Mini Trees - Burn Out [EP]

Run For Cover

In the late summer of 2022, Mini Trees’ Lexi Vega was, by all external accounts, wrapping up an exceptional year. Her debut album Always in Motion came out while she was on the road supporting Julien Baker in 2021, and in the wake of that record’s critical acclaim, she launched into a busy touring schedule, supporting towering fixtures of the indie music world, like Death Cab for CutieThaoYumi Zouma, and Hovvdy. Suddenly, Mini Trees — a project Vega started on a whim in 2018, and which featured her earliest songwriting efforts — had become a career.

But following her European headline tour in August of 2022, she returned home to Los Angeles tired and dejected. That’s the thing about periods of time that are exceptional on paper — they’re exhausting. And rarely do the pieces that make it to paper include the emotional toll exacted behind the scenes — the empty rooms in faroff British towns where your set’s drowned out by a hair metal band screaming upstairs; the industry’s insistence on synthesizing your identity into something consumable on the internet; the flagging sense of joy in the thing you once did purely for love. “I struggle with the balance of being so emotionally attached to the art that I make and simultaneously trying to commodify it and build a business out of it,” Vega says. “I was derailed by all the noise of the music industry telling me to chase clout or likes and to try to capture the fleeting attention of people on the internet.”

She pondered quitting. A month passed — no planning, no writing, no recording. But despite the novelty of her career as a front person, Vega has been playing music since she got her first miniature drum kit at five years old. And so, like anybody for whom music is core to their identity would, she got antsy. She decided to stop worrying about how her next moves would be perceived and instead focus her energy on how to cultivate the most joy.

Returning to the studio with her old friend and producer Jon Joseph (Low Hum, Bayonne, BOYO), Vega pushed herself to experiment with the possibilities for her sound. Weary of the bedroom pop label that had been ascribed to her music, she pushed for a determinately pop sound with production that was live, organic, and substantive. Her and Joseph invited other collaborators for the first time — Death Cab for Cutie’s keys player Zac Rae (Lana Del Rey, John Legend, Fiona Apple), James McAllister (Sufjan Stevens, Taylor Swift, Big Red Machine), and Vega’s old family friend Jimmy Johnson (James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Phil Collins). The result is Burn Out, a defiantly euphoric EP with the sonic and emotional bandwidth of a full-length record packed neatly into five songs.

The songs on Burn Out shimmer in production, even as they’re saturated with the pervasive sense of fractured identity, disillusionment, and otherness that has shaped much of Vega’s sense of self. On EP-opener “Shapeshifter,” Vega contends with her tendency to change herself to blend with her surroundings, ultimately leaving her feeling like an empty shell. “Tied together pieces of nothing/A tapestry frayed at the edges/Oh tell me when you start to see something/That I can’t see for myself,” she belts over pulsating synths and buoyant drums, referencing the difficulty of locating herself amidst the many binaries and identities she’s pulled between. The overwhelming weight of these disparate identities is reflected in the EP’s cover art, as the suggestion of Vega’s listless body lies draped over a bed cluttered with clothes she’s chosen not to wear, familial heirlooms and mementos strewn at her feet.

The child of a Cuban father and Japanese mother, the question of heritage and how she’s meant to relate to it has long plagued Vega. Her father was a sought-after studio drummer, best known for his work with James Taylor, and her mother sang for a period in the Grammy-nominated jazz group Hiroshima (both of their records are tucked into the EP’s cover art panorama). So for Vega, music and familial identity are tightly linked, especially in the wake of her father’s death when she was a child and the loss of contact with her Cuban relatives. “When I contemplated quitting music I think I felt very scared that I would lose some kind of connection to my dad because he was an incredible musician — I meet drummers all the time who tell me how much they looked up to him. Even though he’s not here to be part of any of this, I think I still feel connected to him through this passion we both have. Because of this, music always felt like a place to belong.”

Jimmy Johnson — her father’s close friend and a surrogate father to her after his death — plays bass on EP-closer “Push and Pull,” in which Vega asks her loved ones to ground her despite feeling pulled between her many warring selves. And on “Cave,” which features Medium Build’s Nick CarpenterVega contends with the idea of a self she’ll never know. “You’re never going back there” the two singers belt throughout the song’s build, a lament for life’s unlived trajectories.

The irony of Burn Out is that as vulnerably as Vega grapples with her insecurities throughout the EP, this is Mini Trees’ most assertive and intrepid work yet. Gritty guitars rip through polyrhythmic backbeats, Vega’s voice pressed tight to the listener’s ear, gleaming as it flips into breathy falsetto. These are hooks meant to be belted in loud rooms, and arrangements that sparkle as if they were crafted in million-dollar studios. These songs came mostly out of the same rooms in which Vega made Always in Motion — a testament to the profound artistry and talent that she continues to develop, and a sign that she has a firmer grasp of herself than even she knows.

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