NERFA

Quick Q and A with Mya Byrne

I met Mya Bryne many moons ago at a NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) conference. It’s a music conference that takes over a hotel for four days and three nights and it’s full of musicians looking to meet other musicians as well as others in the music business. As a music presenter, I was given the opportunity to hand out a “Golden Ticket” — this means that my mandate was to circulate around and find a musician brand new to me; someone whose music impressed me enough that I could then invite the musician to a private showcase attended only by other music presenters. I loved having the chance to give out this Willie Wonka-like prize so I headed out on my musical hunt—sticking my head into this room and that room…and then I heard half a song by this intriguing musician. The lyrics, the soul, the musicality, the vibe…check, check, check, check and that’s how I came to know Mya. Later much to my delight, she helped to support my pals, Pesky J. Nixon, who were in between mandolin players and then I got to know her work with Scott Wolfson and Other Heroes. The community continues to grow and I couldn’t be happier to have Mya in my life.

Mya’s music hits on lots of sweet spots. Riveting vocals, passionate messages, bluesy guitar and mando, and a quiet intensity that spreads across an entire stage. Learn more about Mya Byrne on her website.

Here’s a video of one of my favorites, “Somebody’s Winning” — written by Mya and Neale Eckstein.

And I can’t resist posting another video here (this time with Neale Eckstein’s video magic.) The song also features Jagoda, Matt Nakoa, and Craig Akin.

My goodness woman, your wiki page is quite impressive.  I’ve known you for years and didn’t know half of what is written there about you.  Let’s dig a little deeper!  I want to know what led you to music. Did you grow up surrounded by music?

I did. My father is a rabbi, who was formerly a disciple of Zalman Schacter of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and worked with folks like Shlomo Carlebach, so joyful music was an everyday part of my existence growing up. He also writes a lot of new tunes for traditional Jewish prayers. Both of my parents were hippies, love music, and had a giant collection of LPs and 45s from the golden age of 60s and 70s rock, folk, and jazz, which they allowed me to dig into at an early age. My sisters and I also used to make up songs, and I began writing my own songs as a way to entertain myself on my walks home from school from age 7 on. Both of my parents sung me to sleep, too, and being in the NYC metro area, they often took us to concerts of all kinds—from Richie Havens to the opera and Black gospel choirs. And of course, Broadway. But I wanted a guitar since I was two, and by ten, I got one. 

I remember you telling me that you studied at Berklee College of Music. What did you study there? 

At Berklee, I was accepted into their prestigious Music Production and Engineering program, in which I excelled for the two years I stayed there, then moved to London to work as a full-time engineer before returning to NYC to finish my B.F.A. and pursue professional songwriting. Most of my other time in Boston was spent interning for Peter Wolf and learning how to be a professional rock n roller. 

You are a multi-instrumentalist.  I know that you have quite a collection of instruments of all shapes and sizes. If you had to choose one and only one instrument to take with you on a long, long trip, which one would it be and why?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. It’s usually easy to find a guitar wherever I go so typically I would answer that I’d take my vintage electric Gibson mandolin, but it’d be hard to decide on that versus my Telecaster or my small acoustic guitar, Betty Lou, a 1975 Guild. Leaning towards the latter because she’s portable, tough as nails, and has a vintage electric pickup that sounds great in amps and I can also use it to simulate lap steel. Having an acoustic guitar is really a comfort for me, to be honest. I usually travel with a mandolin and that acoustic. 

You’ve had a long history of playing in bands and being an accompanist to all kinds of musicians, what kind of satisfaction do you derive from being in part of a group?

The camaraderie is really what brings me to groups, and also the ability to lend my voice(s) to others’ music and help them grow. When I’m fronting a band, I feel like an absolute rock star and love that feeling; when I’m accompanying I get to stand back a bit and help others shine, which is also so satisfying. 

Do you have any favorite memories of any shows you’ve done over the years?

One of my favorite memories is playing the Quad at NERFA with Scott Wolfson and Other Heroes in 2015. We really shone that year, and brought the house down. It was the culmination of years of work and we were all so proud. Another strong memory is opening for Levon Helm and getting a standing ovation. That was a watershed moment. More recently a highlight was being the first solo trans woman to perform at the 2019 SF Dyke March, which was both an honor and an opportunity to speak broadly against anti-trans oppression, receiving cheers from thousands of people. And that same week one of my bands here in San Francisco, The Homobiles, got to open for Team Dresch and Pansy Division, two legendary queercore bands, to packed houses. I play bass and sing in that band.  

Can you tell us a bit about your songwriting process? Is it true that you write a song every week?  If so, that’s dedication and very inspiring.

