Rachel Burns: ‘Live for the Day and Be in the Now Because That’s Really the Only Way We Can Expand Time’
Washington, D.C.-based pop/soul singer-songwriter Rachel Burns is one-of-a-kind. After only a few moments in her presence, you feel the genuine warmth that she radiates shaped by her experiences as a classically trained musician, wife and mother, and breast cancer survivor. A conversation with Burns oscillates between joy, laughter (lots of it), and shedding of tears similar to the continuum of life and living.
Join contributing writer Cynthia Gross, as she sits down with Rachel Burns to discuss her debut EP, “Living My Breast Life,” why she is proud to be a DMV artist, the turning point from despair to hope in her breast cancer journey, and why she believes humor is still the best medicine.
As a child, Rachel Burns started singing as soon as she could speak. Burns’ father was a guitarist and music teacher in the D.C. area in the 60’s, initially playing in rockabilly bands. He later expanded to jazz, and eventually settled into a career as a classical guitarist. Each year, Rachel attended Segovia concerts at the Kennedy Center with her dad, and she recalls independent D.C. stations such as NPR and WPFW always playing in the background at their house.
“He raised us to have a lot of music in the home,” Burns reflected. “He had this old guitar case that was wine velvet lined, and I would sleep in it while he taught guitar lessons. Even when I was a little baby, I was always with him because he was a stay-at-home Dad.”
With such a rich upbringing, it should come as no surprise that Burns’ musical influences are diverse. She cites Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and legendary opera singer Maria Callas as inspiration. Burns herself was as an opera singer early in her career after obtaining a degree in Classical Vocal Performance from the New England Conservatory of Music. She met her husband while in the Boston scene.
Additional influences include Ella Fitzgerald and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Speaking of the latter, Burns laughed, “I knew every word to every song when I was five years old. My fifth birthday party, I stood up and started singing all the crazy Lambert, Hendricks & Ross scats, and people were like, ‘Who is this weirdo?’ but I loved it.”
Donning such a powerful voice and captivating aura, Burns, a Northern Virginia native, could easily make a living as an artist wherever she desired to plant herself; however, Burns could not be prouder of her DMV roots. She praised D.C.’s “amazing opera scene” and noteworthy jazz scene. “And, we have all that talent from the military bands that are sort of in the background as studio musicians and great musicians in bands all around D.C., so those are top-notch people,” she added.
Breast Cancer Diagnosis
After performing and arranging jazz, blues pop, and country tunes with bands in Boston and D.C. for more than 20 years, Rachel Burns found herself facing a devastating life crisis: breast cancer. Burns was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer in 2013 while in her 30’s. At the time, her daughters were 4 years and 10 months. “I had a lump in my 20’s, and they said I was too young to get breast cancer. They did a mammogram, they saw it, and said it was nothing,” Burns shared.
After having her first child, a lump appeared again, and the doctors diagnosed it as mastitis. After Burns had her second daughter, the lump grew larger, which she dismissed as mastitis based on her past diagnosis. “I was gigging three times a week, working a full-time job seven days a week, and had two little kids. I didn’t have time to go to the doctor, I wasn’t listening to my body, and the last thing I was worrying about was me,” Burns recalled.
Health has always been a priority for Burns who is a lifelong vegetarian and wellness advocate. “I couldn’t have anything wrong was my thinking, which was so off, but people like to have hope and faith in the little things that they do to prevent these things from happening, but it doesn’t always work that way.” After a few of her loved ones suggested that she revisit the doctor just in case, Burns relented and had a biopsy.
Burns received the call that she had breast cancer while dining out with her daughters. “It just shook my whole world, and all of a sudden, I was looking at my kids, like am I gonna be around for them? Who is going to raise them? Who is going to be there when they have their first love fail? Who is going to be there to teach them about how to be a girl with other girls, and how to navigate this world, and how to be successful in life?”
Breast Cancer Journey
Burns was forced to place her successful independent music career on hold and undergo 9 months of intense treatment. During such a difficult time, Burns held onto every ounce of faith she could muster, believing that she would make it because dwelling on the alternative was unfathomable.
There was one defining moment, in particular, after her mastectomy that she will never forget. “I didn’t have a hair on my body, I didn’t have an eyelash, I didn’t have anything,” Burns shared. “I was in bed, and I couldn’t move. I heard my kids laughing downstairs with the babysitter, and I just thought, I gotta get out of this bed.”
It took Burns nearly 10 minutes to sit up and another 5 minutes to walk halfway down the hallway. Realizing that she was not in a condition to traverse the stairs, Burns attempted to do laundry to feel useful. However, she immediately collapsed onto the floor.
“I got myself up, and I looked myself in the mirror, and I looked like I was almost dead,” Burns recounted with tears in her eyes. “My eyes were sunken in, my face was jaundiced, I was thin, and I just looked at myself and started crying. I saw that fragility, and I just looked at myself, and I said, ‘Don’t you dare, don’t you dare give up for these kids.’”
