Little HER: Breaking Sound Barriers

Featured Sliders / Stories / July 10, 2017

Sisters Olivia and Emma Burney captivate audiences with their unique music

Olivia and Emma Burney have big dreams for their future careers in music.

“I just want to go on tour with one of my favorite bands, even like Violet and the Undercurrents (a Columbia-based rock group). That would blow my mind if we could ever go on tour with them,” said 12-year-old Olivia.

“I would like to have a band that is big, playing super upbeat songs where I can run all over the stage,” 9-year-old Emma added. “I also want to play in one of those huge football stadiums, and people actually come see it.”

Their mother, April, didn’t want the girls’ dreams to be out of reach, so when the sisters   decided to professionally delve into the music industry at an early age, she told them t

(Photo by Samantha Pogue) Emma and Olivia Burney are making their mark on the Mid-Missouri music scene.

o put those dreams in writing.

“From the time we started this, we put it on paper and kept our minds open,” April said. “We had written down venues we wanted to get to, people we wanted to connect with and we’ve been working hard.”

That hard work has paid off. Since actively pursuing their dreams early this year, the Burney Sisters busked at hot spots in their hometown of Columbia, networked with musicians in the region, scored multiple gigs throughout mid-Missouri, were featured in local media, reached more than 1,000 followers on Facebook and finalized branding artwork.

“If you look at our music meeting notebooks, we have almost achieved everything that we initially had put down,” Olivia said.

The Burney Sisters aren’t stopping there. While building on their previous goals, they are gearing up to record their first EP and continually hone their craft with lessons and guidance from notable musicians.

Audiences are captivated by this dynamic duo’s jazz and Americana vocal styles harmonized beautifully with their guitar and ukulele riffs. The Burney Sisters are fueled by that feedback, continually filling their music meeting notebooks with more achievable dreams to conquer.

‘A singing child is a happy child’

Olivia and Emma come by their passion for music honestly. April’s mom and dad both are musically inclined, along with many relatives.

“I have always sang, but I couldn’t get over the stage fright part,” she said. “For me, it was a no-brainer to sing to them when they were born, teach them cute little songs to sing with me and for them to learn how to harmonize on the radio or with me. It has always been a big part of our lives.”

In December 2015, Olivia and Emma’s singing struck a chord with Columbia area musician Rocket Kirchner. In helping a local soup kitchen, he stopped by the Burney household to pick up bags the family, including dad Rusty, made with the Girl Scouts to hand out at Christmas. He spotted a little blue guitar Olivia got when she was 6 years old and started to play, amazed by what happened next.

(Photo by Shelby Kardell) Emma Burney, 9, left, performs with her sister Olivia Burney, 12, May 9 at The Mission in Jefferson City. They are based out of Columbia and have played at several venues throughout central Missouri.

“I think he was just trying to be sweet and play Christmas songs for the girls. … He would say, do you all know this song? He started playing it, and then when they sang, he was like, ‘Wow,’” April said.

“He said you guys are going to be on our next album. Of course we were just thinking, ‘Oh yeah, he is just saying that.’ Then he texted mom and said, ‘Hey I just wrote a new song’ and asked if we wanted to help him out with it,” Olivia added.

That initial invite led to Olivia and Emma assisting with several of Kirchner’s songs on his “Child Maze” album. Proceeds from album sales raised money for kids with cancer in a project called “Love Train,” also the title of one track.

Olivia and Emma performed with Kirchner at nursing homes, hospitals, Cooper’s Landing in Columbia and other venues. They learned a lot about the studio process while creating “Child Maze” and many other helpful tools from their new musician friend.

Soon, the girls were eager to do something on their own together. Olivia had played guitar, picking up the ukulele last September and learning her first chords by watching YouTube videos. While performing with some friends, Emma watched in amazement as one of her sister’s friends played guitar. She was inspired to start taking guitar lessons in December at Palen Music Center, a beloved second home for the girls who had been taking various instrument lessons for four years.

“(Working with Kirchner) started a bug in them that they could do this. … I asked, ‘Is this what you really want to do? I tell you what, you won’t just be a cute kid on a stool. You will have to learn the business. We’ll have meetings twice a week, talk about what we will sing, etc.,” April said.

Becoming the Burney Sisters

The Burney Sisters found their individual musical styles complimented each other.

“Olivia’s voice is more of a jazz/indie sound and Emma is more Americana and country. They have different genres, but when they come together the sound is wonderful,” April said. “The harmony just works. They can be so different, but it is just beautiful together.”

The girls took their brand of music to a public audience by launching The Burney Sisters Facebook page, where weekly video snippets first featured Olivia performing renditions of her favorite tunes from mainstream artists and local musicians. As Emma felt more comfortable with her guitar, she joined in.

The Burney Sisters also began to busk weekly in Columbia, allowing them to receive genuine feedback from passers-by while performing on the street, as well as make some big connections for gigs. Even though less time has been devoted to the act recently, Olivia and Emma plan to continue busking.

