From California wildfires to pandemic isolation, from battling temptations to being grateful for what you have, Mya Byrne runs through a myriad of emotions and musical landscapes on Rhinestone Tomboy.
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The album’s dozen tracks act as a culmination of Byrne’s musical journey up to this point, which has roots dating back to her childhood in New Jersey. It was there she saw Crystal Gayle guest star on Sesame Street and sang along to The Band, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Richie Havens with her mother before eventually diving into songwriting as a teenager. After briefly contemplating a culinary career, she traveled to England to take up studio engineering before having an epiphany that set her on her current path.
“I sat down one morning and wrote in my notebook, ‘You hold in your hand the key to your survival’ and then looked down at the pen I was holding,” says Byrne. “I remember saying aloud, ‘I’m moving to New York to be a songwriter,’ and that’s exactly what I did. I’ve been roaming around ever since.”
Most of that roaming has been in and around California and New York, both of which are central to Rhinestone Tomboy. Written mostly in the last few years, a large chunk of the record revolves around the pandemic and the crippling isolation associated with it. “A lot of the record sees me wondering if I’m going to live through this while also feeling alive for the first time in a really long time,” says Byrne. “It was a juxtaposition of wonder, horror, reflection, and ultimately, resolution.”
“Smoke And Bones” is an intense and rock’n number detailing Byrne’s experiences during the California wildfires of 2018 and 2020 that caused her to flee to New York because of how the air quality was affecting her breathing. It also explores the action, or lack thereof, by the state’s leadership to address the issue and how it has only exacerbated the problem. A more personal approach to songwriting can be heard in “Devil In My Ear,” which highlights Byrne’s recovery from alcoholism. The tune is structured like a murder ballad as Byrne takes her own struggles and uses them to tell the story of a human being who can’t stop the bad thoughts and temptations in their head from consuming them. This slowly progresses throughout the song before ending with an allegory of sorts on how trans women, specifically, are made to feel they need to assimilate into everyday life.
“Contrasting a song like ‘Devil In My Ear’ with the optimism of ‘It Don’t Fade,’ we can pull abundance from anywhere,” says Byrne. “There should always be a seat at the table. There’s always enough to go around, but too many people think of getting ahead as clinging to everything. You can’t cling to water because it’s running, and you can’t put your hands around sand because it’ll go through your fingers. Selfishness leads to destruction.”
However, one place Byrne couldn’t pull abundance from was the pandemic and being away from the people she cherishes. That’s at the center of “Come On,” a song fueled by frustration and inspired by a prompt to write a song based on a John Prine song title. In this case, the song was “Long Monday,” which Byrne wrote on, well, a Monday, delving into a shared, unrelenting loneliness, tying two traditions together.
“I started to write a pastiche of a John Prine song but quickly pivoted to how I was feeling on this long Monday not far after his passing,” says Byrne. “I was stuck in my pod and couldn’t see my friends or partners…I was feeling really lonely, which is a lot of what ‘Long Monday’ is about too. In that sense, ‘Come On’ is a song of total frustration.”
That being said, there’s still plenty to be thankful for, which Byrne tackles on the project’s poignant closing track, “That’s What Lucky Means.” According to her, the stripped-back, solo acoustic ballad was one written with Linda McRae during the recording process at the behest of producer and longtime friend Aaron Lee Tasjan. Taken from the perspective of a baby boomer with the music and technology of the time and what that would’ve been like before, similar to “Come On,” it brings things back to her own experiences and what she’s thankful for despite everything life has thrown at her.
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“How cool it had to be growing up during the invention of the RCA record changer that drove countless people to listen to popular music in the post-war era,” says Byrne. “I compare those simple pleasures with my own experiences of waking up, writing in my notebook, sipping on coffee, having a full belly and gas tank to illustrate how lucky I truly feel I am, how humbled I am by it.”
Even with all she’s grateful for, including opportunities like her record being released on Kill Rock Stars’s Nashville imprint and performing an event for trans visibility at Bridgestone Arena, Byrne remains hungry for more. She’s tired of being left off of music festivals and struggling for work as an outspoken trans artist. To that end, she remains hopeful that Rhinestone Tomboy will help facilitate change in a stubborn music industry, not only for her, but for all trans and marginalized artists.
“It’s frustrating to barely be scraping by financially while also being at the top of my game in terms of visibility,” says Byrne. “Trans women—especially Black trans women—just don’t get the same opportunities as other artists. I give a lot of myself to the world, and I get a lot back in return, but at the end of the day, I’m just trying to make a living like everyone else.”