Interview with Australian singer-songwriter Harmony Byrne

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Photo Credit: Gil Gilmour

Harmony Byrne carries a powerful voice that can both devastate with muscular ferocity and affirm with the skilled restraint of a former church singer. Crafting a unique, unexpected blend of styles, her sharp, moving songwriting captures listeners from the first note.

The Australian singer-songwriter just released her debut LP Heavy Doors along with a new single “Sweeter Than Sugar.” Produced by Spoon drummer Jim Eno (Tennis, Poliça, !!!), the 10-track album confidently traverses a variety of styles from psych-rock to blues, alt-country, folk, pop, and gospel. With raw honesty, Byrne explores topics like tragedy, spirituality, depression, fear, addiction, and self-liberation.

We caught up with Byrne to chat about proving her music teachers wrong, her COVID “break-up/break-through” and her love for “Celine fucking Dion”

When you were first discovering music as a kid, what bands were you listening to?

Lots of Morman church music and B*Witched, Chris Brown, Delta Goodrem, Shania Twain, and Destiny’s Child. A little later was Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, The Doors, Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell. I remember hearing Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon for the first time in high school and freaked out, like what?! You can actually make music sound like the soul, all explorative and wild and deep? Cool!

You grew up one of seven kids. How was that and do you feel that influenced your decision to pursue a career in music at all?

I’ve always found it challenging to balance between family and work/music. I felt bad for a long time choosing my art over my family, especially when I was seemingly struggling with gigging and mental health, but now I realise it’s not a choice of one over the other, they are beautifully intertwined and can be supportive of the other. I’m ultimately of greatest value to myself and others when I’m in alignment with my dreams and when my creative soul is burning. My family have been there for me through everything, and they are all musical too. Having music in the home all the time growing up definitely solidified the desire for me to ‘pursue’ it and it’s seriously the best feeling when my family can attend my shows. I’m an attention-seeking middle-child and love to prove myself to them, ha!

What kind of sound were you hoping to create when you first began writing music and how has that changed over the years?

I always just wanted to sound like me! I wanted a big voice but did not necessarily have the skills. I sounded like a saint and wanted to be a devil. My music teachers kind of told me that singing with a country twang or a ‘break’ in my voice was wrong and that singing with a husky ‘blues’ voice was wrong. Once leaving school, that’s when I really unleashed and took lessons from the likes of Janis Joplin, Robert Plant, Etta James. I listened and I learned. I experimented tonally and eventually my singing voice pretty much matched my heart’s voice. 

The new record is called Heavy Doors. What can you tell us about that title?

I was literally pulling on Heavy Doors every day recording the album, there were like 10 on the way to the bathroom! I also think it’s a beautiful metaphor for life – there’s many experiences to be had and thresholds to cross. There’s always another heavy door. We can sit and relax in the womb for a while and then it’s time to move on.

How did you come up with the concept for the album cover? It’s quite striking.

The album cover is the collaborative work of artist Gil Gilmour and I. He’s always been someone I respect and trust with my image cause he looks beyond the image into what it’s trying to say. Not a lot of people I know delve as deep into a photo the way he does. And so, we were listening to the album, and I was feeling every song, every word, whilst he snapped away, encouraging me to go further into that place. As we were wrapping up the session, Gil realised he had one more roll of film left as the sky swelled with the presence of a storm. So we ventured into the wetness and furiously uncovered the image just as the light ran out. We didn’t really put it together until afterwards but I’m standing in front of the door to my home which is rather poignant.

The album closes with a fantastic cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Have you done many covers in your career and what was it about that song that made you want to include it on the record?

I wouldn’t say I’ve done many covers, but I do sing songs which I believe I could have written myself, songs that I have an affinity to. This song is deeply connected with my mother’s life and love, who passed away a year before the album was made. I needed there to be a sort of ‘thank you mama’ song on the record and that song is it. 

What challenges have you faced during the COVID-19 lockdown and what plans do you have when things improve?

I’ve gone through a break-up/break-through during COVID which has both shattered my world and made me really focus on myself and my art again. I’ve also rekindled old friendships and healed a lot of unresolved pain thanks to the time and space alone to reflect. Gosh, I can’t wait to record my next album as soon as I can, these songs won’t stop coming out!

8. If you could only tour with one band or artist for the rest of your career, who would you choose?

Leonard Cohen

9. Lastly, any favourite Canadian bands??

Celine fucking Dion!! 🙂 Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – they are probably my two hugest (hugest – is that a word? If not it should be!) influences actually. And I love Chad VanGaalen, Neil Young, The Band and Shania Twain! 

Heavy Doors is out now

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