It’s hard to say how music gets inside us. It often happens in a sudden childhood experience of discovery, like a flash of enlightenment. For Irish immigrant and veteran singer-songwriter John Byrne, it came in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland, in 1988, when he was 13 years old. It was then that he discoverd The Traveling Wilburys, a rag-tag superstar British-American garage band formed at Bob Dylan’s home in Malibu, California, consisting of Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison.
“When I heard the first track,” Byrne says, “I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is my music.’ I loved it. From there I went backwards. I bought Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Harrison’s Cloud Nine. I also picked up Petty’s Full Moon Fever. Before that I hadn’t even heard of Tom Petty.”
Granted, music has always been a huge part of his life. “My dad sang,” he says. “His friends would come over our house and they would have ballad sessions. Someone would start singing and then everybody sang. It would go on for hours.”
Today, at age 40, Byrne has been in America for 20 years, following the path that began with The Traveling Wilburys. He arrived in the States fresh out of college, not quite knowing what he wanted to do. He gradually found his way to the Philadelphia music scene playing his acoustic guitar between local bar bands’ set-breaks.
Eventually he met singer-songwriter Patrick Mansfield and their collaboration turned into one of Philadelphia’s hottest rock bands, Patrick’s Head – a stunning, successful combination of folk and punk driven by lyrical rock and roll. The band’s popularity grew strong enough to allow for the release of a debut album and an offer from a Nashville label to produce a follow-up.
Byrne was comfortable enough in his own musical skin that, when the artistic direction of the band’s album went the way of a more watered-down pop sound, he left for his own solo career. In 2010, The John Byrne Band released After the Wake to critical and popular acclaim. The band extended the original approach of Patrick’s Head, leaning heavy on his Byrne’s Irish folk roots. As a result, that album is a strong debut with edgy and insightful songwriting and a distinctive vocal style. Byrne’s approach on the album reveals his kinship to artists like Billy Bragg, though Byrne’s core signature sound is all his own.
According to Byrne, his band’s second release, 2013’s Celtic Folk Songs – which is exactly what the album consists of – bought him some time write new tunes after throwing out a series of songs that left him with a bad feeling. “There had been an accident and some other personal problems that made the songs feel like a reminder of that time,” he remembers. “So, instead, we released an album of Irish folk songs, and I wrote all new songs to record for the follow-up album. The [new] songs really flowed.”
The resulting album, The Immigrant and the Orphan (for which he’s raising funds via a Kickstarter campaign), shows Byrne’s artistic growth from After the Wake five years ago. This new disc is a solid, well-produced album which demonstrates Byrne’s strengths as a songwriter, vocalist, and performer. It builds on the folk-rock-punk sound of his early years and extends his art into some of the finest songwriting I’ve heard this year. Consider the literate nature of the title track. “These are [fictional] characters in the title track,” Byrne told me in a recent interview, “although they are based on me and my wife. The male character is professing his love for the lady. Her reply is ‘You love me too much.’ It sounds like they’re going to break up, but they end up staying together.
“I was thinking of the subtle nature of the stories of James Joyce when I wrote it,” he continued. “Changes happen which can go unnoticed unless you’re playing attention.” Byrne mused.
Indeed the song is quite beautiful and moving. With a string quartet accompanying, it has the feel of a traditional folk song. It is subtle, like the entire album, but the vibe is, at once, as rough as rock and as elegant as a calm ocean.
Like Byrne himself, each tune on this album carries an honesty, integrity, and quiet passion that will draw you into its world for years to come.
When I asked Byrne who his musical heroes were he answered, “Ramblin’ Jack Elliott without a doubt. I even told him I loved him once. I played a song for him once. He was playing ‘Stew Ball’ in a small venue a few years ago. I told him the song came from the Irish folk song, ‘The Plains of Kildare.’ He asked me to sing it!”
A listen to the original song and then to Ramblin’ Jack’s version provides the source of the deepest inspiration for Byrne’s upcoming album. He has taken this traditional form, shaken it up, and turned into something modern, while preserving the original music’s dignity. It is the music of his ancestry. It’s where he begins. But he takes it farther along. As he releases The Immigrant and the Orphan, the same Irish road continues to unfold, lined with fine songs and a bridge between two cultures.