Based on dozens of YouTube videos of six-to-ten-year-olds absolutely shredding on guitar, there's no shortage of people who become instrumentally proficient at astoundingly young ages. Emerging as a strong songwriter at thirteen years old, though — that's something else.
Such is the curious case of Olivia Burney, who is part of an acoustic folk duo with her ten-year-old sister, Emma. Olivia writes the songs for the Columbia, Missouri-based Burney Sisters, but even she can't really explain how she does it.
"I don't even know how it starts," she says. "It's a weird thing. I just started writing one day, and I've been writing ever since. Right now, I'm playing with different genres. Everything I thought that music was, I'm just trying to go the opposite way so I can make something different."
Olivia and Emma play ukulele and guitar, respectively, and sing harmony with each other. Both are multi-instrumentalists who can also collectively handle the banjo, bass and keyboards.
As with many fledgling musicians, the duo's influences are plain to hear: They play with a heart-on-their-sleeves earnestness in a similar manner to North Carolina folk-rockers the Avett Brothers. (Check out the sisters' cover of "No Hard Feelings.")
But they've been making their own name lately, scoring increasingly high-profile gigs throughout Missouri and the greater Midwest. Their mother, April Burney, acts as booking manager and press liaison. In fact, she's on the phone as Riverfront Times catches up with the Burney Sisters ahead of their biggest gig yet — a set at LouFest in September, for which the duo was recently announced as part of the lineup. April says the girls were exposed to music early and often at home.
"There's a lot of music in my family," she says. "My dad plays an instrument, my mom sang and my stepdad went on the road and played with some pretty awesome people. It was always ingrained in me, so singing was something I did from when the girls were newborns on up. I taught them harmony parts, just having fun with it in the car and around the house."
But nobody in the family could have figured they'd experience success as performing musicians so soon. Just a little over a year and a half ago, musician and friend Eric "Rocket" Kirchner came over for a holiday celebration in Columbia. At one point, he started picking on his guitar and Emma and Olivia got to harmonizing. Kirchner was blown away.
"He asked them to help him with an album he was recording, and that's kind of where they got the bug to do it themselves," April says. "They went through the process of going to the studio, the CD release and radio play, and they really enjoyed it."
"Once we recorded the album with Rocket Kirchner, we kind of wanted to do our own thing," Olivia says. "It was like, 'Maybe we can see how far we can take this, start taking shows and playing wherever.'"
Emma and Olivia began posting videos of covers on Facebook, slowly mixing in original tunes, on what they call "Thursday Snippets." They also started meeting with their mother twice a week to set goals, like specific venues they'd like to play.
"I wanted them to understand the business side of it, not just the singing part," April says. "That really helped us get aligned and pointed in the direction we wanted to head in. We started off with 25 songs they really liked — because if I told them what songs to sing, they would never practice — and they just got to work."
They started by busking on sidewalks outside of bars, eventually setting up their first official gig at a nursing home. The sisters were spectacularly nervous and a little underprepared.
"We didn't have enough material to play the hour we committed to doing," Olivia says. "So, after we ran through all of the songs, we were like, 'Hey mom, are we done yet?' It's really embarrassing to look back at."
Looking ahead, the sisters intend to branch out musically and collaborate with other artists, and they're in the process of recording a full-length album. Beyond that, they'd love to go on a lengthy tour, which is feasible only because their manager is also their teacher; the girls are homeschooled and able to study on the road.
With so much growing up to do, it would be easy for the Burney Sisters to dream about success on the national stage, but Olivia's expectations are grounded. For now, she's looking forward to playing shows and supporting other artists in Columbia's local music scene.
Of course, there's always the possibility of adding more musicians to the group. And they might not have to look far: Emma and Olivia's eight-year-old sister, Bella, has been taking to percussion lately, and — surprise — she's got a natural ear for harmonies. She's just a little shy.