The Burney Sisters talk humble beginnings, Roots N Blues, debut album

Columbia’s sister musician duo will bring its self-proclaimed “Indie-folk-grass” sound to the city’s famed music and barbecue festival for the second year in a row.

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Fourteen-year-old Olivia Burney first picked up a ukulele at the age of 9, scoring it for just a dollar at a garage sale. It wasn’t much later that younger sister Emma Burney, now 11, felt compelled to pluck the strings of her mother’s old acoustic guitar, which had long been collecting dust.

Just five years later, The Burney Sisters have performed alongside folk sensation The Avett Brothers, released two EPs and established their brand as a core part of Columbia’s local music scene. Next week, they’ll perform for the second year in a row at Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.

Homeschooled by their mother April Burney Shafer, the young sisters took after jazz legend Louis Armstrong after studying him when Emma Burney and Olivia Burney were just 9 and 11, respectively. They began busking on the streets of downtown Columbia, eventually finding a lucrative spot in front of Tellers Gallery and Bar. This is when the gigs, including a Lake of the Ozarks store opening and a nursing home, began to roll in.

“People would actually come up to us just right there and go, 'Do you want to play this on Saturday?'” Emma Burney said.

They went on to record for the first time with fellow local musician Rocket Kirchner, who wanted the sisters to appear on his album after hearing them sing harmonies. They often performed with Kirchner and took on solo performances when he became too sick to perform for a few months. It was then, their mother said, that the Burney sisters’ love for creating music really took off.

“I will back you on this,” Shafer told her daughters. “But it's a lot more than looking pretty up there on a stool and getting [a] pat on the back or accolades for how cute you are. You're going to have to learn the business side of it.”

After semiweekly meetings, many of which included guidance from Nate White Palen Music Center’s customer relationship manager, The Burney Sisters set off on their tenure as musicians. However, it wasn’t always easy, Shafer assured.

“We had no money — zero money whatsoever,” she said. “In fact, negative money. We had to ask questions. That's where we started: talking to people and getting information and coming back to meetings. ‘What did we learn? What do we need to get, you know, what do we need to do?’”

The Burney Sisters have come a long way since humble beginnings and nursing home performances. On Friday, the sisters released their first single in a year, titled “Make Me Happy.” The track, with heavier rock influence than the sisters have historically been known for, is the first single from their upcoming debut album.

“I think this new album will sound a lot different than anything that we've ever done,” Olivia Burney said. “I've been using different songwriting … listening to a different kind of music, and I think it's definitely super different from our first EP.”

Olivia Burney is the songwriting genius of the duo, with musical influences from all corners of the music industry making up the duo’s signature sound. These influences range from The Avett Brothers and Phoebe Bridgers to Paul McCartney and Wings, Journey and Queen to Adele and John Mayer and to various Motown artists, just to name a few.

“We like to call it indie-folk-grass,” Emma Burney said.

“I never really tried to define our music,” Olivia Burney added.

Emma and Olivia Burney’s roles in Columbia’s local music scene do not stop at The Burney Sisters. In the past year, the girls have joined forces with Bryan and Pat Kay as members of local Ozark stompgrass band The Kay Brothers. The rest of the Kay Brothers will also make an onstage cameo during The Burney Sisters’ Roots N Blues set.

“The people that we're playing with are amazing people and great players,” Olivia Burney said.

The sisters are in full preparation mode for the festival, from ordering exclusive Roots N Blues merchandise to polishing off the live versions of their original songs, as well as a cover of “Silly Love Songs” by Paul McCartney and Wings.

“I think it’s going to be really awesome,” Olivia Burney said.

The Burney Sisters’ music, including their latest single “Make Me Happy,” can be found on all major streaming services. They’ll perform at Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival at 12:45 p.m. on Sept. 29 on the Missouri Lottery Stage.

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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