Matthew Byrne’s Part in the Story

Ryan Belbin's feature length article on Matt Byrne and his latest non-traditional trad record

 

Matthew Byrne may have released the traditional Newfoundland album of the summer. Which is quite a feat, given that none of the songs on Hearts & Heroes are actually Newfoundland songs.

“I just like good songs,” Byrne says. “They don’t have to be sea songs, they don’t have to be Newfoundland songs—this is a Newfoundland record because it’s the product of a Newfoundlander, and I’m a Newfoundlander who’s making traditional music surrounded by Newfoundland and its people and its music, but I don’t know if it’s a Newfoundland record in terms of its content. They’re not songs about Newfoundland, although Newfoundland could be the place where any of these stories happen.”

“Very often, the reason I’m interested in a song is because it deals with something that, as a Newfoundlander, I’m very familiar with. The idea of moving away for work or missing your loved one when you’re away at sea, these are themes which can be plopped into traditional songs whether they’re from England, Ireland, Scotland, New England, or Newfoundland. It’s the universality of the themes that help me find my way to them.”

Those who enjoyed the stripped-down sound of Byrne’s 2010 release Ballads will not be surprised by the gentle melody of “Claudie’s Banks” or the a cappella “Banks of Sweet Dundee,” but four years is a long time for a musician. The strings of Emilia Bartellas’ fiddle slowly crescendo in the intro track, segueing into “Bold Nelson,” a heroic, up-tempo ballad from the Napoleonic Wars that’s backed by a full band. Byrne has grown more comfortable as the vocalist with the Dardanelles, and was more willing to incorporate a more percussive “band” sound on his second solo album, Hearts & Heroes, and to deviate from the original melodies and tempos of certain songs to craft arrangements that are more of his own flavour.

“I remember when the first record came out, and I was thinking, ‘Wow, I really went somewhere pretty different with that song.’ Now I’m looking at it and saying, ‘Man, I didn’t go far at all, comparatively.’ I guess that’s because now I’ve proven to myself that I do have that ability—even though I’m not a songwriter, I feel like I have a songwriting ability, and I’ve come to really trust my instincts when I take something and I make it different.”

For instance, influenced by a tape recording of his grandmother singing “Fair Ellen,” Byrne brought in Repartee frontwoman Meg Warren, herself used to singing powerful pop music, to complement him on a subdued murder ballad. The unlikely arrangement worked, just as building “McAlpine’s Crew” from an a cappella tune to one that’s backed by a full band gave it an alternate life.

That said, the approach to finding the traditional songs that make up this sophomore album was largely the same as with Ballads. As a student of history born into a family of persistent song collectors, Byrne often had to look no farther than his mother’s song binder, compiled from previous generations, to unearth a hidden gem and give it a new musical life. In the case of “Bold Nelson,” for example, it’s a traditional song where there are no recorded versions in existence.

“Mom sang ‘Bold Nelson,’ I heard her sing it years and years ago, and then I went a lot of years without hearing it. I knew of the song, but the last time I heard her sing it would have been when I didn’t have the sense to really appreciate it,” he recalls. “She referenced it when she was talking about something a couple of years ago, and I said, ‘Mom, sing that for me again, I haven’t heard that in ages.’ Loving the way history gets put into traditional songs, that song was just like—how have I not tuned into how good it was before?”

“If I feel like there’s still a definitive version to be made for the more popular ear or for today’s trad audience—if I feel that’s an attainable goal—then I’ll tackle it. I can say that about all these songs.”

The storyteller’s role in the story

Byrne believes that people go through two phases when listening to his music: the first is to get a general sense of the songs as a whole, and the second is to latch on to certain songs that they enjoy and hold above the rest. Hearts & Heroes, released about two months ago, is only now entering that second phase, but Byrne says that the general response he’s received has been positive.

“The sense that I’ve gotten from a lot of feedback has been that people are with me, that this is a very sensible step forward. With the Dardanelles, with my guitar playing—I’ve also written a couple of instrumentals on this record [fittingly, “Hearts” and “Heroes”], and I don’t think anybody’s surprised at that. They know I’ve written a lot of music with The Dards, and that I’m confident enough to do that now.”

When it comes to playing the new album live, Byrne plans to continue doing solo shows with just an acoustic guitar, travelling throughout Newfoundland and into the United States in the Fall. However, having an expanded repertoire and sound has opened him up for new musical opportunities, including a spot on the final night of the George Street Festival, opening for Alan Doyle on August 5.

Songs like “True Love Knows No Season” and “What Fortunes Guide a Sailor,” written within the last few decades, sound like they belong right alongside the traditional tunes from nameless songwriters long passed away. The raucous, happily-ever-after “The Jolly Ploughboy” belongs on the same record as the sombre “Grey Funnel Line.” Any duality implied in the album’s title is united by the fact that a body of disparate tunes has been saved from obscurity by the careful hand of someone who appreciates the quality of the lyrics, melodies, and the people who make up the songs.

And, at the same time as people are discovering what songs they specifically enjoy, there is a dialogue from audience to entertainer, as connections are made that had, like many of the songs on the album, gone years without being recognized.

“I’ve come to realize that recording and releasing my version of a song is only half of the journey. The rest is when people complete the story for me. They’ll approach me with something about a song that I never knew before: a family connection or a story that totally puts it in a new light for me. I love to see how songs play out. That’s a good way to remind you of why you record them in the first place—to be part of each song’s story.”

To hear tracks from Matthew Byrne’s new album, Hearts & Heroes, or for tour dates, visit matthewbyrne.net.

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