Originally from Buffalo, New York, folk artist Julie Byrne left her hometown at 18 and spent several years traveling through the US, putting down temporary roots everywhere from Louisiana to Kansas. Her acclaimed 2017 album Not Even Happiness chronicles this period with spare acoustic guitar and Byrne’s affecting lyricism.
“My descriptions of the American landscape and the natural world on Not Even Happiness come from a place of wonder,” she explains to That’s by phone before her debut Asia shows in Beijing and Shanghai this month, touching also on traveling and the connection in her mind between nature and being in love. Read on for the interview.
Though you’ve spent the past few years traveling the US, you returned to your hometown of Buffalo to record Not Even Happiness. Why did you decide to do this?
Well, I had been living in New York for about two years at that time, and I don’t think that my nature was really ever able to reconcile the pace and the demands of living in a place like New York City. My good friend and collaborator Eric Littman, who produced the album, and I began the recording process at an apartment in Brooklyn, and we ended up scrapping the whole thing.
We decided that we needed to be somewhere that could offer more peace and quiet and spaciousness. So Eric took a hiatus from his job and we moved to Buffalo and worked day in and day out recording Not Even Happiness.
What made you decide to leave Buffalo and travel around the US when you were 18?
I just never felt a very strong sense of belonging to the town that I grew up in. I love the land that my parents have and the house that I grew up in and being in their company, but I never felt a very strong connection to the community. I was just always dreaming of travel and learning through experience. For better or for worse, I’ve always been guided by my dreaming.
As someone who’s traveled extensively, what do you feel is different about the sense you get of a place by visiting it as a tourist versus living there full-time?
I’ve never lived in a country other than the United States, so I can’t really speak to what that experience is like – I’m sure that it’s very thrilling and exhilarating in many ways, but there must be times where you just long so deeply for home, and the places and people that you’ve known the longest.
When I’ve lived in different cities, I’ve found that starting over is always very difficult. It is such a long process to even get a sense of direction in a new place, let alone a sense of community or work that is fulfilling. I think there have been very uncomfortable periods of my life when I’ve lived in a new place.
"For better or for worse, I’ve always been guided by my dreaming"
How much influence did your father’s style of fingerpicking guitar have on your own music?
[My father] was definitely my primary influence. It’s his guitar that we used to record the album, and it’s his guitar that I tour with. And I actually realized recently that the first instrument that I ever heard was him playing the guitar. So I think that the impact that his playing has had on me probably reaches much farther than I’m even conscious of, because it’s been with me all my life.
Several of your songs fluctuate, lyric-wise, between descriptions of nature and personal relationships. How are these two themes connected for you?
That’s an interesting question. I think that love and the feeling of being in communion with the natural world – those two things have brought me the greatest sense of peace in my life. So I’ve never really thought about it that way, but it makes sense that they are interwoven throughout my creative life.
What are you looking forward to about this Asia tour?
Well, it feels so surreal to even have the opportunity to play my music there. I don’t really have any expectations – I rarely ever do when I’m visiting a new place. I’m just happy to be guided by the experience and the mystery of that. I hope to make new friends, to have the opportunity to meet people at the shows. That’s my favorite part.