Follow singer Julie Byrne's journey of enlightenment in her new album

In her quiet, self-possessed way, Julie Byrne reminds one of the ascetic American poet, Jack Gilbert, who sought solitude and "lived places", rather than just visited them.
In her quiet, self-possessed way, Julie Byrne reminds one of the ascetic American poet, Jack Gilbert, who sought solitude and "lived places", rather than just visited them.PHOTO: BA DA BING RECORDS

Hey, you. The poor passenger in an MRT cabin, crushed against others in the morning rush hour. Well, here is something to listen to: Not Even Happiness, the second album by Julie Byrne, based in her hometown of Buffalo, New York. It exemplifies the peripatetic musician's pursuit of something other than happiness - a state of knowing, awareness and meaningfulness.

She was inspired by a sunny afternoon stroll along the Atlantic coast in Queens' Jacob Riis Park, where she suddenly felt "a palpable sense of emergence to everything" and remembered "thinking I would trade that feeling for nothing… not even happiness".

It is this lambent wisdom that distinguishes her from the crowd. A part-time ranger in Central Park, she seeks not the usual accoutrements of fame, but an enlightenment of where one fits.

In her quiet, self-possessed way, she reminds one of the ascetic American poet, Jack Gilbert, who sought solitude and "lived places", rather than just visited them.

  • AMBIENT / FOLK

  • NOT EVEN HAPPINESS

    Julie Byrne

    Ba Da Bing Records

    4/5 stars

The opening track, Follow My Voice, exhorts all to achieve self-sufficiency: "I've been called heartbreaker/ For doing justice to my own." To let go and not hang on to things that have run their course, is her testament for living. It is also refreshing affrontery to the ceaseless needfulness of the material world.

Echoed by her warm, intimate guitar finger-picking, it is her voice, low and buttery, which caresses and teases out the nuances and textures.

She is not above self-admonishment, an admission that she has some distance to grow.

In Sleepwalker, she comes clean to a paramour: "I lived my life alone before you/And with those that I'd never succeeded to love/And I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude."

Belying her calm is an incandescent heart that beats, if ever so softly. Love peeps out, in unexpected glimpses. She whispers the lyrics in Morning Dove, as if trying to awaken a loved one. "I went out walking in the wood/By a river which never sleeps," she coos, over mellifluous strings, adding, "All I bare, all I sieve/I thought of you so presently." The exterior and interior are in sync and you feel the palpable rhythms of life.

So attuned is Byrne to the vagaries of existence, you would drift along, gladly. Whether extolling the shining moon in All The Land Glimmered Beneath or noticing the spreading dye from crushed beetles in Melting Grid, she makes things anew, significantly so.

"The day has been melting away," goes the first line in Sea As It Glides, a ballad so gauzy and dreamy, even the words dissolve as she utters them.

By the time one comes to the last song, I Live Now As A Singer, she has become a vessel for nature, if not one with it. Synths ebb and flow as the singer reaches a state of inner peace: "The nod beneath the universe you walk with me/Said I'd be ever in the air of your honesty."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Journey of enlightenment'. Print Edition | Subscribe