Yes, and thank you! I’ve been writing a song every week more or less since late 2002, when I met the late Jack Hardy, and began taking part in his infamous Monday night songwriting workshops. The gist is, if you write a song every week, whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t matter. You’re flexing the muscle, and by giving yourself a deadline and accountability, your brain backprocesses and it becomes easier to plow through any sort of writer’s block. Typically speaking, I write something every day — whether that’s a journal entry or notes and observations, and I write down ideas whenever I have them. On Mondays either in the morning or early afternoon, I begin putting the song together for that night. Sometimes I get stuck and look to friends or the newspaper headlines for inspiration., Timmy Riordan out of Somerville, MA runs The Fearless Songwriter and is constantly putting up song prompts. From then, it’s free writing on a theme, asking questions — who is this song about? What is the person’s motivation? I also typically do not write songs with an instrument, a trick I picked up from Jack. I often write when I’m walking, to the rhythm of my feet, and come up with the melody before harmonizing it to chords. Occasionally I’ll have a riff I love or a progression, and put words to it, but that’s rare.  I often try to capture moments in time, or paint pictures of scenes, especially if I’m in a particular moment that is beautiful—I have one song I wrote in New York in Feb 2019 when I was nursing a loved one off a hangover and the radiators were hissing, and they were asleep in my arms and I jotted down the song with my arms wrapped around them…it’s basically about that! But I write a song anytime one comes floating though my head, and as much time as I lament being spent on my iPhone, it’s become an essential part of my songwriting process. Between voice memos and the notes feature, it makes writing a lot easier. Though I still write longhand quite a bit. Even if I’m not in New York for the songwriters’ meeting, I still post my new songs every week to my Patreon (www.patreon.com/myabyrnemusic). 

You’ve co-written many songs with others, in particular, our mutual friend, Neale Eckstein. What’s involved with a good co-writing session?

To co-write you must have trust and the ability to put your ego down. With Neale, generally we ask each other questions — what’s on your mind? Do you have any ideas? (Usually we both have notebooks of ideas we share.) Then: What do we want to talk about? What’s relevant? Are there any quips we might pick up from each other over breakfast? And then we’ll sit with guitars and computers with a shared Google Doc popping ideas back and forth, shaping up the final product and usually putting in lots of joke lyrics to keep it fresh and crack each other up. So: Coffee, trust, observation, and a sense of humor. 

Since transitioning, you have become a vocal advocate for the trans population. What are the most important take-away points you like to impart to many people who admit that they have never met a trans person before and don’t know what to say or how to act around them?  

I would say that most people who think they haven’t met a trans person aren’t aware they’ve met trans people. We’re everywhere. So that’s the first thing — not everyone is visibly trans. If someone discloses to you they are trans, or you meet a person who is trans, be a mensch. Don’t ask invasive questions about their body or former name. Don’t out them to other people. Ask them about their pronouns (not “preferred” pronouns) and share yours. Don’t ask them “what they identify as” — that negates who they are. It’s enough to ask a person’s name and pronouns. Bottom line: don’t pepper a trans person with questions. Just be kind, and act normal! Further, most trans people have financial difficulties; many of us have lost work or family support. If you know a trans person, find out if and how you can support them. And if you are in a position to give, give your money to Black-led trans organizations. Black trans women, in particular, are most at risk for targeted attacks, murder, and houselessness. Give a tax-deductible donation tohttps://www.glitsinc.org/donations, for instance; they are working on housing Black trans folks in New York City. And I’d recommend everyone read this: https://www.glaad.org/transgender/transfaq

What’s the best way to indicate your pronoun during a conversation?

Everyone should do this. It normalizes pronoun awareness when cis people state their pronouns. An example: “Hi, I’m Franny, my pronouns are she and hers.” If someone uses the wrong pronoun for someone, gently correct them. It’s better if cis allies do this if they see a trans person getting misgendered in their presence. Misgendering is traumatizing, trans people are constantly on the defense anyway, and it shows your allyship to say, “Hey, Bobby—Franny’s pronoun is she. Please don’t misgender her.” If that person gets defensive, tell them to quiet down and apologize, and tell them to move on.  People tend to get overly apologetic when you call them out on mistakes. 

Do you feel that your music has changed in any way since you have transitioned?

I do, indeed. For one, I’m writing more about the world around me, rather than trying to uncover the mysteries I had been trying to decipher about myself through music for years. My music has gotten really political, too. While I’m no less introspective, I talk more about life and community rather than wrestling with God, which is what my life felt like for a long time.  

In addition to writing songs, you’re also a poet and writer and I hear that there’s a film in the process too?!  What’s on top of your bucket list to do in the short term and long term?

Top of the list is to headline the Ryman! On the film note, I work with Periwinkle Cinema, a queer and trans-focused film collective in San Francisco, as a producer, writer, actor, and director. We’ve been contracted to produce an adaptation of a very famous play for the big screen. That’s in process and we’re working on securing funding. We’re also working on a web series and another feature film. In addition I’ve been writing some songs in Hollywood for movies, cross fingers. I recently re-entered music journalism, writing articles for CountryQueer.com. I’ve also been blessed to catch the attention of many the SF poetic scene, and thanks to the support of SF Poet Laureate Kim Shuck, will be included in some anthologies coming up. My dream is to have a book of my own out on City Lights. And to finish the first draft of my novel about moving from NYC to SF this year. (It’s about halfway done.) Long term or short term, I want to finish my next album and be released on New West Records, the home of some of my heroes, including Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, and Aaron Lee Tasjan. Here’s hoping. —

Photo by Emily Raw