Julie Byrne and her Support Acts Burn Down Brude with their Melodies
Written by Kate Wassell Edited by Eve Moat
It’s been six years since Julie Byrne last played at Leeds’ beloved Brudenell Social Club, and on Thursday 16th November the venue welcomed her back with warm arms and eager ears. Kicking off their first gig of the tour, the esteemed American folk artist was joined by British experimental pop singer Mui Zyu – the two of them alluring a quietly appreciative and contemplative crowd, with warm smatterings of applause between tracks.
Support act Eva Liu works under the stage name of Mui Zyu, her Cantonese name – a nod to her diasporic identity that is an integral part of her music and most recent project, Rotten Bun for an Eggless Century. Zyu’s sound flits between tender and distorted; together she and her collaborator Lucci create a cosmic sonic landscape, merging and layering beats, synths and electric guitar. Zyu’s lyrics often explore this unwinding and rewinding of a cultural identity: she tells the audience that much of the new album arose from this “trying and failing” to make sense of both her British and Hong Kong culture together.
She also notes how grateful she is to be there supporting Julie Byrne: “I’ve had the new album [The Greater Wings] on repeat, as I’m sure you all have too”. Soon enough Julie Byrne graces the stage (she really does embody the word graceful) with a calming and steady presence alongside her two bandmates. Violinist Jake Flavy beautifully offsets her baritone vocals with heartbreaking, lingering string. Julie, meanwhile, might have the most perfect live voices I’ve ever heard; it’s pretty close to flawless.
Julie has a sense of sincerity, and also something definitely spiritual about her, which elevates her live performance to an almost religious atmosphere. There is a sanctity surrounding her; her hands are never still, moving along with the music when she isn’t holding her guitar, as if she is always feeling the music move through her body. When you listen her lyrics, it’s clear she is somebody grounded by the natural world, guided by nature rather than shadowed by it.
About halfway through the set Byrne plays the opening track of her 2023 album of the same name, ‘The Greater Wings’. It is the highlight of the night for me, the track is haunting and transcendental, and they play it without a fault. The songwriter later explains the origination of the title: it comes from the small sphenoid bone, she tells us, that sits just behind our temples. The shape of it is like a butterfly, or “some otherworldly moth” as Byrne puts it, with two smaller wings and two greater wings. She doesn’t elaborate further except to express her finding this fact beautiful, but it seems as if the lyrics of the track are at least in part a homage to her late collaborator, partner and best friend, Eric Littman. “To carry you up”, she sings, “on greater wings”, is to keep him in her memory, to lift him up beyond it.
The wings, to me, also seem to symbolise Julie’s constant wandering: she is somebody who has never had that permanent sense of home through her life. The pandemic put a halt on movement, but Byrne kept composing; in fact, she began working on The Greater Wings in 2018 and began recording it in 2020. It adds up that she would be the kind of artist to take her time with an album release – to reflect and build it up over time.
The last time Julie was in Leeds she was touring the 2017 album Not Even Happiness. While she still plays homage to a few of her favoured old tracks throughout the evening, her new songs stand out in her live performance. There’s a new clarity and complexity to her most recent songwriting. She follows ‘The Greater Wings’ with a new track ‘22’, from an EP set to be released the following day after her Brudenell performance, in a trio release with Taryn Blake Miller and Emily Fontana, which along with three new songs includes a cover of Jackson Browne’s ‘These Days’. It’s a short but beautiful hint at the new release, with Byrne’s voice being so soft and captivating.
My only wish was that Julie’s set had lasted a little longer: it was short but sweet. Julie Byrne has the kind of radiance to her smile and her being that makes her a real pleasure to watch perform. I’d recommend anyone to catch one of her live shows, not just for her gorgeous melodies and lyricism but for her enchanting presence.