Julie Byrne Tells The Personal Stories Behind Her Hushed Folk Breakout ‘Not Even Happiness’

Managing Editor, Music
01.26.17

Jonathan Bouknight

Julie Byrne’s voice sounds like a thing out of time, but luckily for us, Byrne is coming into her own right now in 2017. After a small, independent release on a Chicago based DIY label in January of 2014, Byrne’s debut record Rooms With Walls And Windows was passed along like a talisman, gaining her a small trickle of loyal but devoted fans. Nearly three years later, her follow-up record is arriving with quite a bit more fanfare; an interview with Stereogum, a feature in NPR, and just yesterday a feature in Pitchfork mean that Byrne won’t be rescinding back into obscurity after Not Even Happiness comes out tomorrow.

Though she’s lived all over, Byrne is originally from Buffalo, New York, a place that deeply impacted her as a creator and a person. Currently, she lives in New York, and even spent last year working as a park ranger in Central Park. The many moments on Not Even Happiness that feel like deep communion with pastoral settings are clearly influenced by this work. She plays close, unsettling melodies on acoustic guitar that are occasionally gilded with wind instruments, like flute, or violins and other strings, and only took up guitar when her father’s illness prohibited him from making music himself anymore. Byrne doesn’t read music, and chooses to construct her songs purely by ear. She recorded Not Even Happiness in her childhood home in New York with producer Eric Littmann and additional contributions from Jake Falby (Mutual Benefit) on strings.

The album sounds like it could belong in any century or any setting, or explained in another way, it also sounds like a machine that’s been moving for a long time gently coming to rest. There is a sense of happy finality in this record that reminds me of the peace that comes from watching a good marriage begin, or the feeling of returning to the wonderful banality of home after an exciting trip. Taking her time to experience the things this record is about, and write about them only when she was ready means the album feels completely settled. She’s by no means finished, but on Not Even Happiness Byrne sounds like she’s arrived, and perhaps that’s just it, because an anecdote full of similar feeling spurred her to select the album’s title.

“The title of the album comes from a letter I wrote to a friend after a trip to Riis Park’s ‘The People’s Beach,'” she writes in the album’s press release. “It was the first warm afternoon of the year. I walked alongside the Atlantic as the Earth came alive for the sun. 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.”

The bookend to that moment comes in a line on “Melting Grid,” a song she wrote upon visiting the Pacific Northwest for the first time, her feelings summarized in: “I exist to be dreaming still.” Byrne’s songwriting is steeped in close analysis of time and how it slowly or swiftly changes our emotions, and doing her own thoughts justice is part of why Byrne took a good, long three years to follow up her debut. Sometimes, going slow is the only way to go. Read our conversation centered around the record below.

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