Inheriting a choice: to sing or not to sing?

Justin Brake
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Local balladeer Matthew Byrne brings his songs to the LSPU Hall stage Thursday evening

Matthew Byrne will headline his first show as a solo musician Thursday at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s. — Submitted photo

He’s played to festival-size crowds before, but this one’s going to be big in another way.

Matthew Byrne’s Thursday show at the LSPU Hall in St. John’s will mark the balladeer’s first formal headlining gig as a recorded solo artist.

In a sense, it should also help authenticate his standing as one of the island’s powerful new voices in traditional song.

For a few years now, the 27-year-old St. John’s native has been acclimatizing himself while gradually moving to the fore of those carrying the legacy of traditional Newfoundland music into a new generation.

And it’s no fluke that he might indeed be among the best suited for the task.

Byrne was born into a musically rich family with deep roots in resettled Placentia Bay and was, he says, “bred into (singing) because I was around it so much.”

His mother, Linda, is a longtime collector of old ballads and unaccompanied songs.

After moving to St. John’s in the 1970s, she helped foster the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and the St. John’s Folk Music Club.

Joe, Matthew’s father, rose to local musical prominence three decades ago after recording the seminal Newfoundland record “Towards The Sunset” in 1983 with his brother Pat and friend Baxter Wareham.

A lifelong exposure to a familial love for song naturally steered Byrne’s trajectory toward a musical life.

“There’s a huge repertoire out of Placentia Bay and out of rural Newfoundland alone, which I’m drawing from. I just happen to be drawing from the family stuff that came to me, product of place,” Byrne tells me, his hand on a pint of Kilkenny in front of him.

It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny spring day and we are seated just a few feet from the stage at The Ship Pub, where both he and members of his family have entertained enthusiastic crowds many times before.

“The singing tradition was already there for me,” he explains. “I just had to decide whether I wanted to carry it on or not.”

Byrne sang and played tunes his whole life, but it wasn’t until about three or four years ago he started to think seriously about making a record.

“I was steadily getting to the point where I was kind of thinking, all right, I feel like my musicianship is up to snuff,” he says.

“I started thinking about this collection of songs, and by the time I realized all of the definites were enough to make a solid record, I said, all right, I think it’s time to go for it.”

With the help of friend, producer and accomplished traditional musician Billy Sutton, Byrne whittled his choice down to a dozen songs or so and took them into the studio.

“Billy just basically rung me like a sponge to get every drop of good music out of me,” Byrne recalls. “He pushed me to my limit and wouldn’t let me settle for anything less than what he knew I could do.”

The result was Byrne’s 2010 debut album “Ballads,” a collection of songs that showcase his fine-tuned vocal abilities, melodic guitar playing and keen aptness for breathing new life into old classics and rarer collected songs while respecting the tradition in which they came to him.

“Banks of Newfoundland,” for example, Byrne learned from his mother, who collected it from Staverton Bridge when the British folk duo visited Newfoundland in the 1970s.

He learned “Young Riley” from his uncle Pat, who has been singing it for years, Byrne says.

“I learned it off him and started singing it myself, and when I asked him where he had got it, he told me he had learned it from my great Uncle Jack out of Southeast Bight,” he explains.

“Jack is 98 and is now in a home in St. John’s. I went up to visit him for his 96th birthday a couple years ago and I sang that one, and he sang every word.”

“Barque in the Harbour” highlights Byrne’s playing skills and, with its four-piece string arrangement, is one of the more unique versions of the song to be recorded.

“It ended up being very orchestral,” he says. “I’d heard Dad sing that one unaccompanied from an early age … and I did a kind of slow, ballady guitar arrangement, and we ended up getting the quartet on it and making it really kind of sad and sweet.”

On the whole, “there’s no real nugget of anything that connects all of these songs other than the fact that they are, in my mind, a collection of songs that are great stories told through great melodies,” says Byrne. “And some of them are sad, some are happy — most of them are sad, actually,” he laughs, sipping his pint.

“Some of these songs were given a fair bit of instrumentation and intricacy for the purpose of the record, and for making them all that the studio could,” he continues. “But I find lately I’ve gotten back to a mode of stripping them back to the way they originally were … because the dynamic of the song shows it has so many lives. Or I might add music to one that I didn’t record with music just to … see if I can make it new again.”

That summer, in 2010, he shouldered a trio of performances at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and was invited to join popular young trad band the Dardanelles as vocalist and bouzouki player.

His debut gig with the Dardanelles happened to be at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, one of Canada’s most prestigious outdoor musical events.

“That was trial by fire,” he laughs. “It was the biggest gig I’ve ever done.”

On the coalescence of fortunate events into a momentous year, Byrne says it all makes sense looking back on 2010.

“I think the (“Ballads”) album release was a good catalyst for joining the Dardanelles,” he explains. “I was developing a musical relationship and a good friendship with all of them at the time anyway, and then they were seeing the songs and how (they) fitted with what they wanted to add to the Dardanelles, so it was just kind of a

natural progression.

The group never plays a show without incorporating at least one of Byrne’s own songs into the set.

Together they recorded the band’s sophomore album in 2011, a remarkable effort called “The Eastern Light” which they will tour around the island this August, says Byrne.

In the meantime, Byrne says he plans to record a new album sometime in the coming year, again with Sutton enlisted to produce.

“It won’t be called ‘Ballads II,’” he laughs, explaining how he plans to diversify the songs on the new record.

For now, though, there are still a lot of fresh ears to play for in town and across the island.

At the LSPU Hall he will be joined by Sutton and Dardanelles band mates Emilia Bartellas and Aaron Collis, plus a few special guests.

“Nobody will know who they are till the night of the show,” he says with a smirk.

We’ll undoubtedly be hearing from Byrne plenty more in the coming years, but this week’s gig, being recorded by the CBC for regional and possibly national broadcast, will likely be one for the books.

Tickets are $20 at the LSPU Hall box office (753-4531) or online at Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and showtime is 8 p.m.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Placentia Bay, Dardanelles Southeast Bight Winnipeg Canada

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