Becoming a Solo Artist
Little did Burns know at the time, her breast cancer journey would eventually spark her foray into a career as a solo artist. Case in point, “I Did It,” the lead single from Rachel Burns’ debut EP, which released October 28, 2022, explores what it means to recast what was meant to break you and emerge stronger. The soul/gospel-influenced song was written by acclaimed producer Donnie Lyle who has collaborated with “a lot of people from Whitney to Britney in the early 2000’s,” with lyrics and melody by Jackie Hendon.
After hearing about Burns through the grapevine, Lyle tapped Burns for “I Did It” because he wanted a true breast cancer survivor to sing the song. And, “I did it, I did it, I did it,” Burns laughed, breaking out spontaneously into the song’s refrain.
The track was recorded at Bias Studio in Springfield, Virginia. In the studio, when Burns hit the extremely high notes, the sound engineer and the rest of the Bias Studio staff were astonished, which amused Burns. “That was one of my old opera tricks you pull out of the hat,” she laughed. “I Did It” also features a stunning gospel choir, compliments of award-winning producer Rodney East.
Have Faith in Fate
Although Burns does not consider herself a religious person, she is “full of faith.” While growing up attending Yogaville, an ashram in Charlottesville, she was taught “paths are many, truth is one.” For Burns, truth is love. “We’re here to learn lessons in this life. We’re human, and we make mistakes, and we get into down places, we get into dark places. Faith encompasses hope, but it is different in some way than hope.”
“I always say, have faith in fate, not only in your wishes, but hope for the collective that things will get better, that there will be a better day tomorrow, and that things will work out,” she added. As a breast cancer survivor, one of the biggest lessons Burns learned is “not everything will always work out the way you want and hope for, but things will always work out if you have faith, do good, and are truthful in life.”
The lyrics of “I Did It” include mention of a mustard seed, which Burns loves despite its being a biblical reference. She notes that her daughters were her mustard seed during her battle with breast cancer and continue to be to this day. “Even when you have no faith, even when you have no hope, if you can find a little bit of gratitude, even if it’s in your breath, even if it’s in, you’re happy to be alive to breathe,” she explained.
“Because that’s the first thing we do when we come on this earth and the last thing we do when we leave. Gratitude is the key to open up all of those higher frequencies. Finding little gratitude in just the grass, the sky, the birds. I put a lot of that in my music.
Wonder Woman and "Tiny Hands"
As Burns is not one to stay down for too long, our conversation naturally shifted to humor, including Burns’ claim to fame as Wonder Woman, as well as her hilarious and brilliant track, “Tiny Hands,” a satirical take on Donald Trump’s infamous reputation and sex scandals.
“Sometimes, someone’s gotta have a taste of their own medicine,” said Burns.
Throughout a series of protests in D.C. during the Trump administration, Burns took to the streets as a protestor. In 2017, she remembers contemplating between two outfits, one of which was full-on Wonder Woman. When she showed up, a few people had Wonder Woman t-shirts, and others had hats, but Burns was one of the only women bold enough to come fully decked out as Wonder Woman. Burns’ outfit was “very revealing,” and she carried a giant sign that read, “Time to bust out the golden Lasso of Truth.”
“Because of my mastectomy, I still hadn’t been able to hold up my arms right,” said Burns, demonstrating the then lack of range in her arm motion. “As I went through 6 months of protesting, I could go all the way up here now with a sign,” she gestured. “It was like physical therapy for me.”
Burns’ advocacy ignited a 3-block dance party, uniting women around a common cause through humor. She landed coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, and she was featured during New York Fashion Week. The act of rallying people around a cause allowed Burns to get a taste of how it would be to perform on a bigger stage as a solo artist, and she never turned back.
"Living My Breast Life"
Burns has since been growing her solo career, winning over new audiences daily with her colorful personality and distinct artistry. “Living My Breast Life,” Burns’ debut EP, contains five songs written and curated especially for breast cancer survivors and anyone else who is faced with something that seems insurmountable. Three of Burns’ close friends who she grew up singing with in Alexandria City Public Schools serve as background singers for multiple songs on the EP: Jerrica White, Bonnie Sellers, and Kisha Holmes.
“Not Today,” a touching ballad, holds sentimental value for Burns. She penned the song after her father’s death in 2018 from cancer, as a way to process the deathbed from both a patient and caregiver perspective. The accompanying music video includes personal footage from Burns’ journey to recovery, alongside her husband and daughters. Despite the song’s heavy subject matter, “Not Today” feels gently uplifting like it’s meant to inspire individuals everywhere to make the most of each moment. “It reminds us to live for the day and be in the now because that’s really the only way we can expand time is to be present,” explained Burns.
In a society that has become desensitized, Rachel Burns is a special kind of artist who reminds us of the importance of feeling – our emotions, our fears, our hopes. To experience her art is to be renewed like the change of seasons. Winter will soon be upon us, wrapped in all of its harsh glory, but in time, we can be confident that spring will break through. And Rachel Burns is here for it.
By: Cynthia Gross
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.