You've got to wonder what a nice guy like Brian Byrne is doing in the cutthroat business of being a rock star.
Once you look past the extensive arm tattoos and nose piercing, he seems incredibly normal: blond-haired, blue-eyed, friendly, and outgoing. His name itself might not ring a bell with some people, but if you were a fan of Canadian rock in the late 90's, you may recall a band named I Mother Earth. You may also recall the abrupt departure of their lead singer Edwin, and his spot being filled by a young native of Steadybrook, Newfoundland, Brian Byrne.
Fast forward two years from the release of I Mother Earth's last album, 2003's "The Quicksilver Meat Dream". The band has apparently gone AWOL under the "on hiatus" banner, and nobody's seen nor heard anything from the quartet. But then their singer reappears on the scene, gigging at intimate little Toronto venues like the Cameron House and the Drake Hotel, billed as a solo singer and playingÖalt-country?
It almost sounds far-fetched, but Byrne's skill is the real deal. "Over the last couple of years, I was just collecting my thoughts over what I wanted to do with the record," he says. "I wanted to do something country-folky but not too country-folkyÖsomething with a rock caliber. I have no idea what people are going to call it - if it's going to be alt-country or roots-rock or whatever. But I never said I was going to write this certain album - it's just a bunch of songs that came together to make an album."
Given that he cites Gram Parsons and Johnny Cash as influences - with Bright Eyes as a current favourite and Bon Jovi as a guilty pleasure - you can bet it's going to be an interesting debut album. Byrne is currently in the studio finishing its recording, with the result being titled "Tuesdays, Thursdays and If It Rains". But even with the deadline impending, Byrne admits that he doesn't yet know how the album will be promoted. "I think for something like this, it just needs to take its own shape. It's either gonna speak to people or it's not, so I don't know if I can plan for that." He grins in determination. "But I really want to tour - I'd love to go out and play anywhere and everywhere. If I do a thousand shows next year at the Drake or the Cameron, I'm fine with that. I always have more stories to tell!"
He'll undoubtedly have more stories to tell when it comes to the transition from band frontman to solo artist. Byrne has already been learning the ropes, and on this topic he comments: "I understand now a little more of the responsibilities that Jag and Christian had in I Mother Earth. Somebody's gotta steer the ship. Somebody's gotta run the show. Sometimes I find it stressful, meeting with people and trying to convey what I want done with something, but I'm really having a good time with this." He punctuates this statement with a luminous grin. "I think there's a bit of both - if you want your own thing, you have to take up the responsibilities. You have to do more work yourself. Y'know, I could just show up at I Mother Earth stuff and as long as I sang, s*&% got done. I didn't ever have to write anything. I was just the singer."
That leads directly into the big question: Are I Mother Earth still together, or not? Is there no chance for another album? Byrne shakes his head. "No, I wouldn't say that because we didn't leave on bad terms. Every band fights, and we had our moments, but we're still friends. It's just that everybody needed a break because we'd been working pretty much nonstop. Even when it seemed like we went away for four years, we were still in the studio, writing and rehearsing. The only break we really had was when I damaged my vocal chords and got six weeks off. That was it in over six years." He shrugs. "It was a long time to spend with each other."
It seems like this break is exactly what his creativity needed. Though even with the freedom to explore new and varied musical genres (although it'd be nothing new to Byrne - his first band, at thirteen years old, was a hair metal cover band called Pandemonium, and prior to I Mother Earth, he sang in a metal band called Klaven), Byrne isn't dismissing the possibility of returning to his heavy rock heritage. "I think that I might do a punk thing or a metal thing again - sure, why not? But I really enjoy singing and playing and telling stories. It does my heart good to do that. At the end of it, that's what it's all about. When you love music and you feel music, it's kind of timeless and shapeless, not to sound too hokey or anything. You have to make your own statements."
For more information on Brian's upcoming shows visit: www.brianbyrnemusic.com
Writer: Caitlin Hotchkiss