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Devotion and grief intermingle on Julie Byrne's otherworldly record

Julie Byrne
Tonje Thilesen
Courtesy of the artist
Julie Byrne

There is something otherworldly about Julie Byrne's music. Her haunting, silky voice weaves through her delicate fingerstyle guitar playing in a way that never feels rehearsed.

"I feel the resonance in my body, and I feel a sense of belonging to this world when I play and when I sing," she tells us during her visit to WXPN.

It really does seem like she's channeling her songs from some supernatural plane, but what Byrne sings about on her new album is deeply human. The Greater Wings, her first record in over six years, explores themes of devotion, renewal and grief. It was produced by Byrne's longtime partner and musical collaborator, Eric Littmann, who passed away in 2021.

"He's sort of the heartbeat and the atmosphere that's behind a lot of the songs on The Greater Wings," she says.

In this session, Byrne talks about the album, her life and her songwriting career, which began in Buffalo, N.Y. Plus, she shows off her impressive fingerstyle technique in songs from The Greater Wings performed live for World Cafe.

You can read some of the highlights from the conversation below, or listen to the whole session in the audio player above.

Interview Highlights

On playing the guitar

"It is an embodied practice, obviously, and it's a very intimate one. I feel the resonance in my body, and I feel a sense of belonging to this world when I play and when I sing.

"I also feel a sense of the history that I carry and that lives in my instrument, which I inherited from my father. I remember witnessing that in his playing as a young child, as an observer, that when he would play, it was as though he was in another world. He was elsewhere and just with song in a way that I found so mesmerizing when I was young. I think I actually became very curious about that state."

Julie Byrne
Tonje Thilesen / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Julie Byrne

On Eric Littmann's production

"It's always important for me to reinforce that Eric is obviously so much more than his death to me, and this record comes from, among many other things, the life that we lived together and the ways that he shaped me forever.

"Our collaboration in music is only a part of that, but his presence is definitely felt, especially for anyone who's listened to any of his work in the New York collective Phantom Posse (or Phantom Power) or some of the projects that he wrote under. So much of it is really introducing the sort of boundless world of the synthesizer to what used to be just acoustic compositions on guitar.

"I think that his sense of restraint, in terms of how he would apply his skill set — a lot of that was in making choices that were more refined. I think that he is the heartbeat and the atmosphere that's behind a lot of the songs on The Greater Wings."

On the music scene in Buffalo, N.Y.

"I grew up in the farmlands in a small town 40 minutes south of Buffalo. When I was 17, I moved to Buffalo, and I was working at a grocery store and living in a house where we would organize shows.

"There was a lot of that going on across the city. I mean, housing back then in Buffalo was unimaginably affordable compared to the times that we're living in now, so there was a real creative freedom that that granted artists there at the time. It felt somewhat limitless.

"It's also a post-industrial city with many abandoned properties that the city didn't have the money to tear down, even though they hadn't been operative for decades, at that point — this would have been in 2010 — so a lot of the underground music scene in Buffalo that I was a part of at that time, shows were being hosted in punk houses and squats and in one of the old grain elevators in the silo, in parking lots, in front of the fountain downtown at 4 in the morning."

Julie Byrne
Tonje Thilesen / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Julie Byrne

On life on the road

"It's just been a deep love for that way of life. I also think it's very natural for me, and I think living on tour is, at least for me, a much simpler existence than the times I've tried to build a home somewhere. I think, when it comes to music and when it comes to my work, it feels like it's where I've felt the greatest sense of purpose.

"It's also brought the most meaningful relationships of my life. Even now, in this era of my experience as a working musician, after six years of working on this record and coming through it now as a bereaved person enduring such a profound loss, music is bringing me back to life in a way that I couldn't have expected. I think this way of life just continues to revive me again and again."

Copyright 2023 XPN

Raina Douris
Raina Douris, an award-winning radio personality from Toronto, Ontario, comes to World Cafe from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), where she was host and writer for the daily live, national morning program Mornings on CBC Music. She was also involved with Canada's highest music honors: hosting the Polaris Music Prize Gala from 2017 to 2019, as well as serving on the jury for both that award and the Juno Awards. Douris has also served as guest host and interviewer for various CBC Music and CBC Radio programs, and red carpet host and interviewer for the Juno Awards and Canadian Country Music Association Awards, as well as a panelist for such renowned CBC programs as Metro Morning, q and CBC News.
Miguel Perez
Miguel Perez is a radio producer for NPR's World Cafe, based out of WXPN in Philadelphia. Before that, he covered arts, music and culture for KERA in Dallas. He reported on everything from the rise of NFTs in the music industry to the enduring significance of gay and lesbian bars to the LGBTQ community in North Texas.

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