Acclaimed alt-country storyteller talks rediscovering himself and cutting out toxicity
Phases of life change as frequently as the seasons themselves. Each one often marks personal revelations about self, relationships and our role in the greater cosmos. Sometimes, tragedy strikes like a python; other times, it can feel like your stuck in second gear and life feels utterly pointless. Either way, there’s beauty and knowledge to be extracted and reapplied. With his fourth studio album, aptly called Phases, Los Angeles alt-country singer-songwriter Brad Byrd mines through various stages and chapters of his life for further insight into who he is, was and will be in the future.
“As a songwriter, I’ve written over 200 songs since I was 21 years old,” he explained to RNRG. “A lot of songs sometimes sit around and don’t get recorded, because you always think your newer stuff is better. Then, you go back and realize that’s not always the case. I just had a bunch of songs that really needed to see the light of day. There are songs that I wrote back in the early ‘00s. It was a combination of songs written over a long period of time.”
“Is There Another Way” aches for a new approach to living, while he transports the listener back to “1982,” a time far less hurried and far more easy-going. Then, on “Vampires,” he casts toxic people and things into the metaphorical fire to finally free himself from a life tortured by addiction and riddled with pain. The Kay Hanley-starring collaboration “American Life” tears through the American struggle, one sunken with misery and lonesomeness, to rediscover what actually matters. Now, despite all the emotional gloom sewn into the album, closing number “The Stars Are Out Tonight, Boy” punctures the surface to allow a bit of hope to lace his lips.
Byrd spoke with The Globe about his new album, learning new lessons from his own work and looking back over the last 20 years.
As you were revisiting some of these older songs, were you really transport back to those specific phases of your life?
Yeah, it totally did. I always wished to hear these songs fully realized. It’s so exciting to finally see them completely finished and be able to release them and get them out of me. I really like this process of mixing up new songs with older songs and having them play well with each other. It’s something that’s tricky to do, especially in this day and age when people don’t value records all that much. I still believe in trying to make a record that has some kind of continuity to it and overarching meaning, instead of being, “Here’s a bunch of singles!”
I don’t even know how people approach making art like that. For me, every song is important. It’s very hard to be a singer-songwriter and artist in today’s world. You’re constantly trying to figure out how to release product. I sit up at night, staring at the ceiling. I swear I change my mind every month, like sometimes I think I’ll put out a song every month or do an EP. It all ends up coming back to a record. If you can have the patience and hang in there and make a full-length record, it’s almost like an admirable thing to pull off these days.
Did any of these songs hit you differently than when you first wrote them?
A little bit, yeah. Once you hear them fully realized and recorded, they do take on a different entity. I’ve lived with a lot of the songs, like “The Stars are Out Tonight, Boy” and “Vampires” and “Lies.” I wrote those songs in the early 2000s, but they always lived in my mind in a certain way. But to now hear them recorded properly, they do take on a new aura to them. Ultimately, they’re still the core of what they are.
From start to finish, there’s a very intimate feeling running through the album. Did that style and approach happen rather naturally in the studio?
Totally. They all seemed to make sense to me and fit together. A lot of times, I don’t even really try to figure it out. It just happens. You have to let go of the process and try not to control it too much. All these songs were recorded at different stages with different people, and then they all came together at the same time. The music dictated where it wanted to go. I have this big song board, a dry erase board with all my songs on it, and I’ll just stare at it sometimes and try to figure out which ones fit best. It’s really hard until you start the recording process to figure out where some of these songs want to go.
Thematically, there are common themes of feeling lost and rediscovering yourself. Do you feel you learned anything new that you hadn’t already learned or experienced in your life?
I feel it only helps me figure out my story even more. I really am a writer of the human condition, and I think a lot of it is finding ourselves and struggling and overcoming certain barriers in our lives. I think we all go through phases. One minute, we’re into a certain thing and doing that. Then, maybe we’re doing yoga or going back to the gym. [laughs] Then, we’re like, “To hell with this! I’m just going to do cardio.” All of a sudden, we’re like, “Not going to eat dairy. I’m going to go vegetarian or vegan.” People are just in and out of phases all the time in their life. It’s OK to recognize that it’s part of what we do as humans, and you have to be gentle on yourself and not beat yourself up. It’s all about growth.
“That Great Feeling” is about modern-day and feeling the elusiveness of joy and serenity. “1982” is a flashback to simpler times when it was a little more analog and just before the corrupted way of thinking. “Is There Another Way” is another one that’s a bit more modern in talking about if there’s a better way to live your life. “Vampires” is another look back at when you’re younger and you bring toxic, negative people into your life, because you’re sort of toxic and negative, too. You see you played a role in that. “Sunset Girls” is another flashback to when I lived in New York City. It does tell a story and a lot of reflection on growth.
You wrote “Vampires” about Los Angeles and how you learned to cut out toxicity in your life. But you’re back in LA. Do you feel you’re much more discerning about who you let into your life now?
Absolutely. I lived in LA from 2001 to 2005, and I made my first record there, Ever Changing Picture. During that time, I was pretty messed up on drugs and alcohol. A lot of people I attracted into my life were in the party scene. It really reflects that. I’m sober today, and I’ve been sober for over six years. Subsequently, I’ve been living in LA for the past six years, so I’m attracting healthier people into my life. It’s all interconnected. It all comes from you. You transmit what you have. If you’re sick and being dominated by negative thinking and drinking, drugging all the time, then most likely, you’re going to attract that into your life.
In your song “American Life,” the lyric “hold on to me” becomes a chant throughout the song. What’s the significance of that line to the story?
