Julie Byrne On Album Number Two, Life On The Move & Working As A Ranger In Central Park
May 15th 2017
Earlier this year, New York-based singer songwriter Julie Byrne released her new record, Not Even Happiness. The follow up to 2014’s highly regarded Rooms With Walls And Windows, it’s the self-taught musician’s first release in three years. Many of the tracks were several years in the making, documenting her travels and her various homes around the USA: from roadside diners to the stars above the desert. It also grapples with more introspective questions about the mysteries of love and the toll that change can take on a person, archiving a distinct period of growth and adjustment in Byrne’s life.
In The Pines’ Johanna Roberts sat down for a little chat with Byrne, which you can read in full below. They talked all about her travels, recording the new album and life as a Seasonal Ranger in New York’s Central Park. There’s even a small poem tucked in there!
– – –
Your first album was a compilation of songs originally issued on cassette in 2011-12, startlingly intimate and assured. Not Even Happiness is understandably more deliberate but has that same close emotional resonance. How did you approach the recording process?
Thank you. Rooms was recorded live straight to tape, most of the songs were selected out of three or four complete takes. There was no going in and altering anything afterward, which was perhaps part of the magic of that album for me in a certain way. Any error in the performance became a relic that lived on in the song. Not Even Happiness was recorded digitally for the most part. It took much longer and had more intricate editing process. I worked closely alongside my friend and producer Eric Littmann who really brought our hopes and vision for the songs forward.
People often invoke artists like Karen Dalton and Judee Sill when describing your music. Do you feel part of that lineage?
I do very much like the idea of observing connection to a lineage but I don’t have much familiarity with either musician. I’ve only listened to a few songs by Karen Dalton and I haven’t yet listened to Judee Sill. I reckon I should though!
Are there others that have influenced you that listeners might be surprised by?
The question of musical influences has always been a difficult one for me. I’m self taught on guitar, I don’t have a trained ear or any understanding of music theory. So even when I hear music that moves me, it’s difficult for me to incorporate elements of that into what I make due to my own limitations. I think that might be a useful exercise going forward though.
You managed to find maybe the greenest job in New York, working as a Seasonal Ranger in Central Park last year – was this after your record had come together? Do you feel that the experience played into the sound at all?
Yes! That work was a real blessing and an entirely engrossing experience. I began working as a Seasonal Ranger about four months after Not Even Happiness had been completed, so visions of the remaining (and curated) green space in New York City didn’t have a chance to seep into those songs. But what I learned in that time has reshaped my relationship to the natural world in a way that I imagine will emerge in future song writing.
I’ve always thought of cities, and New York in particular, having a long history with folk music, yet there’s also this embedded idea that folk is intrinsically sort of pastoral rather than urban. As a songwriter whose work largely navigates twin themes of the natural world and solitude do you find the contrast difficult? Does your music create the sanctuary/physical space you need?
That’s a very good question. Sometimes I worry that nothing will provide me with a feeling of psychic sanctuary here. I’ve written hardly anything since I moved to New York two years ago, most of that creative work has taken place outside of the city. To easily commune with nature, to easily enter into a space of privacy and a permissible feeling of solitude is rare here. I wrote a poem about it last week after returning from the glory of Big Sur and the California Redwoods.
Where once I stood
Before an Ocean
I now stand in a place
Where every living thing
Has been destroyed
You’ve led something of a life on the move since leaving Buffalo (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Northampton, Massachusetts, Chicago, Illinois, Seattle, New Orleans, NYC) – which places did you find most conducive to writing? Are there any places that don’t inspire you at all?
I find travel most conducive to writing because it’s just a simpler way of life. When I’m home, I return to my work and my routine in New York which has been built around keeping pace and holding onto my apartment. It’s not enough. Sometimes it feels overwhelming and desolate at the same time. On tour, I’ve felt so alive and as complete as I’ve ever dreamt possible, sometimes I can sustain that feeling even in its most difficult moments and that’s how I know, beyond any measure of doubt, that it’s true.
There’s a vulnerability to your recordings, yet you tour extensively – how does this intimacy translate live? Is it hard to sustain?
My hope and intention is that, at our best, we can translate more powerfully live than we do on the record because in performance we have the opportunity to hold space with everyone that has chosen to be there. The presence and reciprocity o
Is it possible to maintain the romance of the road in the 21st century?
It is possible– If anything, it’s difficult not to get swept up by the experience of touring again and again. For me it can sometimes eclipse the merits of home life.