Conversations is an interview series in which we discuss a specific component of an artist’s work.
In this edition, Nina Mashurova catches up with Julie Byrne before the release of her new album Rooms With Walls and Windows to talk about the new album, living in different cities and spaces, winter, and ideas of home.
You’re out in Seattle now right?
Yea, I’ve been living in Seattle since August. Seattle’s really beautiful and the landscape is really lush in comparison to Chicago, where I lived before.
There are a lot more trees.
You have the ocean, and all these beautiful islands you can get to really easily.
It’s one of the most beautiful places. I really want to live in the Pacific Northwest at some point.
A reason why you should move to the Pacific Northwest is because there are bioluminescent algae and plankton that wash up on the shores and live in the water. I always thought it was a real drag that there were no fireflies – I grew up in the Northeast, where summertime is lush with fireflies, but there aren’t any fireflies in the Pacific Northwest. But when I moved here, I went to this cabin in Forks, Washington with my friend, and we were sitting on the beach, and whenever you would walk on the sand or brush your hand, the movement would stimulate all these plankton and their bodies would illuminate and it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
I’ve never seen that, I want to see that. I think that does make up for fireflies.
It’s a fair exchange.
As long as something is glowing.
You said you moved out there from Chicago, but you’re from the Northeast?
I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and I lived in Chicago for a couple of years, and then this past summer, I went on a few tours and in-between them I was living in Lawrence, Kansas with my friend Chris [Luxem] (C.S. Luxem / Whatever Forever Tapes)—we were doing a work/trade for this really small house that had a huge garden in the back—and then we went on this five week tour and it ended in Seattle and I stayed there.
I really want to go to Lawrence, Kansas. So many great people are from there.
It was life-changing. I think partially, it was so great because of my friendship with Chris, but also the pace is so slow and I felt so revitalized after my time there.
Back in Chicago, I heard you were living in a show house with Drew [Gibson] (Katrina Stonehart / Baby Birds Don’t Drink Milk / Solid Melts / Teen River)?
Yea totally, that’s how I met Drew. I moved into a space called Ball Hall, which was really long-running. It’s defunct now but it had been running for like five years. Drew moved there like two weeks before I did. It was really cool, it was this four story brick building in Humboldt Park and it was one of the tallest buildings on the block. We lived on the third floor of what used to be a dance hall, it was this a huge open space that people built weird rooms in out of salvaged material. It was wild, we were really active, it would get pretty crazy.
It was a really interesting part of my life.
Was that your first time living in a show house?
No. but that was the first time that I ever lived in a space like that, where that’s the reason why people were living there, where the common thread was that we were all really interested in supporting that. It was also the first time I ever lived in a space where it was so cheap to be there, but it you had no privacy, you could hear every breath, everything.
When I first moved in there, I was living in one of the lofted rooms – actually Drew and I were living in a lofted space, and there was a partition between our rooms, but our walls were just curtains. It’s kind of a really surreal way to get to know all of the people around you, especially when you’re moving from a different city entirely.
Before that, I lived in a different house in Buffalo, and we would have shows there. It’s something that I was always driven to facilitate, no matter where I’ve been living.
Yea, I’m living in a partitioned loft in a show space now, so I totally understand that. It’s really fun but it’s a lot. You just…get to know people really well..
It was a lot. It was really challenging and crazy in a lot of ways, but now I sort of look at it as a really beautiful part of my life, and it might be because it was so uncomfortable at times. It’s really interesting.
You really really appreciate quiet and privacy and being able to maintain your internal world after living in something like that.
Was that how you started releasing work on Solid Melts and Teen River?
Yea. I was going to school in Chicago and I had dropped out and I was working part time at a grocery store, which was enough to live off of, but not enough to really occupy my time. I was really really broke for those months until I was able to find a second job. In the meantime, that’s how [I started recording with] my friend Jake Acosta (Famous Laughs / Solid Melts / Lake Paradise) who recorded the tapes, the Solid Melts tape and the Teen River tape, it was just kind of a way to fill space. We started recording and he was living in Ball Hall at the time, so it was really fun. We would go to this warehouse that he rented with a couple of other projects, and then we would go to this 24 hour diner called the Golden Nugget, and it became a pretty fun tradition.
The new LP [Rooms With Walls and Windows] is basically a re-release of the self-titled Teen River tape and the Solid Melts tape [You Would Love It Here, right? How did you decide to do it that way?
My friend Owen [Ashworth] (Advance Base / Casiotone for the Painfully Alone / Orindal Records) is putting out the record. He just asked me if I would be interested in doing a reissue of the two cassettes on vinyl, and it was just an opportunity that I wasn’t afforded before. Owen has been really supportive of me and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that he wanted to invest time and energy into it. There’s been enough time that it feels completely separate. on this. It means a lot that it’s happening.
Did you re-record or remaster the songs?
Jake had recorded the original versions of the songs straight to tape, and then for the vinyl, Owen remastered them.
It’s a really great winter record. It’s so warm and homey, and there are a lot of references to food and rooms and all these private domestic home things that you really start to appreciate when it’s really cold and you don’t want to go outside.