That whole song is about the American struggle, and it has a lot to do with immigrants trying to come to this country and making it. It also has to do with everybody who is in America trying to deal with the corporate greed and barriers to entry, as well as the #MeToo movement and women’s rights. Everybody says America is the greatest country in the world, and maybe that is true, but it’s also not a picnic. “Hold on to me” means “stick with me as we try to stick through these barriers,” also “believe in me,” as I’m on this journey to achieve the American Dream. And it’s different for everybody. For all of us, it’s like trying to achieve that freedom, just to have a piece of land with a home on it, some peace of mind and a couple of bucks in the bank. But to simply achieve that is a huge undertaking for anybody. You can be born and raised in America and not have that.
Around the two minute, 19 second mark, the music swells into something much bigger. Was there an intent behind that moment?
The verses are plodding away at the journey, the struggle, and then it opens up. It breaks it wide open to what it’s all about and trying to get there. Musically, it needed to do something or go somewhere else to have this explosive statement. Then, it comes right back down again to the trudging on the path. The song was definitely calling for something, and it almost celebrates the struggle, too. Without the struggle, you can’t achieve the joy. You need the yin and yang of it all. If it was a walk in the park, it would be too easy, and you wouldn’t appreciate it.
How did Kay Hanley come into the picture?
I’d known her through some people in the Boston music scene. I’m from Boston originally, and my bass player Joe Klompus plays in her band, Letters to Cleo. I’ve always dug her thing, and I thought it would be cool to see if she might be interested to sing on this song. I’m so glad she was open to the idea and was really into the tune. What she lent to the song was the perfect secret sauce to what the song called for. I love the way she approached the song.
The song “All for You” feels like a much more muted, hushed performance from you. How did this one come together?
It’s definitely more intimate, as it’s a more private, insular song for me. It has to do with my wife and our dogs. [laughs] It has to do with family and how we essentially this relationship where we lean on each other. I’m doing stuff for them, and they’re doing stuff for me. Your family is just supportive. It’s about getting lost and finding yourself, too, but ultimately, it’s about having that person along the way that you can lean on. It’s like almost everything you do is a reflection of them, too.
Part of it is about my dog Marley who passed away last year. It has this reflection on memories, as well. It’s that type of song where you go, “What the hell is this about?” [laughs] Sometimes, as a songwriter, you don’t necessarily know what your songs are about until years later. Then, you’re like, “Oh, shit, that’s really what this is about!” Right now, that’s what this song feels like it’s about. In six years, it could shape shift into something else. [laughs]
Closing number “The Stars are Out Tonight, Boy” carries both hope and an unrelenting heaviness.
I actually wrote this in the late ‘90s or early ‘00s, right before I moved to Los Angeles and drove across the country for the first time. It was predicting the future — that I would be moving out west and maybe never coming back. I was always going to leave behind an income and another career and risk trying to go for it. It was about being a musician and trying to go out there and shoot for the stars. I just needed to happen. It was a huge gamble, and I lost a lot of things along the way. But I had to make this move and just do it.
Otherwise, I would never have pursued a career in music. I needed to move out west to really shake off my east coast history and background. It was a fresh start, and sometimes, you’ve gotta shake up the universe and literally change everything to have the ability and freedom to be who you’re growing into. Growing into being an artist is an excruciatingly hard process, and it takes a very long time. Up till that time in my life, I wasn’t really an artist, per se. I was a dude who had a regular job and was a closet musician. This was my chance to breakaway.
Twenty years later, what does this song mean for you today?
It’s a really important song for me on the record and in my whole catalog. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta go for it. I think a lot of people grow up on the east coast or anywhere, really, for that matter, and something is just building up, and at some point, it’s really terrifying. You’re like, “I gotta go for it and pursue this thing, this dream.” Looking back on it now, I’m really proud of myself that I did have the balls to go and do it. I could very easily have stayed on the east coast or just stayed home in safe, comfortable surroundings and had a normal life. Something had a different plan for me. Here I am all these years later. It’s what I do and probably will always be doing. It required a whole life change. Sometimes, I’m actually surprised I pulled it off. [laughs]
The saxophone is quite haunting here. You can barely make it out.
I really wanted to get some horns on this record. I hadn’t really had a horns presence on past records. It’s all about having them nicely placed in the song, so it’s not too dominate. Just the right touch. When I hear this song, it makes me so happy and super relaxed. It creates this emotional feeling. It has this perfect light, gentle saxophone in the background, and it’s what this sucker needed. I never thought of having saxophone on a record before, but now, how could you not?
On “Is There Another Way,” you propose questions about fame and fortune in the LA sun in a spoken word outro. What led to those final lyrics there?
I love that part, too. It came out of a poem I wrote. I thought it would fit as a cool fading outro part to that song. It kind of ties up the whole song with a ribbon. The song asks if there is another way to go in life to achieve what you want to achieve. In American culture, so many of us are caught up in wanting to be famous or a star of some sort, not necessarily in entertainment. In the pursuit of the ego and your own personal conquests, it’s very ego-ish. It’s basically saying that while you’re pursuing this, don’t forget what’s most important: staying grounded and humble. If you lose track of that and you’re just chasing down the dream and ego, finding your way back into not a great place. You have to stay grounded and rooted. I think we’re all trying to find a way to better ourselves and our lives. If you’re not, god bless you, maybe you’ve figured out a way not to have any drive and just live. I don’t know who those people are. I’d love to meet one of them and learn their Jedi ways. [laughs]