There's often an assumption among the general public that the cream of the crop rises to the top. That even if quality film, television and music don't reach as great an audience as blockbuster Hollywood movies or the Billboard Top 100 initially, they'll get their fifteen minutes of fame when they're honored in critics' top-10 lists, or at awards ceremonies. But, sadly, this assumption is not necessarily well-founded.
Geoff Byrd is a case in point. One of the most talented singer-songwriters around, he's garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim, and a loyal, dedicated fanbase – but genuine commercial success has eluded him. It's a crying shame, as his music – which runs the gamut from catchy pop-rock to acoustic guitar-driven via experimental dabbling with soul and hip-hop – demands to be heard by a wider audience.
Regardless, Geoff seems more than happy with the way things are. I had the opportunity to put a few questions to the man recently, and the clear running theme throughout his responses is a dedication to evolution, art and experimentation over pursuit of commercial success: his mantra, one he hints at several times throughout, is "word of mouth rules." Not record company promotion. Word of mouth.
Given this commitment to allowing both his material and fanbase to grow organically, ahead of active pursuit of a worldwide audience, it's no surprise to learn he's had a passion for music since childhood..
How old were you when you first discovered music? Is there any kind of musical history in your family?
I was young, like three years old. I harmonized with my mom and she freaked! It started from there. I sang in choirs until the day I formed a band. Then, I thought that was cooler.. But I still have much love for a cappella choir, it's a beautiful artform.
You've often cited Hall and Oates as influences, and you've toured and worked with them too. That must have been a dream come true. What has it been like working with them?
Daryl [Hall] and John [Oates] are awesome. Both are way more talented and relevant than the press sometimes gives them credit for. The tour [Geoff opened for them on a ~50-show tour of the USA and Canada] was one of my favorite memories in my life actually. I sat backstage and watched every show from the side of the stage. Oates sometimes threw picks at me.. he can launch those damn things! He and I have become close friends and we have written four songs together, and plan on writing many more. Daryl still sings his ass off and I learned a lot of phrasing from him as I watched those shows. I had a great time in Canada… some of the nicest people I have ever met. Many I am still in contact with. The St. Dennis Theater in Montreal was a highlight! Those people were awesome. They gave me such amazing energy. The Beacon Theater in NY was the same way, unreal fans and a great show. I love NYC and I can't wait to go back and play again. If you haven't listened to Hall and Oates in a while… get their Greatest Hits, it's one hit after another… they rule.
So, prior to touring with Hall & Oates, your first taste of success was on the Imternet. You were even dubbed the "first internet pop star". How do you feel about that?
Eh.. whatever. I just like being under the radar and a guy who writes good tunes. I'll leave it to other people to hype, or not hype. I don't believe the critics and I don't give much energy to the hype either. I just like what I like and the rest of the abstract stuff is mostly subjective. I am happy not worrying about what other people think. I have found my stride lately because I am more comfortable in my own skin. I actually wrote a book about it called "Clarity."
What's that all about? Why the title "Clarity"?
It was about the way I went about gaining it [clarity]. It is only 58 pages but it helped me realize a lot of things as I was writing it. I learned how to be OK with happiness.
"Word of mouth rules" has become something of a mantra to both yourself and your fans. Does that tie in with your happiness – are you glad that you've built your fanbase largely by word of mouth?
Yeah, word of mouth, and email, and Facebook, and Myspace, and websites and all that. I find that friends talking to friends creates the best kind of atmosphere. I like playing for an audience that wants to be there and that already has an idea of my stuff and they have their friends there. It becomes more like a party rather than some kind of showcase where you are trying to win people over. I like there to be a cool vibe at the shows so word of mouth is the best. My mailing list alone has kept me in business through good times and bad, and thank God for those people, they keep me going.
On to some specific songs: you've noted that "Before Kings" – one of your best-known tracks, from the album "Shrinking Violets" – is about Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. As far as I can tell, the only explicit references to that in the song are when you mention the name "Nicole" in passing twice. Did you expect listeners to pick up on the subject matter? Why a song about Cruise and Kidman?
