Q&A: Julie Byrne On Vulnerability, Fighting The Pull To Start Over, & Her New Album Not Even Happiness
Julie Byrne is one of the chosen few who can genuinely say she’s from “all over.” Byrne has led a nomadic existence since leaving her hometown of Buffalo at 18, and is part of a network of artists known nationally for existing neither here nor there, setting up “home” wherever it feels right for a few weeks or a few years. She counts Pittsburgh, Northampton, Chicago, Lawrence, Seattle, and New Orleans as transient homes, and New York City has only recently become a more permanent one.
Byrne’s music carries the weight of a suitcase packed with memories and trinkets, and her songs are most always born of long journeys, both physical and spiritual. Her last album, Rooms With Walls And Windows, compiled the self-titled and You Would Love It Here cassettes, which were recorded live in 2012 and 2013 while Byrne was living at a show space in Chicago. Rooms With Walls And Windows is a lonely, humbly rendered folk album rooted in the specifics of Byrne’s experience. It’s littered with thumbnail portraits of domesticity, songs about falling in and out of love with people and places, and the inspiring inertia brought on by a life on the road.
Rooms With Walls And Windows was released by the small independent label Orindal in 2014, around the time that Byrne took a train from New Orleans to New York, resettling her chaotic life in one of the more chaotic cities she could’ve chosen. Byrne has been slowly working on the follow-up to her debut ever since. Last year, she trekked back to Buffalo for a brief period to record in her childhood home, bringing along producer Eric Littmann and violinist Jake Falby. It was there that Byrne created her sophomore effort, Not Even Happiness, which is due out early next year. It’s a cleaner, more carefully produced album that finds Byrne in a different emotional space than the one she was in so many years ago when she wrote the songs included on her debut. Not Even Happiness questions what it means to settle down and whether or not it is objectively “good” to finally find yourself home, even if that home isn’t the place you anticipated. It’s still an album written for the open road, but one that promises some kind of love and companionship at the end of a long journey.
Byrne is one of the finest contemporary examples of an artist who can do so much for the soul by lending you some of hers. She speaks the way she sings — slowly, with an enviable, peaceful precision — and she invited me to her home in Queens to talk about the themes that inspired Not Even Happiness. Byrne takes her time answering questions, sometimes pausing for a near-minute to collect her thoughts before responding, and she doesn’t hesitate to delve into the philosophical. Over tea, we discussed her songwriting process and her new-ish life in New York, where she works odd jobs, including one as a seasonal park ranger. Mostly, we talked about the difficulties that come with staying in place, and in turn, the art that’s born of a good challenge. Read our Q&A and listen to Byrne’s new single, “Follow My Voice,” below.
STEREOGUM: When I listen to Not Even Happiness knowing you’ve been somewhat settled in New York, I focus so closely on how much of your lyricism is derived from nature. I think of New York as such a grey, industrial place.
JULIE BYRNE: That’s why I was grateful for the opportunity to work as a park ranger. I was starved for that sense of well-being we feel when we’re in green spaces. And I didn’t even realize the extent to which living without that was affecting me until I returned to Buffalo last fall. When we were living there, working on this album, we’d spend our days recording and to clear our heads we’d hike the trails in a nearby county park called Hunter’s Creek. By the time I returned to New York, it was with a greater sense of my own needs. I was studying environmental science and I hoped to find a job where I could commune with nature and work outside so I applied to the city parks department. I worked in Central Park most days this past summer and came to view it as a sanctuary, not only for New Yorkers to experience their connection to nature but also for the wildlife that take refuge there. And while the surrounding neighborhoods don’t reflect the same ethos, the parks really do belong to the people of New York and the parks department upholds that mission. I liked working in that form of service to the public.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard to look up and actually take stuff in outside of the daily routine. In that sense, I hear a kind of spiritualism on this album, too. I got Not Even Happiness the week after the election, and it felt appropriate because one of the first things I thought when I saw the result was: “I just wish I believed in god or something right now.” And then, to hear you point to little examples of the sublime on songs like “Natural Blue” feels so powerful at this point in time. What’s the story behind that song?
BYRNE: [When I wrote that song], I had been on tour for 40 days and I had maybe 30 left to go. We didn’t build in any period of rest between shows, so I really felt that I was at the mercy of any given day. I had no grounding and no real privacy, and it was difficult to live like that. We were staying outside of Boulder, CO — my friend’s cousin was going to school out there and she was living in an old mountain house with a five friends. A few of them had grown up in that town, lived there all their lives. It was a world separate from the one that I was used to and also entirely disconnected from the national DIY music community that I’m a part of.
They ended up having a party at the house that night, and the past few months had been a difficult time for everyone ‘cause there’d been a series of landslides in the town before that. It seemed like the first time that people had been able to come together and see each other, it was a very spirited gathering. I didn’t know anyone there, except my best friend David, who I was traveling with, and a boy we’d met in Denver, who we always thought was a wild star. We immersed ourselves in that night and hardly got any sleep. Not long after dawn, we had to pack up and get ready to leave on a 10-hour drive to Lawrence, KS. It felt like there was no real break between what we had experienced that night and the day that followed. “Natural Blue” came from feeling so at the mercy of the experience of touring and somehow breaking through to fully live in those moments of mysterious peace, wherever they may be. You can’t expect more than that, living that life.