“Every time we have gone out busking we have met new people, got gigs from it … It is near and dear to our hearts to be with the people and meet people. I wanted the girls to understand the history of music.

If you came from nothing and had nothing, but you still had your voice, you could survive. I want them to know the power of what they have right now,” said April.

Gigs started stacking up for The Burney Sisters. Since April, they played at the Palen Music Center, twice on KOPN 89.5 radio station, as part of the choir during The Wall: Interstellar Overdrive performance at The Blue Note, with Rose Ridge at The Mission, Hartsburg Grand Market’s Mother’s Day event, the Orr Street Farmers and Artisans Market in Columbia, Family Fun Fest at Cosmo Park, the Columbia Earth Day Festival, Evening at the Amphitheatre and at Shawnee Bluff Vineyard in Eldon before Lonestar too the stage, to name a few.

The Burney Sisters have appreciated all of their connections with area musicians, including their idols, Violet and the Undercurrents. Violet Vonder Haar, lead vocalist and guitarist for the folk/pop rock quartet, first reached out to Olivia and Emma after watching an Instagram video of their busking performance in Columbia. The Burney Sisters then performed at a Woman’s Day House Concert, where Violet and the Undercurrents also played.

(Photo by Shelby Kardell) Emma Burney, 9, performs May 9 at The Mission in Jefferson City. Burney performs with her sister, Olivia, 12.

“Violet stayed there to watch us. She came right over to us after the concert and said, do you want to play a show with us? We were like, ‘Oh my God, yes!’” Emma said.

“She told them, ‘You remind me of me; this is just crazy.’ She is precious; we love her,” April added. “The whole band is amazing. We have them on loop in the car.”

Since then, The Burney Sisters opened for Violet and the Undercurrents at Katfish Katy’s in Columbia, appeared as the band’s special guests during a gig at Rocheport General Store and performed with them during “Respect: A Celebration of Women in Music Through the Decades” at The Blue Note. Olivia is taking voice lessons with Violet, and the girls will learn songwriting and other industry skills at Compass Music Camp in July, where the band’s lead guitarist Lizzy Weiland is instructing.

“When (Violet and the Undercurrents) perform, they are engaging; you want to watch them,” April added. “That is what the girls aspire to be.”

More dreams to achieve

Violet and the Undercurrents’ song, “I Got You” is one of Olivia and Emma’s favorites to play, keeping it secured in their performance setlist with about 30 others like “Riptide” and “Ex’s & Oh’s.”

Despite gigs streaming in weekly for The Burney Sisters, the girls are anxious to start recording their first EP with the help of Palen Music Center General Manager Nate White. Olivia has written several originals, performing a few like “Follow Me” to receptive audiences.

“I want to influence other people to spread light in the world with my songs,” she said, as one original, “Light the World” suggests.

(Photo by Samantha Pogue) Even though they are professional and business savvy at a young age, the sisters enjoy being silly and themselves on and off the stage.

Songwriting is slated in Olivia and Emma’s music meeting notebooks, with a tentative late summer time slot. Outside of home school with mom, drawing and hanging with the family, the girls are spending several hours practicing, creating and building on the sound of The Burney Sisters.

“Olivia is fueled by curiosity and Emma is fueled by challenge. If (Emma) sees something, she says hold on a minute I could do this. Emma will disappear in rooms for hours at a time … but then she would come out an play this thing, and we are like, ‘wow.’” April said. “We are still learning to create a bigger sound and use percussion with our instruments. … But, their harmonies give them that beautiful full sound, too.”

Despite some common sisterly disagreements, the pair works well in developing and promoting their music as The Burney Sisters. To them, no dreams are unattainable. With hard work, perseverance and an open mind, everyone can accomplish them.

“At any age, you can start learning. There is not a limit in your whole lifetime to anything that you can learn,” Olivia said, “You keep going and don’t give up.”

Story by Samantha Pogue

Listen to two songs from The Burney Sisters at

Check out The Burney Sisters Live!

July 13: Shawnee Bluff Winery in Lake Ozark, 5-8 p.m.

July 15: Columbia Farmers Market at The Arc, 8 a.m.-noon

July 18: (Billed with Rose Ridge) The Mission in Jefferson City, starting at 8:30 p.m.

July 29: Guthrie Green park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 7 p.m.

Aug. 5: Star City Town Square in Arkansas, 7-10 p.m.

Aug. 13: Orr St. Farmers Market in Columbia, 10 a.m.-noon

Aug. 21: Foodstock – Solar Eclipse at Corporate Lake in Columbia, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (total festival time, not specific performance time)

Sept. 16: (Billed with Cara Louise Bank and Sunshine Mamas) at Cafe Berlin in Columbia, 8 p.m.

For more information and more gigs, visit

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Heather Pirner

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