I am fascinated by Nicole Kidman, she is like a porcelain figurine. Beautiful and yet somewhat distant and cold at times. She is spooky in a hot sort of way; haunting. I always thought that relationship must have been strange and interesting. Although, I must admit, I almost never read or watch celebrity gossip these days because it's like eating pure cane sugar every night for dinner.. not very nourishing. But yeah, it was based on this weird dream where I was a fly on the wall in their celebrity circus of a life and the song just came out the next day.
It was inspired by a dream? Where else do you get inspiration for your songs?
I often get inspired by cool words that I write down and interesting phrases. I keep a list at all times. The idea comes first.. then the chords, then melody, then the lyrics for me usually.
The lyrics to "Plasti-Queens" suggest you aren't a fan of the artificial and superficial. Of course, the popular culture of today is dominated by such people, especially in the production-line pop music business. Did you ever face any pressure to conform in a market that's notoriously hard to bend the rules in, especially when you're still an artist in your infancy?
Yeah. I used to think about what was wrong with the world all the time. Now I seek out what is right with it. Instead of fighting everything, I try to surround myself with good energy and people who emanate it. I think of myself as a songwriter first, a recording artist second and a producer third. The most important thing to me is the material. I love writing songs and I just want to keep getting better. All the other stuff is just a trap waiting to entangle you.
In "That's How It Goes", you lament, among other things, your inability to re-write songs you hear on the radio, later noting you went out to start a "shitty little rock and roll band", naturally with tongue planted firmly in cheek. But is there an element of truth to your frustration lurking belief those lyrics? Are you happy to write off missteps in your life and career as just being "how it goes"? Lines like "that's the way it's gonna be until my dying day, I suppose" seem to hint at an air of frustration, to me at least.
I used to have a lot more angst back in the day….I still get frustrated but it is usually because I keep dropping my phone or accidentally breaking my little toe (happened twice)! Usually if I'm frustrated, it is directed at me. But yeah, that was my sarcastic little song that basically translated to: "ah fuck it man, all is vanity".
The past couple of years have been both tough and eventful for you. I get the impression that late 2006, prior to the release of your solo album "Featurette", was a tough time. That was when you revealed that you were actually seven years older than your record company had been claiming, which they had done in order to better market you in what they deemed a "youth-oriented industry". How did you feel about that? Did it leave you disillusioned about the music business at all?
No, I just think I am so much happier creating my own gravitational pull. I like creating my own planet rather than orbiting everyone else's. I don't like tapping people on the shoulder and asking their permission to do what I dig doing. So I just learned to do it all myself. I enjoy making my own videos, recording my own songs, playing the instruments, marketing it myself and putting it up online. I have just learned to follow up with leads that naturally and organically appear. I don't beat myself up always worrying about how much more I could be doing. I just start with my friends and family and follow up with people that visit my planet. It is so much easier than worrying about what everyone else is doing and what I might be missing out on. Anxiety bites. So now I slow down and try to stay in the moment at all times. Like Michael J Fox says, "happiness is a decision." I believe that. I am happy these days. I can say it and mean it, finally. I write songs for other artists, produce my own records, work a bit with film and TV and hang out with my friends and eat good food. I get by and I am happy doing it. The economy is tough now, but it will turn around and like a forest fire actually clearing the way for a healthier forest, we will see healthier smaller businesses popping up with low overhead and more creative solutions. Things are going to be great in 2 years I believe.
Outside of being a singer-songwriter, your "regular" job a couple of years back was teaching in a high-school. How has that experience informed your work, and vice versa? Would you rather be a Madonna- or Springsteen-style international superstar right now, or do you like striking a balance between life as a rock star and more down-to-earth activities?
I like right where I am. If another tour comes around and I can open up… I'm into it! I am talking to you, Elton; and you, Seal; and you, Elvis Costello! Maybe if I'm lucky I might play with Prince or Paul. I love not having the pressure of filling seats and just opening up for great musicians. It is a win win. I don't mind being an opening act and an under-the-radar kind of guy at all. In fact, I am really comfortable in those shoes. Of course, I will always play with Hall and Oates at the drop of a hat as well. Anytime, anywhere… I can go for that. Yeah, I know, don't quit my day job. What day job? Oh, and a shout out to Reynolds High School (the school Geoff worked at). Those were three great years.
