How Mya Byrne paved her long, winding road to country music with grit and sparkle
How Mya Byrne paved her long, winding road to country music with grit and sparkle
At a showcase during the SXSW music festival this past March, Mya Byrne introduced a rollicking country-punk protest song called "Burn This Statehouse Down," with righteous indignation and campy flourish. It wasn't the state legislature headquartered there in Austin whose actions she and her co-writer Paisley Fields were denouncing, though it could've been; Texas is among the many states where Republican lawmakers have made it their mission in 2023 to target the LGBTQIA+ community both artists are part of. Their tune was a direct response to Tennessee governor Bill Lee having signed restrictions on drag performances and minors' access to gender-affirming healthcare into law earlier that month. "It's plain to see, Mr. Lee, you've got a problem," Byrne jabbed in the opening line, "You're banning things you don't know a thing about."
Right on the heels of SXSW, Byrne was in Nashville for the Love Rising benefit show. Her artist friend Allison Russell had asked her to play an arena concert fundraising for organizations that serve LGBTQIA+ Tennesseans. Byrne contemplated bringing out "Burn This Statehouse Down" again — nothing could've been more topical, and the studio recording of the song was scheduled to drop the next day — but decided instead to use her brief turn in front of the largest crowd she'd ever faced to strike a different tone. At the mic, she spoke with fierce conviction, then launched into a song called "It Don't Fade" that brimmed with her fortifying outlook, and ended her mini-set by sharing an affectionate, acoustic serenade and a lusty kiss with her partner in music and life, Swan Real, who's also a trans woman.
"I thought a lot about the message I want to put out," Byrne explains in her hotel room the next day. "Going into it, I just wanted to express the pureness of what my love is and what my life is, and that through everything I've been through — which has been a lot, years of being in the closet and just having to fight for my place at the table — that I want everybody to peek into my life for a second."
Real, who composes music for the podcast 99% Invisible, joins our interview to compare their Love Rising performance with the countless other times they've each shown up for a cause.
"We've both done so many of those," Real says, "but then once you have people put attention on that and when you see sparks actually catch, that's when it starts to feel different. That's when it starts to feel significant. That's when it started to feel like, 'Oh, we did do something.'"
Timing is a towering factor in the music industry any given year, but Byrne is navigating an especially charged moment for a guitar-slinging, roots-rocking singer-songwriter who also happens to be a transgender, lesbian woman. As the political atmosphere grows increasingly hostile towards people like her, she's beginning to enjoy a breakthrough long in the making. It's not as though she planned to operate on this schedule, but she's prepared for it. Byrne has devoted the last two decades to shaping a musical life expansive enough to accommodate the full scope of her inclinations, insights and abilities, from the boldly oppositional to the artfully crafted, refusing to let her artistry be limited. Her faithful contributions to localized, grassroots scenes are finally resonating more widely, and she's become a vital emerging voice and newly visible trans presence in the Americana world who has just released a new album, Rhinestone Tomboy, to her broadest audience to date.
Byrne has made a study of expression's power and potential since her 1980s childhood in the New Jersey township of Maplewood. She relished hearing old cassettes of her grandmother and great aunt, who'd done Yiddish theater, watching her mother take on social justice causes and return to college to become an architect and witnessing how her rabbi father met people exactly where they were as he ministered to the community. At home, he'd often sing his kids to sleep not with lullabies, but silly renditions of Jimmy Durante numbers, and after Friday Shabbat dinners, the family would sing together into the night.
Byrne has ADHD, and took it upon herself to cultivate her own creativity. "I grew up with learning disabilities," she says, "so one of the things I learned to do to manage my boredom — because I really wasn't being stimulated in school the way I needed to be — was I would walk home and I would make up songs to the beat of my feet."
Her first song, "Five and Dime" was about a greedy landlord driving a local staple out of business. Later on, when she tried embellishing her compositions with high-flown music theory, she heeded the admonition of her songwriting mentor Jack Hardy that sturdy simplicity should be her guiding principle.
From age 10 on, guitar was her instrument of choice, and through borrowed records, bedroom noodling and basement jamming, she developed a quintessential youthful fascination with metal, blues and classic rock riffs. She'd keep adding to her repertoire as she encountered fingerstyle folk and country chicken pickin' playing styles that appealed to her.
"It's very old school, just kind of sitting around and playing with people," Byrne reflects. "And I'm really lucky that I've just played with enough people who were giving enough to let me learn from them."
She fed her curiosity about how sound can be manipulated on recordings by apprenticing with Peter Wolf in the studio and taking production classes at Berklee College of Music. From there, she embarked on a peripatetic existence, finding ways to plug into and contribute to a succession of scenes: among New Jersey prog rockers, London blues revivalists and anti-folkies in the Northeast. While living in New York, she hosted a coffeehouse open mic, anchored a rock club house band on lead guitar, where she crossed paths with her future collaborator Aaron Lee Tasjan, and opened Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles in a group dubbed the Ramblers, with whom she released her first album in 2008.
After Byrne came out as trans, in 2014, she noticed others attempting to impose stylistic limitations on what she could do. "I was told by the world I wasn't allowed to write classic country, even though I'd written so much of it and I loved doing it," she says. "I think people really just didn't allow me to have a place for it."
