In 2023, there are a million answers to the question, “What is pop music?” Pop music is Taylor Swift. It’s boygenius. It’s Illenium. It could be anything and everything. For an artist like M. Byrd, an old-school electric guitarist from a small town in Germany, his approach to pop is simple. No bells and whistles, no vocal pyrotechnics, just the kind of straight-up musicianship he learned from listening to artists like The War On Drugs, Tom Petty, and Elliott Smith.
Previously released songs like “Over You / Over Me” and “Only A Feeling” are well-written tunes just waiting to whisk you away into a crowded, dark room where a musician like M. Byrd can plug in, throw his head back, and let the music rip. They are included on M. Byrd’s debut album, called The Seed, out now.
Byrd’s style as an instrumentalist, and even sometimes vocally, is similar to that of the no-frills, occasionally structureless sound of Courtney Barnett, Waxahatchee, and Kurt Vile. Overall, he’s the closest to Barnett, but with traditional blues and classic rock structure along with other young prodigies like Quinn Sullivan and King Solomon Hicks.
He began playing the guitar in his mid-teens and soon viewed the guitar as sort of an extension of himself. Like most teens, he turned to YouTube to learn the craft, but also found himself within a small community of older musicians within his area. “From a social perspective, the guitar gave me the opportunity to go further than a little town somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Everything I was interested in… it really made me dream a lot of where this all could take me. Once I found people to play with, that was when I knew I was going to keep doing this.”
His hands-on education came from mostly older musicians who worshipped artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Little Richard. In a jam session setting, they plucked Byrd onstage and taught him the basics. “They just knew how to hold a guitar,” he said. “They put me onstage and said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna do this and this, you’re gonna play this note and keep playing this note the whole song. You get louder as we get louder and more quiet as we get more quiet.’ Those dynamics are what I’m really into and how I still play live today.”
Beyond Tom Petty and Elliott Smith, Byrd has a deep appreciation for the filmmaking of David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive). Film scoring, a key factor in Lynch’s films, can take a film, or any form of media, to the next level. Byrd’s sense of arrangement and ability to create based on knowing how a song will translate live would make him a perfect candidate for this kind of art (though he says he has dabbled in it already, working on short films for friends’ academic projects).
“There’s a cinematic aspect to the music… the way we approach it,” he said. “It would definitely fit the vibe. Before I do it myself, I’d love to be in a session with someone and look over their shoulder. The score for Succession is really fascinating me at the moment. Everything is built around that motive, and everything moves from that motive. I find it fascinating how you can work with a tiny idea and turn it into something so big.”
The Seed and Anxiety/Therapy
Byrd’s album The Seed, a nine-track project clocking in at just over a half hour, is the amalgamation of many years of hard work and experimentation. A week before its release, Byrd was feeling a mix of emotions. “I just realized that I’m super happy for the music to finally be out,” he said. “To not have it lying around for any longer. I can also feel some tension, definitely. Critics are starting to pop up… it’s so interesting how you make something in your own four walls and suddenly it’s out there. People are listening to it and forming an opinion and integrating it in their lives.”
Songs like “Sister Sun,” “Outside Of Town,” “Flood,” and “Over You / Over Me” are the best representatives of the project. Each lean into Byrd’s jam session mentality and are designed for a live setting. “Over You / Over Me” in particular, despite being released back in the fall, has a kind of fairy dust sprinkled all over it that makes it quite magnetic: “I’ve been dreaming of a dozen snakes in my bedroom / Guess I’ll let them stay.” “It sounds simple but, in a way, it’s tricky to play and kind of technical,” he said on the tune, his current favorite from the album. “There are breaks in the rhythmic and melodic structure that make it feel like it’s floating. It’s not coming back to a starting point at any time. Even if it goes back to the root note, it still feels like it’s lingering.”
“Gunslinger,” another highlight, musically, leans a bit into the rock side of classic country western, while Byrd’s vocal sits in that perfect alternative space: “Are you old enough to defend it? / Young enough to try. Heed the voice your mother lent you / Gunslinger.” “Only A Feeling,” likely the most accessible tune of the project, tells of Byrd’s experience watching a friend spiral through anxiety attacks. “Seeing a person spiral like that is the most powerful thing ever,” he said. “There’s so much energy. Also, it’s kind of unfair to say, but it shows how powerful the human experience is. So it’s kind of beautiful in a way, even though it isn’t. I’ve learned a lot myself… how to act in a situation like that and stay calm myself. Trying to not ride the wave of the other person, which is the hardest thing.”
Through these experiences in his own life, he turned to therapy. “I don’t know the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack, but I’ve had these feelings myself,” he said. “I went to therapy pretty early in my life, which really helps me today. Therapy is a muscle you start to train to sort of balance yourself out, in a way, when you can’t anymore.”
With an album… a full body of work, finally out in the world, Byrd reflects on himself as an artist, then and now. “In the beginning, I was very much writing about myself,” he said. “’This is me,’ ‘I’m scared.’ From there, I think I’ve continuously grew away from writing from my own experiences. Today it’s more about people. I think the album is inspired by people around me. Through them, I can see myself again.”