Julie Byrne - Rooms With Walls and Windows

Nina Mashurova reflects on the Seattle-based singer-songwriter’s debut album.

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When I think about homes I’ve had, the one that keeps coming to mind is a third story walkup in the Lower Allston neighborhood of Boston, where I lived for a year after graduation. I shared a room with a friend, beholden only to a month-to-month commitment. She attended grad school during the day, while I stayed home and read my way through her library. At least initially, everyone in the house was dead broke. We lived off of bread, Earth Balance, and produce from the day-old shelf at the Star Market. I learned to make cowboy coffee by boiling the grounds and straining them out through a paper towel. The house itself was very “old New England”—comfortable but crumbling. We had too much time and not enough money, so domestic tasks which would normally have been automated became the focal points of our days. Time was marked by drinking tea, feeding the finches, fixing the plumbing, working on our bikes, cutting each other’s hair, always reading, always discussing, always learning to speak honestly.

Most people who filtered through that house existed in non-normative bodies and were recovering from years of being pathologized. We had lived most of our lives under the tyranny of productivity and the fear of “wasted time,” and most of us had never learned how to take care of each other or ourselves. We had many patron saints we looked to for guidance, with Audre Lorde ranking especially high up on that list. Someone could often be heard quoting her famous words on self-care: “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Up until then, most places I had lived in were sites of self-negation. Roommates spent their home lives getting high and watching television. I began to equate domestic life with dull complacency, and privilege going out as the only way to actively live life. For all of its faults, the Lower Allston house was one of the warmest homes I’ve had, particularly because it reclaimed “home” as something to actively engage with.

I am currently living in an art space where the domestic sphere is actively related to as a site of creation. The space exists to blur the lines between home, art, and work. It is here that I first heard Julie Byrne play and here that I holed up for the duration of the polar vortex, listening to Rooms With Walls and Windows on a near-daily basis.

Rooms With Walls and Windows is made up of material from two pre-existing tapes. Side one is drawn from You Would Love It Here, (Solid Melts, 2012), informed by the presence and dissolution of a relationship, written and recorded while living in a DIY space in Chicago (largely sans walls, and other trappings of privacy usually equated with home life). These songs, shaped only by vocals and finger-picked guitar, are story songs—driven by a meandering, organic momentum and conversational, insightful lyrics.

“Attached to Us Like Butcher Wrap,” one of the most striking songs on the record, pauses on the refrain “black coffee / brown sugar / and cream,” followed by Julie singing “I want to tell you stories / but sleep, I will be there when you wake / and we’ll have toast and one fried egg / and the bad feelings will have all gone away.” It’s a familial sentiment—simultaneously romantic and maternal, but it’s also a sentiment prefaced by the question, “How long can my body be loyal?” Processed together, the two thoughts speak to the continual nature of bodies, conflating caring for another with caring for oneself.

For all the recent albums tagged as “bedroom,” most are bedroom only in recording technique or in introspection. Rooms With Walls and Windows is the rare album that calls attention to material interiority—tactile realities, the textures of things.

“Holiday” is another deftly written song, telling the story of lovers meeting and leaving in clear lines like “we could have lived together and given up on dreams of wandering.”

Side one closes on “Butter Lamb,” which contains the line that, to me, feels like a thesis for the album—“still people need small things—the feeling of water, of labor, and of sleep, and the freedom to leave.”

For the vinyl, Owen Ashworth (Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, Advance Base, Orindal) has lovingly remastered songs which were already warm in form and content to give them fullness and weight, enabling them to fill a room the way it feels they are meant to. The songs on the second side, pulled from the 2012 self-titled Teen River tape, written in a more stable living environment, are especially illustrative of this. Songs are built around stable melodies and words are buried deeper in the mix, making it easy for the songs to wash over you so fully and naturally that you could even forget that you are listening to something. (Though, upon closer inspection, the side is carefully structured—“Prism Song,” “Marmalade,” and “Vertical Rays” form this side’s core, and the “Piano Music” tracks bracket it on each side.)

Julie’s powerful voice and traditional folk instrumentation will inevitably get her comparisons to Angel Olsen and Chan Marshall, and those comparisons are well-earned. But as an album, Rooms With Walls And Windows feels closest to Bjork‘s Vespertine—a sanctuary in winter, self-described by Bjork as an album for making sandwiches to. In an earlier interview, we spoke at length about living in show spaces, living in different types of cities, living on tour, living alone. By crafting an album informed by multiple ideas of home, Julie’s music subtly recenters domesticity from a site of complacency to a site for art-making and a source of power.

Rooms With Walls and Windows is out now via Orindal.

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