Still, she kept at it quietly, until a revelatory move to Northern California. There she fell into lesbian feminist folk and queercore scenes where predecessors like Cris Williamson and Lynn Breedlove had already paved the way, and joined Breedlove's band the Homobiles. Byrne appreciatively recalls "being part of these music festivals that are for women and by women and being embraced and celebrated for my songwriting and not asked to be anything different and not being treated as a woman with an asterisk."
In the Bay Area, she forged connections with Cindy Emch, leader of a queer alt-country outfit, and Eli Conley, a folksinger, music instructor and queer, trans man. She also landed a gig backing Lavender Country, the politically radical, explicitly gay and rowdily funny musical vehicle of the late Patrick Hagerty dating back to the '70s. Solidarity was all it took for Byrne to start claiming her country affinities as emphatically as her political lesbian punk ones. She joined this queer country circuit, a loosely organized coalition that was beginning to make its presence known on a national scale. Her enthusiasm about sharing that space brought her to Nashville for a Gay Ole Opry dive bar show in 2019, and one visit to the like-minded LGBTQIA+ community there led to many more.
Many of the new friends she made, including Hunter Kelly, host of Apple Music's Proud Radio, were committed to holding space for each other and demonstrated their willingness to put their belief in her into action, and she resolved to stay away from the "transactional" mentality she'd put up with in her earlier years.
"I'm like, 'Friends first and that's it from now on,'" she says. "I don't want to do business with people that I wouldn't invite to my Seder. That's kind of my litmus test."
By 2021, Byrne was keen on making an album in Nashville with some of her accomplished, and queer, musical comrades. She convinced Tasjan, who'd moved down from New York since their paths initially crossed, to produce. It turned into a bit of a guitar fest; alongside Tasjan's and Byrne's six-string talents, she wanted to bring in incisive instrumentalist Ellen Angelico. Together, they range through glam, Bakersfield and cowpunk licks and give several tracks the resplendent jangle of West Coast country-rock. Vocally, Byrne steers between the old-school country poles of stoicism and melodrama, singing with both wiry strength and sensitivity, pacing her swells of feeling and softening into vibrato at end of lines.
Byrne's writing brings perspective she's cultivated to familiar song forms, guiding what might initially seem like old stories in new directions — toward mutuality, gentle forwardness and clear-eyed self-protection. In the country recitations of the '50s and '60s, male crooners might come on strong in their romantic overtures. "Please Call Me Darlin'" is Byrne's version, a gentle shuffle swathed in creamy, oohing harmonies and ribbons of melancholy steel guitar, over which she recites lines consulting a potential lover's feelings with extravagant tenderness. "All your nights, your lonely nights, all the tears you shed," she comforts. "I'm glad they're over; you don't deserve what that man said," she continues, chewing the word "man" with teasing distaste. "Though that love unraveled, I'm here, with a new thread. And if you're ready" she offers, smoothly switching to singing, "let's move ahead."
Byrne wrote that song as one of her self-assigned creative exercises. "The song challenge was, 'Can I write a classic country song that's about consent?'" She chuckles at what a revolutionarily simple concept that is. "That was basically the gist of it. I think there's ways to woo people without being a jerk."
Byrne shopped the finished project around to labels with an established presence in the Americana market, but after joining Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon for some casual coffeeshop hangs, she ultimately signed with the new roots imprint of the indie label that got its start in the Pacific Northwest and partnered with foundational riot grrrl bands that made their feminist mark in the '90s. The launch of KRS Nashville was announced last September, with Byrne as its flagship artist.
"Mya has punk roots and cross genre roots, and we have those punk roots, so we kind of clicked right away and really understood where each other was coming from," Moon says. "Punk roots isn't just a musical genre. It's a DIY ethic."
Moon was enthralled by the way those punk sensibilities sat right alongside the polished sharpness of Byrne's songwriting. In his view, she was the one taking a big risk on an outfit without much of an Americana track record. "Maybe this mattered, but we also already had some trans artists on the label," Moon notes. "And so I think that was an argument in our favor as well. Like, 'This isn't tokenism. This isn't an experiment. This is who we are.'"
Byrne was half-dozing on a plane when she thought up the title of her album. Rhinestone Tomboy winks at the mid-'70s Glen Campbell hit in which he plays a performer who's already seen a lot, but remains steadfast in his showmanship, his clear voice sailing through swooning strings. Byrne's adjustment, ditching "cowboy" for "tomboy," transcends the original's corniness by presenting the rigidity of country gender performance for reconsideration.
"It's classic country," Byrne explains. "It says, 'I am a woman, unequivocally.' I'm owning a certain kind of femininity that cannot be taken away from me or dismissed. And I'm securing my place."
She has claim, she specifies, to country's hardest and softest extremes, to the outlaw lineage associated with badassery and unruly antiheroism and the countrypolitan lineage representing majestic, polished sophistication alike. From where she stands, well outside the industry machine and country music's mythologies, she's found ample room for queer expression in both. "That," she says, "encompasses everything."