"I’m a fledgling,” Julie Byrne says of her life as a musician.
The 27-year-old from Buffalo, New York State, has a song on her most recent album titled I Live Now as a Singer. However, until June of this year she was living as a nanny.
Byrne has done all sorts and lived all over while slowly, slowly sculpting the songs that have now filled two solo albums, released through handshake deals with small labels. She has also worked as a seasonal park ranger in New York’s Central Park and studied for a degree in environmental science.
It’s only now, as the world slowly wakes to the luminous beauty of her second album, Not Even Happiness, that she can afford to devote herself to touring across North America, Europe, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand with her two-piece backing band. They finally reach London on Monday.
“I genuinely feel so enthusiastic and so fortunate to be able finally to get to live through my creative work, because for so long I was balancing it with whatever odd jobs I could pick up. I never want a day to go by when I’m not aware of the honour of being able to do this for a living. This is the only thing I’ve ever really dreamed of doing,” she tells me. She speaks as she sings, soft and intimate, with long pauses while she assembles in her head the precise articulation of her thoughts.
She’s a gentle guitar-picker with a voice like a thousand pillows, most closely related to cult folk singers past such as Vashti Bunyan, Linda Perhacs and Karen Dalton. Hers is not brash music, following today’s trends and shouting its way to the top of the charts. She avoids social media and would rather talk about her passion for the novelist Gabriel García Márquez than any current bands, TV or films.
The low-key January release of Not Even Happiness passed me by, I confess, but I caught her at the Green Man Festival in the summer and was transfixed. It has belatedly become one of my albums of the year, and is certainly the loveliest.
The album’s title comes from a feeling she experienced during a spring walk on Riis Park beach, New York, as the world felt warm for the first time that year. “There was a palpable sense of emergence to everything. I felt it in myself too and remember thinking I would trade that feeling for nothing… not even happiness.”
She’s wonderful at voicing these things in song, too, blending observations on nature with her inner world in concise lyrics that take her a long time to craft. “To me, this city’s hell/But I know you call it home/I was made for the green/Made to be alone,” she sings on the opening song, Follow My Voice.
She recorded it in the basement of her family home with producer Eric Littmann and violinist Jake Faltby, who are also her touring bandmates. It’s a small ranch house on top of a hill near Buffalo, with windows opening out to a valley below. “There’s this really beautiful view of the land and the tree line. That’s what we were facing for two months.”
She’s an only child, raised by creative parents. Her mother is a stained-glass artist. Her dad had a stressful job in the research and development department of Leica but spent his spare time immersed in carpentry and playing guitar. For the past 17 years he has suffered from primary progressive multiple sclerosis, so no longer works. Byrne now plays his old instrument on record and on tour. It’s her most prized possession, sitting just six feet away from her as we speak.
“Today his illness has definitely entered into a new phase that has been a little difficult to face, at least for me,” she says. “But what’s more important is that there’ll be times when he’ll have a very bad day, or even a bad week or month, and as soon as he comes out of that it’s as though it never happened. He’s ready to sit outside and look at the sky with my mom and talk about all the things they normally talk about. I don’t think I could ask for a more exemplary model of strength.”
They didn’t travel much while she was a child, aside from a couple of epic day trips to New York City that involved leaving the house at 2am for a two-hour drive followed by an eight-hour bus ride. Byrne had been on a plane just once before the age of 20. She has made up for it since, leaving home to study at 18 and living for spells in Pittsburgh, Chicago, Seattle, New Orleans and, until recently, New York. She’s now back in Buffalo when not on tour. On her song Sleepwalker she sings: “I crossed the country and I carried no key/Couldn’t I look up at the stars from anywhere?/And sometimes I did, I felt ancient/But still I sought peace and it never came to me.” She tries to explain what drove her to keep moving in early adulthood: that American thrill of Kerouac-type restlessness, but also an underlying unhappiness.
“There is so much romance in it, this intensity of feeling associated with the experience of falling asleep in a different place from the one that you woke up in. There is a romance inherent to that way of life that can’t be denied, regardless of the thing that has pushed you to go,” she says. “But those years of my life saw me to the end of a fantasy I had that there was a place in the world that could offer me relief from an undercurrent of sorrow that always seemed to surface in me before too long. I always thought there was a place or a person I would meet that could somehow alleviate that.”
Now she has found that a burgeoning music career can give more meaning to the movement. “Being able to meet people that have found some kind of resonance in the music: that’s probably my favourite part of the whole thing. I love speaking to people when we travel because it feels like there is no small talk, it feels there is a relationship or trust and intimacy that has already been established by the music. We speak to each other in that place of understanding and it’s very overwhelming and beautiful. It makes me feel a sense of belonging that I’ve never known before.”
She’ll get another warm welcome in Islington next week, in an atmospheric church venue ideally suited to her intricate, exquisite songs. This singing life is turning out to be a good one.
Julie Byrne plays Union Chapel, N1 (0870 264 3333, unionchapel.org.uk) on Monday