When artists talk about writing their first full-length albums, they often describe the process as cathartic—an outpouring of years of life experiences. But when alt-pop artist VÉRITÉ (née Kelsey Byrne) began writing her debut LP, Somewhere In Between, a year and a half ago, she felt numb. At the time, she was gearing up to release her third EP, Living. She had been touring, and, as an independent artist, had been running the business side of her project. She was also dealing with one of the most severe bouts of depression she'd had since she was a young teenager.
"I wrote [ Somewhere In Between] in a time where I really felt nothing," the 27-year-old says. She's dressed in head-to-toe black—jeans, v-neck tee, and patent Dr. Martens—perched on a seat on New York's Long Island Railroad. We're en route to an adventure park to do a zip-line ropes course together. "It's going to sound fucked up," she continues, "But I was really struggling with and coming to terms with how little I felt and how l disconnected I felt and how I did not care about anything and how I did want to die… But for me, that's just shit I've dealt with forever. I've been depressed for years. Since I was a kid. My fear is to come off sounding dramatic about it; it's just a very plain reality. [But when I was younger], I just hit a point where—I'm trying to figure out how to say this the right way—[I thought], I'm not going to kill myself, so I need to figure out how to live."
For Byrne, a native upstate New Yorker who graduated from SUNY Purchase with a BA in studio composition, a large part of figuring out how to live has been learning to accept where she's at on any given day, and being able to take the right next step—whether it's tackling her to-do list or taking a five-minute walk outside her Brooklyn apartment because she can't fathom leaving for longer than that. But, on this sunny Saturday, Byrne's mood is bright. Last week, she and her band started rehearsing for their North American headline tour in August, and she played the majority of her album's songs live for the first time. "I had a weird experience the past few days," she says. "Like, 'Oh, this record is going to be great to play live. I'm actually going to be able to interpret these things and feel them.' I was worried that wouldn't be the case. I thought I'd be apathetic forever. I just didn't know."
Listening to Somewhere In Between, it's not clear that Byrne wrote it during a time of immense apathy. It's a dynamic dark pop record, with the singer has upping the ante on the strongest moments from her prior releases—ten of which have charted in the HypeMachine Top 10, and three have hit No. 1—especially vocally. On the album, she's smartly supercharged the qualities most likely to make her stand out in a sea of female-fronted synth-pop. Her signature vocal runs are sleek and improbably effortless (the chorus of "Better" is spellbinding), and when her delivery is raw and raspy, it feels like a swift kick to the chest. In the record's broody, driving opener, "When You're Gone," she growls: "What you lost, what you lost / I don't want to be here anymore, anymore / There's no difference here from when you're gone, when you're gone / I'm not crawling on my knees to keep you here."
Byrne conceptualized the record's sonic vibe in a very deliberate and almost academic way: "I wanted [the album] to be a statement piece in itself," she says. "What I didn ' t want to do is make a down-tempo alt-pop R&B record, or a smooth 80's synth-pop revamp. I watch the trends in music, and so I very consciously was like, 'Fuck all of that.' That's not my vibe anyway, and I wanted to make something that was all go from start to finish."
The record does feel "all go." And, perhaps unsurprisingly, Byrne had a major hand in realizing that vision, production-wise. As the album's executive producer, she oversaw the work of multiple industry mainstays, including Liam Howe (Lana del Rey, Ellie Goulding), Tim Anderson (Twenty One Pilots, Solange) and Peter Thomas (Selena Gomez, Betty Who). When it came time to write the album's credits, though, writing herself in as the executive producer was not her first instinct: "It wasn't a comfortable decision," she explains. "Because I am not good at taking credit for work that I do. This whole idea of being a woman and taking credit for managing the production of eight men—there was part of me that was like, 'Did I do this? Or are people going to think I'm overreaching?' And having the realization that that [impulse] is so ingrained in me, and feeling shocked that that's so ingrained in me—to be meek and apologetic. I would never say I'm a producer, because I think that's almost insulting to the art of production, but I will say that I executive produced the fuck out of the album."
Byrne also wrote virtually all of the lyrics and melodies on the record: "I don't fuck around," she says. "Not that I don't let people [give input]—it's just like, [the songs are] mine. If they're not, they don't feel close enough to me." Yet at the same time, writing still feels entirely unromantic to her: "A lot of the times [when I write] I'm not feeling deeply like I need to express myself. I never fucking need to express myself. That concept never crosses my mind. And like, the sentiment kind of makes me angry—which is my own issue." She laughs. "I feel like I'm not a bleeding heart trying to find someone to patch my wounds. But I obviously have shit that I need to work out, and I just choose to work that out through writing."
This contradiction—that she needs complete control of her songs, but the actual writing process feels arduous and can even, she says, cause her to spiral into self-doubt—is just one example of the polarized parts of her personality. Another is the stark difference between Byrne the musician and Byrne the businessperson, managing a team. When she's in the latter mode, she's almost coach-like. During our ropes course, Byrne coaxed her photographer, Nicole Mago, to slide herself off a ledge. Byrne placed her hand on Mago's shoulder. "Don't think," she told her, reassuringly but with a hint of impatience. "The less you think about it, the better. You can do it. Just go."
The extremes in Byrne's personality date back to her high school days: "I wasn't even in the yearbook," she recalls. "I was very unpopular. I was very drunk. I did a shitload of drugs. I always had a bottle of vodka on me. I used to pass out at the end of the day in math class. But I got straight A's, so no one ever questioned me. I worked full-time [as a waitress]. I was a mess on one end—a fucking emotional wreck—and on the other end, I graduated when I was 16 and went to college when I was 17." Byrne has been sober for seven years.
But for a person who, in many ways, lives in black and white, Byrne studies the grey area on Somewhere In Between —just as its title suggests. The tracks focus largely on relationships, but are not straightforward love songs or breakup anthems. Lyrically, Byrne forgoes visceral scene-setting, instead using metaphor to dissect complex emotional dynamics. In places, this can feel a bit alienating, but when she gets it right, she really gets it right—as in the excellent "Saint," when she proclaims at the end of the chorus: "I know you're not a season / Set to leave me in the cold / But still, I caught a sickness / That time you said I was, said I was / Yours."
"I don't really have definitive answers on the record," Byrne says with her typical pragmatism. "The only thing I want for people to get out to the album is to feel something… I want [people] to want to listen to it again. To be like, 'Oh, that was interesting. What's next?'"
Somewhere In Between is out now on Kobalt.
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