This year has been a busy one for Jon Byrne. Following the UK release of his second album, Built by Angels, he has been gigging across the country and is currently kicking off promotion in the US for his first album, It’s Boring Being in Control.
It seems the best way to introduce Byrne as a musician is by reflecting back on his childhood, which was spent growing up in the shipbuilding town of Barrow-in-Furness and, by his own admission, strongly influenced the musical direction he took. “My Mam and Dad divorced when I was five but I’d get to see my Dad on a Sunday,” he explains. “He plays the Irish pipes and I remember sitting watching him play; this big Irishman with his eyes closed making the room shine. I realised he had escaped his thoughts; everything tainted by darkness left his mind like steam. So I said, ‘Dad, can I have a guitar for my birthday?’ Soon I was writing and singing songs.”
Social observations gathered from his childhood through to the present day feature heavily within Byrne’s music, which he weaves into his own stories to create humorous but often quite dark songs. “I try hard not to let things bother me like they used to,” he tells us. “I want to be a less cynical person, but my best asset as a writer, in my opinion, is to take something dark and make it seem light; I mean the subject being darker than the song.” Music critics have picked up on this ability, with Clash magazine describing Byrne as, ‘taking the Arctic Monkey’s patter to a higher level of sophistication.’
Whilst this theme emerges on both albums, the writing processes for them were quite different, with It’s Boring Being in Control being written over a period of ten years. “The trouble was, I was in a bad way when I recorded that one so I barely remember doing it,” he recalls. “I quite like the way it turned out though, I think it reflects a man lost, often bemused by his surroundings.” The second album was another story, written much later having just got married and in a very different state of mind. “I had this spiritual experience while in Greece,” he says. “It brought about a series of emotions that became that album, except the songs ‘Living the Dream’, ‘The Bitch and Her Greed’ and ‘Hollywood Calling’, which I’d written a year earlier.” The distinctions are reflected in the end result of Built by Angels, with a slightly more romantic, softer side of the artist emerging over the sheer frustration and bafflement of the first album.
As ever, with live shows allowing artists to give further insight into their music should they wish to do so, this is a platform which Byrne takes full advantage of. At a London gig earlier this year we found ourselves captivated by each of his eloquently-told tales – ranging from heartbreaking to funny to downright bizarre – that provide the foundation to most of his lyrics. “I think it’s important to let the audience into your world before you sing to them…there are far too many people singing nowadays without really saying anything.” Byrne certainly is a gifted storyteller, so it’s a pleasure to be invited in.
So what’s next for Jon Byrne? A third album is on the cards, with plans to record in the US – an experience likely to be quite far removed from the previous two, which were both recorded in Whitby Studios, Ellesmere Port. We should also look forward to a track yet to be released called ‘Living for the Life of Prison’, which Byrne cites as one of his favourites, “because it’s about real life; it’s gritty, humorous, heartbreaking and beautiful.” With more UK shows also planned for the near future, they present the perfect opportunity to hear it, as well as the illuminating stories behind the songs.
words: Jules Foreman