I think about that sometimes now that I’m living on the West Coast. I mean, Seattle definitely has its own atmosphere, it isn’t entirely pleasant all the time since it’ll just rain for seven days straight and it’ll just be so consuming. But, I feel like I really identify with having grown up in Buffalo, experiencing seasons, and experiencing such a brutal, confining winter. I feel like that’s a really big part of me – that space in me is where things are still made from, and it’s weird living in a part of the country that doesn’t experience seasons like that.
Yea, sometimes I think I want to live in the Bay Area where it’s beautiful all the time, but winter is actually really good for getting a lot of work done. And for drinking a lot of tea.
Were the home themes on the record inspired by either living in a place that is so public or, the opposite, living in a place that is your own?
I think it’s both—the first cassette was all written while I was living in Ball Hall, and it was such a strange distraction for me because I was going through a lot of really transitional things, it felt like I was really changing the trajectory of my life. I had moved to Chicago for someone I had really loved and we ended up splitting up, and I also dropped out of school. But the thing about living in a space like that, you’re never really alone, you can always find people just living their lives or doing their work or washing dishes or playing music.
I think the first cassette was probably written from a place of really intense longing for a different vision that I had of my life, but it also evolved into me realizing the strange role this atmosphere was playing and what I was becoming. It became this really mystical distraction that I invited so much into my life in a period where there was this vast space in me.
And then the second tape was written after everyone had gotten evicted from Ball Hall. I was living in a two bedroom apartment at that point and a lot of it was written right near the summer. I spent a lot of the time at home listening to the radio – going to work, coming home, listening to the radio. I had no phone for a couple of months around that time, so it was just a lot of space to process.
That’s a pretty drastic change. Probably a really necessary one.
I’ve recently been thinking about how in life I’ve never really been a domestic person, I used to just go out all the time, and the first time I started to really appreciate the feeling of having a home was when I was living in a show space. There’s all this energy and all these people, and then quiet moments like buying groceries and washing dishes start to become really romantic.
Oh I totally agree, yea, it’s a totally different practice. It’s like, you have a kitchen, but when you live in a show space, a kitchen means something entirely different from when you live alone or with one other person. It’s great, I love it, I don’t think I’m ready not to have it, I think I’d miss it terribly.
You had said you had moved to Chicago with someone. Was that the person you sing about on “Holiday”?
Yea, nearly all of the songs [on You Would Love It Here] are about the same person. We didn’t live together. We both lived in Buffalo for a while and I had kind of known him or known of him for a while before moving up, and I spent a lot of time with him, definitely a lot more time than I spent settling into Ball Hall when I first moved there. It felt like his world was more mine than my own was.
The lyrics on that tape are really specific, you can tell that they’re about a real person.
I think writing those songs really helped me resolve my feelings in a way that nothing else really could have.
I’ve also been thinking about the title of the record – it’s funny because most people take it for granted that rooms would have walls and windows, but, living in DIY spaces, it’s pretty rare to have both. Like, my friend just moved from a loft space into an apartment recently and she was so excited to finally have a door.
It’s funny that when you live in a show space or loft, walls and windows and doors can turn into some sort of notion that represents a different kind of life, one that seems like it would be easier or better. It’s also funny because I lived in ball hall for longer than any other space since I moved out of the house I spent my childhood in. I think it was the same for a lot of my friends who lived there too, so it’s cool to think about what that place gave us in exchange for our privacy, or the love and freedom that turned it into more of a home than anything else could’ve been for us at that time. There’s this grainy picture of my best friend Christina (who the record is dedicated to), cooking in our kitchen, standing with her back to a sink full of day old unwashed dishes with a huge bowl of candy raspberries on the counter beside her. it was taken before one of the movie nights we’d have in the winter there, we’d invite a bunch of people over, push all the furniture in the middle of the hall and watch double features on our projector. anyhow, for some reason that photo kind of expresses the calm in that time.
What are your plans for 2014?
I’m working this job until late February and then my best friend, who I actually dedicated the record to, she lives in Chicago and I live in Seattle and I miss her more than words, we’re meeting in Buffalo and then flying to Oakland together to start a tour I’m doing with my friend Greg [Smaller] who plays as labs. He lives in San Diego, so we’re meeting in Oakland and we’re gonna tour down through California and through the Southwest and then down to Austin for SXSW. Then we’re gonna head back to Southern California, where I’m meeting my friend David [Courtright] who’s from Atlanta who plays as Suno Deko. David and I are touring up through California, then through Oregon and back to the Pacific Northwest. Then Cameron [Potter] from Little Spoon is meeting up with us, and the three of us are touring through all that craziness and then to the Midwest and to the Northeast where we’re meeting up with my friend Stephen Steinbrink who’s coming back from a four-month U.S./European tour.
All in all it’s hard to think of it as a solid thing because there’s so many holes and it feels like a dream plan, but we would return in May, so it’s March 1st to May 1st.
My friends in Seattle and I were saying that 2014 is the big year of going for it, just throwing caution to the wind in blind pursuit. i feel like now for me that is very very true, just not to let reservation halt any impulse, or any freedom, or anything.
Rooms With Walls and Windows is out on January 21st via Orindal.