American singer-songwriter Julie Byrne released her second full length, Not Even Happiness, at the beginning of the year. She has acquired praise and love from that savvy audience that finds solitude a comfortable and colourful place. Due to her nomad experience – raised in different parts of North America – she finally found home in Buffalo (New York). Her songwriting finds inspiration through all those American landscapes her eyes saw, as Julie defines herself, “in her pursue of self-discovery.”
A simple, straightforward style sonically speaking, her music is composed by grounded fingerpicked acoustic textures and a solid angelical voice – sometimes some subtle violins and synths sounds embellish this magical simplicity – creating intimacy between calmness and the listener – washing down our souls. We caught up with Julie at Flow Festival in Helsinki for a fantastic opportunity to experience her intimate solo performance that is taking her around Europe during this summer through the fall.
Speaking with a British friend of mine we discussed how to pronounce your surname.
Just like David Byrne, I presume?
Yes (she smiles).
Did anyone ask if you’re his daughter?
Yes, people have asked that question. Maybe we are related somewhere down the line but not to my knowledge (Laughs).
I would love to talk about your new full length, entitled Not Even Happiness. When and where did you record it?
My main collaborator – Eric Littmann – and I recorded it in 2015 in my childhood home outside Buffalo (New York). We’d been living in Brooklyn for a couple of years before that, and we tried to record it there but it wasn’t really working in the kind of line we were looking for at the time. So we went to Buffalo and the record unfolded from there.
Who was the producer?
Eric Littmann. It is interesting because he also works at one of the leading cancer research hospitals in the country as an infectious disease researcher, so he very generously felt inspired to kind of help me out. It was just a home set up. We didn’t have any professional equipment (she smiles).
The album has been released in Ba Da Bing Records. How did it happen?
I have a friend who works as a DJ, he has a really interesting radio station out of New Jersey called WFMU, and he sometimes organizes dinner parties where he pours out wine and snacks and invites friends over to listen to records. That’s how I met Ben, who runs Ba Da Bing. So we just kept in touch after that.
Is it New York-based?
It is. Yeah, based in Brooklyn.
But let's focus on your new album. Did you record all the instruments we hear in the album by yourself?
No, I was responsible for the songwriting for the most part. Then there are my two collaborators: Littmann, who plays synths and produced the album, and my friend Jake Falvy, who plays the violin. The last song on the record, I Leave Now, was a collaboration between the three of us, but for all of the other songs, they were just accompany for the pre-written material.
I do understand you perform both solo and with them?
I do, I play with them as often as possible.
Do you like to play with different types of guitar tunings rather than standard ‘E A D G B E’?
I have some of the set in two different drop D tunings and the rest of it is standard. That was something I started experimenting a few years ago and it kind of opened up in this expensive landscape of what’s possible with the guitar.
The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, just to drop a few names, are well-known for playing classic tunes with the DAD or the dropped D tunings. Do you need this type of approach to begin your songwriting?
Writing is never a very formal thing for me. I sit down with my guitar when I feel inspired, kind of have it close to me, and songs just kind of come from there. It takes really long time for me to write and I don’t have any kind of professional attitude about it like “alright, time to record another album”; it’s a very slow and natural process.
Are all the songs of the new record written after your first record?
Actually, one of the songs was written during the release of the first record. Other than that, everything else has been written after.
What are the main themes in this album?
There are kind of standard stories of love and travel, but also using songwriting as a way to kind of support me and discovering what has always led me to move around a lot. I’ve never really lived in one place for all of that long.
Does your songwriting capture that sort of nomad life you have experienced?
Yeah, that’s right.
Hence are locality or the American landscapes main sources of inspiration for you?
I would say, in a more exterior manner of speaking, I am inspired by traveling the American landscape. It sounds cliché, but it’s much more about self-discovery, and what travel, and love, and music, and all these religious experiences help you to realize more about the truth of who you are.
Do you still reside in Brooklyn currently?
I just moved back to Buffalo a couple of months ago, right before starting this tour.
Does it mean you were sort of homesick or not too fond of the hectic life in the big city?
I’m not sure. Now I’m travelling so much, I don’t really spend time at home at all. My travels are constantly bringing me through New York. I have a constant connection with my community there, that’s what I miss the most. To be honest, I don’t really miss what the environment of New York is, because my nature isn’t really suited to it very well. It is a place unfortunately I can’t really adapt to.
Why do you think it is like that for you?
It is just very demanding. For people who don’t have deep roots there, there must be another thing that makes it worth it, kind of enduring how demanding it is. It is very expensive, and you move in such a rapid peace. Some people really thrive in that kind of environment, but I never really could find the way to.
Where do you begin your songwriting process?
I usually begin with my guitar or sometimes melodies just come to me and I start singing them.
About your singing method, have you ever had some sort of training?
No, I don’t have any classical training with guitar or voice. The progress that I’ve been able to make comes through years of performance and having that as my main focus.
Any tips that really work for you to sing better?
Well… (laughs) Sometimes I listen to some of the first songs I ever recorded and I notice my voice has changed a lot. But in terms of any tips, basically I just don’t smoke, that’s the biggest. Maybe for Tom Waits it lands in certain character, but for me it limits my capacity almost immediately (laughs).
Within this atmospheric vibe and calmness that your songwriting transmits, which do you think is a good way to create intimacy with the audience and the performance itself?
I think that the way it begins is hopefully through resonance with the lyrics. My biggest hope is that I can offer that to people: the sense to belonging through the words. Other than that, during the performance, I really try not to miss the moments. I just want to be there with the people. I’m starting to understand how to offer that love through performance, which is really what I’m striving to do.
I guess it is inevitable that your music resonates to some ‘60s and ‘70s folk artists such as Nick Drake, Judee Sill, or for instance, I Life Now as a Singer, resonates to This Mortal Coil. Do you find this somehow appealing?
Yeah, I don’t mind either way. Whatever connections people make, that’s fine for me. I actually don’t listen to that music aside from my friends – who are musicians – or when I drive. But I really like Nick Drake’s guitar playing, so it’s exciting to be compared to someone that I admire.
Please tell me some records you’re been listening to recently.
Kellcy Lousie’s EP Church, Robbie Basho’s Vison of The Country, Wise Blood, From Rosie To Earth, Harty, Party, which is new and Robbie Basho too.
Is this your first time at Flow?
Yes, it is very nice here. It is my first time in Helsinki, too.
Julie Byrne will be performing on Monday 4th September at 8pm at Fasching, Kungsgatan 63, 111 22 Stockholm.