STEREOGUM: That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. You talk a lot about privacy, or finding ways to be alone even when you’re surrounded by other people. How has your life changed between when the last album came out and now, in terms of how you’ve been living, what you’ve been doing, how you fill your days?
BYRNE: Well, I guess the most honest way I could answer that question is that regardless of the material differences in how I’ve lived between then and now, it’s my hope that I’m gradually aligning myself with aspirations of the spirit and in doing so, becoming more intentional in my daily life. I’m not free of selfishness, investment in my own side of a story, insecurities that manifest in ways I couldn’t anticipate, impatience… making a habit out of returning to short-lived forms of stimulation or escape. All the markings of a brutal heart. But it seems that being honest about these things is part of our movement away from them. My life’s been more structured, way more routine, but beyond that, the greatest change has been the realization that internally, much of what I turned to for a sense of self could actually never supply it.
STEREOGUM: You can hear that intention in this record because it’s bookended by two songs that are very much about the question of: “Should I still be moving or should I stay in place?” Maybe we can talk about the ideas behind “Follow My Voice.” One of my favorite lyrics on the album is that line, “I know you call this home/ But for me, this city’s hell.”
BYRNE: That line is in homage to a Caethua song that I listened to religiously in the past. At that point in my life, it’s very much how I felt about living in New York. But I had fallen in love. I had fallen so deeply, so sincerely in love and the person that I was with was rooted here. It seemed like whatever credentials I did have at that time had no merit in such an unrelenting place. I hadn’t graduated from college, and I wasn’t in school. I had a scattered work history. I pursued music with such devotion, but that doesn’t afford stability here. At one time in my life, it felt that living on the fringes and living without a home was very liberating, even in its most difficult moments. After being in New York and working in the service industry and feeling no sense of conviction for what I was doing to survive, I found myself at the end of that journey. I had no real reason to be here, but I wasn’t sure where else I could go. I don’t feel that way anymore.
It feels good to finally release “Follow My Voice,” it’s very dear to me. More than anything, the song is a plea for those in pain not to be overtaken by fear. For so much of my adult life, in great secrecy, I’ve felt a deep concern that part of me would always feel alone, misinterpreted, or unreachable. That feeling of aloneness was more familiar and constant to me than any romance had ever been, so much that I drew strength from it. The fear we experience, when despite all we try to give in love, we still emerge feeling that we may never truly be seen — this can have a bewildering effect that causes us to act in ways that aren’t true to who we are. In this case, to remain territorial even after the relationship ran its course, to assert our positions and entitlements, to find fault, the refusal to wish someone well when they no longer meet your personal needs. The song is an expression of faith in complete, unmotivated responsiveness in love and that our own capacity to love extends so far beyond the boundaries of what we’ve been told and lead to believe.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard to be honest and to abandon your ego.
BYRNE: It is! Well said. But part of the reason why it’s so hard to be honest is we don’t really live in a society that encourages that degree of vulnerability. There’s an Adrienne Rich quote that I really love… I think it’s something like:
An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other… It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. We can count on so few people to go this hard way with us.
And I think that’s really true. Living and loving is never going to be easy, and the beautiful part of a relationship is being committed toward really wanting to see and understand someone else and really challenging yourself to listen to who they are instead of asserting who you are and what you need. And obviously, I’m not free of that, I’ve certainly done just that very thing. But I think it’s really important to kind of move away from that.
STEREOGUM: There are so many references on this album to being alone and wondering if being alone is what you’re meant to be. Whether or not you can be the same person, loving and living with someone in harmony, or if that requires resigning bits and pieces of yourself.
BYRNE: That’s certainly been… a conflict for sure. I was talking to one of my friends recently who works as a chaplain, and he’s been an important guide to me. He explained a teaching that the aspiration of love should be triangular, where two people stand on common ground with space and individuality between them, seeking their highest good together. In that sense, the relationship is no longer being driven by unexamined need.
STEREOGUM: In the album’s press release you mention that “Follow My Voice” and the last song, “I Live Now As A Singer,” are closest to your heart in some ways. Do you feel like they connect in a cyclical way? Or am I reading too far into it?
BYRNE: No, I’d say that’s true. There’s greater resolve at the end of Not Even Happiness. “I Live Now As A Singer” is a revelation about the nature of travel. The reason I’ve felt so called to move and to tour is because I was never in a place for that long before I wanted a clean slate. But, you know, whatever burdens you carry go with you wherever you go. You could cross an ocean and they’d still be with you. I traveled the country extensively before I even came close to accepting that. And maybe that goes back to what I was trying to articulate before about how, yes, the structure of my life has changed but also the nature of my life has changed. It’s been a period of time where I’m trying to address what kept compelling me to leave again and again and again.
STEREOGUM: That must be really difficult.
BYRNE: [Laughs] I’m not claiming that I’ve made any progress!
STEREOGUM: What’s 2017 looking like for you?
BYRNE: I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out myself. I’d like to work as a ranger again in the summer, but I’d also like to tour. It really just depends. I’m playing it by ear right now. More than anything, I’d like to be stable enough to maintain the home I return to even when I do travel. I’m not willing to live the way that I did before when I was just like, “All right! I’m leaving everything behind and going on tour!” [Laughs] I think that having a home base will make me a stronger performer in that I’ll have a dedicated space from which to do the work that I need to in order to offer myself more fully to other people. At least that’s the hope.
Not Even Happiness is out 1/27 via Ba Da Bing Records. Pre-order it here.