Recorded in her childhood home outside of Buffalo, New York state, Julie Byrne’s second album ‘Not Even Happiness’, released this year, is a meditation on the magic conjured by the natural world and a feast of roaming, human experiences. Descriptions of double rainbows, open roads, prairies and moons are laid amongst rustic, folky twangs of guitar and soothing symphonic arrangements. It holds significant feelings of reverence, making it uniquely evocative and mystical, yet the honesty of her finger-plucked guitar grounds the record beautifully. I caught up with Julie over the phone to talk about live performing, her influences and her journey of connection.
When I asked Julie Byrne what drew her to the role of being a park ranger in New York City, where she has lived for a time, she said it was the feeling of being “starved for a connection to the natural world and for green space… because that’s so difficult to come by in New York, but it affords so much clarity and peace of mind. So I kind of resolved to try and find work that could address that need…”
Her role as a park ranger was seasonal, ending after the summer, but the search for space and clarity can be heard in the spare, roving sounds of her songs and poignantly when she sings about “seeking God within” on her track ‘All the Land Glimmered Beneath’. I was therefore drawn to ask if her music is a tool of self-realisation, something that guides her on this inward journey. She responded, “…I think, in my life so far more than anything, music and travel have been spaces and experiences of worship for me and it’s taught me more about my ability to love and has also just given me a space to heal and to recover and to feel that there is value in what I’ve learned, or what I’ve realised. And it’s mutual because it feels like… the people that are listening to it are so involved in that, and it really is such a personal experience between the relationship of the musician and the listener and there is a complete equality there…”
When hearing her speak of what she loves about performing live, it’s apparent these personal experiences between musician and listener have a key occasion to manifest when she shares her music with a crowd: “…What excites me most about performing these songs live would just be the opportunity to share a space of vulnerability and responsiveness with the people that have chosen to be present for the show. I love having the opportunity to talk with people that are there and to hear about their stories and their experiences and that’s the most thrilling part of all of it for me. Especially shows where the spirit is really there and there’s a lot of openness and reciprocity, it’s very moving and I love it, I live for it (laughs).”
While we can all agree on the power of live music, even when you privately listen to her record, the invitation to really hear and engage is immediate. Byrne summons you in with the first line of her first track on the record, when she sings “Follow my voice…” Once you receive this invitation, you’ll find yourself sticking around for the duration of the nine tracks on the record. Her elegantly soft, rich vocals might be easy listening, but not passive listening. In fact, from the experience of going through her record, I mentioned that to me, lyrically and spatially, the record is like a collection of poems- you can embark on the provided journey and go through in sequence, but you can also jump around seeking moments and lyrics that most resonate with you.
Byrne admits poets are a great source of inspiration to her, and cited key influences as Kenneth Patchen and Frank O’Hara among others.
The inspiration behind her musical style however, is closer to home. Byrne attributes to her father, the patterned, whimsical sounds of finger-strummed guitar that accompanies her voice: “…My guitar and much of that tendency or that inclination rather, is rooted in my father’s influence… I grew up with the sound of his playing.”
While influences are important, Byrne’s advice is to focus within. When asked if she had any advice for artists in terms of finding one’s own sound and staying motivated, she said, “I would say to just work from the heart… to trust in what you have to offer and what you have to share… have faith in it”.
Things don’t always go to plan, but her own ‘faith in it’ likely has a role in the motivation to keep seeking these connections between herself and her listeners, as I found when I asked if she’d experienced any live moments that reaffirmed to her that she was in the right place, doing the right thing: “I’ve had so many but I’ve also had some experiences where I’ve really struggled and felt very disconnected from what was presently unfolding in front of me. But the moments that have been right have meant everything to me…”
She recalled one moment on a recent tour with band Whitney on the West Coast, in Seattle, a city that Byrne called home at one point: “…it was a sold-out show and there was a bar on the side of the stage and a full house before the stage… people at the bar were very chatty and just socialising and it was kind of in conflict with the mood of the people that were more interested in seeing the performance. So it was kind of a funny dynamic, but I feel like together we were sort of able to overcome these exterior distractions. And I don’t know… I just felt so filled with joy, I felt like we were all so presently there together and it was just beautiful.”
Julie Byrne has a number of tours coming up that will cover Europe and America. No promises yet for Australia, but a glimmer of hope for 2018. In the meantime, make sure you check out ‘Not Even Happiness’- a collection of enchantingly personal narratives carried by elements of new age and traditional folk.
‘Not Even Happiness‘ is out now via Spunk Records