Julie Byrne: ‘We mostly recorded at night…’

The US singer-songwriter reveals the secrets of her beguiling music

Julie Byrne's beautiful sophomore record Not Even Happiness won her a wave of adulation when it was released in February 2017, picking up a Pitchfork 'Best New Music' tag in the process. As the year closed, the album made numerous Best of lists, with critics spellbound by Byrne's beguiling finger-style tunes, performed on her father's old guitar.

The other part of her musical equation is her vocals. Byrne was born with the gift of a golden voice (to borrow a phrase from Leonard Cohen), one that imparts her songs' poetic lyricism softly yet has the power to stop you in your tracks. Even over a slightly fuzzy Skype connection her voice is captivating, as she carefully delivers composed, thoughtful answers.

Byrne left her family home in Buffalo, New York aged 18 and has spent the past decade criss-crossing the US. As she puts it on Not Even Happiness closer 'I Live Now As a Singer': 'I have dragged my lives across the country'. She's currently ensconced on a friend's ranch in rural Texas when we speak ahead of dates that will take her to Canada, Australia and China.

Julie Byrne 1 RESIZED

You released your second album Not Even Happiness a year ago. What have the last 12 months been like?
Yeah, it's been a real whirlwind and it hasn't stopped quite yet. There's sort of a lot of processing that will need to be done when I have some time without travel. It's been a year of growth, which can probably be said of any of the years before it, but this one... it feels a little bit beyond the measure of words at the moment.

Do you feel any pressure associated with making such a lauded record?
It was a very different experience writing the songs on my first album [2014's Rooms With Walls and Windows] compared to this one because [the first record] was a very private process that didn't carry much expectation and now that music is something that I've transitioned into doing for a living, I'm not sure how that would pressurise the creative experience, but that's something that I'm hoping to be very gentle with at first.

Are you looking forward to more touring?
It's funny, it just feels like my way of life at this point. It feels natural for me to live that way. It's a continuation of a way of life that I've been cultivating over the past few years of touring. Before this album, I did a lot of DIY touring and was living pretty transiently.

Julie Byrne 3 RESIZED

You talk about living transiently and having moved around a lot, but when it came to making Not Even Happiness you chose to do so back at your family home in Buffalo. What drew you back there for that process?
I had been living in New York for two years at that point and I was never really able to reconcile my nature with the pace and demands of living in a place like New York City. Eric [Littman, Not Even Happiness producer] and I began recording in our apartment there and we ended up going on tour, and when we came back we scrapped the entire thing. We decided that we needed to be in a place that could offer more peace and quiet and spaciousness. And I missed my family and I missed having that time with them. For three months Eric took a hiatus from his job – he works as an infectious disease researcher when he's not touring – and we went to Buffalo for three months and very diligently worked on the album as though it were a full-time job.

Were your parents listening in while you were making the record?
[Laughs] No. We would record mostly at night… we developed a pretty nocturnal schedule because the house was so active during the day and I also wanted to spend that time with my family. My father used to play finger-style guitar and it's the guitar that I inherited from him that I used to record all the songs on the album, so I wanted to come to him with more of a finished product. I wanted to offer him the best of what we had made, so I waited until the end to present it all to him and he was very proud, which obviously means everything to me.

Was there a feeling that you were channelling some of your father's musical past?
Well, it wasn't something I was so conscious of. But it is definitely true that the style of my playing is so rooted in his influence in a way that I didn't even realise until I began trying to answer those questions in interviews. I hope that I'm kind of carrying on his legacy. And actually, I realised very recently that him playing that guitar is the first instrument that I heard in my life so I'm sure that it's had more of an impact on me than I can even articulate.

Julie Byrne 2 RESIZED BODY

Your lyrics read like poems, and you have some very strong visual references in there...
Sometimes I'm struck with phrases that feel sort of like some kind of inner dictation that just sort of bursts into my mind, and those are the things that I really hold on to because it feels like there's magic in such a spontaneous reaction. So I always try to capture those things as they first come to me. My grandma that I'm named after, she was an artist, an oil painter and she used to paint still lifes. I would love to explore my relationship with visual art but right now I think now that all translates into nesting – when I do have a place I put everything that I have into making it beautiful to me and feeling that this is an expansion of myself. It's a funny way to answer the question, but decorating and arranging and adorning a space has probably been my significant way of expressing myself visually.

Finally, how do you feel to see places like Beijing coming up in your tour diary?
Woooh! It's so unreal. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to play in those cities and I don't think it's something that I'll really process until I'm in the thick of it all.

By Jake Newby
  • 4 out of 5 stars