Your album "Featurette" saw you break away from the full-band sound of "Shrinking Violets" on a number of its tracks to experiment with a generally quieter, more personal sound. Are you pleased with the result? Do you feel either record is more successful than the other at staying true to your creative vision?
I was fascinated by Pet Sounds and Talking Book by Stevie Wonder. I wanted to do an acoustic record with weird tangents and a concept record through and through. I love Featurette. I love how weird it got. Most people didn't get it but that is totally OK. There are a few that do. That's all that matters. Meanwhile, I got to experiment.
The title – and opening – track of that record experimented with darker, more adult imagery than the cuts on "Shrinking Violets" – the "crimson stain" of blood, the "land of cigarettes and wine". Just one track in, the listener can tell this is a very different album to your previous one. Intentional, or coincidental?
I was going through deep reflection and I was at a cross roads. It was an accurate picture of where I was in my life, searching for deeper meaning and pondering my own mortality.
"Brighter Day" comes across one of your more optimistic, upbeat tracks. Was it a genuine reflection of how you were feeling at that moment in time?
At the end of that song however I write "my life's just a bed of fucking roses".. it's a bit sarcastic actually. So is "Elusive Butterfly". I like happy songs that have a dark underbelly, like a Fellini summer. Life is a circus but clowns are still pretty spooky!
In a musical world where the iPod ensures that emphasis is on writing good songs rather than good albums, do you pay much attention to the art of the album anymore? Do you pay attention to the way you sequence your records, and try and create an internal narrative, or do you look at songs separately and argue that if the songs are good, the album will be good?
I love the new way. But I also love the full records and the concept albums and the challenge to the status quo. I like the old school and the new. They both have their fun.
Your band, The Likes Of You, were featured on the Fox reality-competition show The Next Great American Band, reaching the final twelve. Do you think appearing there helped or hindered the profile and credibility of the band? In retrospect, would you say appearing has an overall positive or negative effect on both you and the band?
I had a band for two weeks before going on. It was a nightmare of pressure and worrying about results and all the things that limit true expression. I let it be anxiety causing. I don't like the idea of competition in my music so in that respect, I wouldn't do it again. I couldn't perform well at all. My band did great, but I feel like I let them and myself down. I pretty much sucked on national TV. But in hindsight, it led me to the correct path in my life. My ego needed to have its ass kicked so that I could learn how to be happy whether I am a star or not. Thank God for that show now. But at the time, I was pretty hard on myself about not performing well. I thought it was going to be all original and suddenly I'm doing "Blowing in the Wind" with a four-on-the-floor rock beat. Wow, not my best moment. But again, necessary. I'm a better man because of it. I take full responsibility for sucking. I was much better opening for Hall and Oates on stage in my home town because I don't worry about singing and then immediately being judged. It's un-natural. I don't envy those American Idol kids.
Your work has never struck me as overly political, but clearly, Barack Obama's election as President is going to have repercussions across all aspects of popular culture. Do you think it will have any effect on the lyrics you write?
There were some political moments on Featurette the record, especially, "Under the Sun" and "Terra Firma". But I like to keep it sneaky. I really like Obama. I believe he is a cool guy underneath all the formalities that are necessary to the office. I think he is charming and has a good sense of humor. I hope to meet the dude one day!
As of right now, what are your main priorities in life, musical or otherwise? What does the future hold for Geoff Byrd?
I am really excited about my new record "X Ray Eyes". I am experimenting with hip-hop and groove and pop. There is a real focus on syncopation and rhythm. I am having more fun than I have in years with this one. I am playing live with an acoustic guitar and a DJ. It's going over well and I am having a blast playing live shows again.
It seems word of mouth continues to rule.
Readers can listen to "Semantics", from Geoff Byrd's upcoming album, and a fine example of the material that will be included on that record here. You can order Geoff Byrd's book via his website, official website.Powered by Sidelines