressed their power. This leads to an underlying resentment and anger-I try to channel that anger into humor and funny songwriting. Laugh until it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Burns dives deep into her own heritage and family history in “Pollyanna’s Lament,” a bittersweet ballad that tells the story of her grandmother who was similar to the character, Pollyanna. “She was orphaned at age 16, became an independent woman, was in theater, and then she married my grandfather,” Burns explains. “He really was not an ideal partner, not around a lot, unsupportive, and didn’t allow her much flexibility. Despite this, she found ways to work within the confines of what the marriage allowed-and always put on a happy face despite her pain. She survived breast cancer twice. I felt like she came through me and told her story of, ‘I could have left, but I didn’t and maybe I should have.’”
“I felt it was important to write that song because I have two daughters and I had breast cancer, and I don’t know if I’m going to be around when they’re in their 20s or 30s… all of my songs are basically for them, so that they can learn the wisdom I’ve learned. If I’m not around, they need to hear this song so they don’t stay in a relationship that doesn’t allow them to thrive and grow into the full expression of themselves.
Burns closes the EP with “Sundown of the Macho Man,” a cowgirl spaghetti western about the history of the women’s equality movement and the resistance of the patriarchy. As the women of a small western town begin to stand up for themselves, an orange-haired “King of the Machos” rides into town on his white steed to restore order. “The cowgirls realize that the sundown of the patriarchy was beginning and stand up and fight back,” Burns explains. “The King of the Machos, realizing inevitable defeat, slowly wrestles up his fellow menfolk right before nightfall and finally rides out of town at a moderate pace.” It’s an inspiring finale, and one that fuses comedy and critique into one final blow against the patriarchy.
From the hysterical to the heartfelt, What a Nasty Woman encapsulates Rachel Burns’ activism, her resilience, and her struggle. But first and foremost, it’s fun. “I think powerful messages are delivered with humor the best,” Burns says. “They’re most impactful when they’re funny; we have a southern saying, you kill a lot more flies with sugar than you do with salt.
The experience of creating this record also heralds Burns’ emergence as a true bandleader, producer, and artist – owning every aspect of the creative process, from inception to release. It’s “raw, outrageous Rachel” every step of the way, and whether you’re looking to stick it to the man or just sing aloud, What a Nasty Woman is here as a form of therapy, entertainment, laughter, and truth.
“I like to empower people to empower other people. I’d like to uplift us all with this project,” Burns shares. “When I would dress up as Wonder Woman, I held up a giant sign that said, ‘Time to bust out the golden lasso of truth’ in glitter. Wonder Woman’s superpower was telling the truth. The truth is really powerful; it can break down all kinds of barriers and I think that’s the kernel of a lot of my music: Truth telling. We’re going to laugh, dance, and be real – and not pussyfoot around anything!”
A Wonder Woman in life and in song, Rachel Burns has without a doubt embraced her truths with a twinkle in her eye, and a tongue in her cheek. What a Nasty Woman is out July 7, 2023.
by Mitch Mosk