At the end of last year, Newfoundland folk singer Matthew Byrne did what countless aspiring musicians have dreamed of down through the ages: He quit his day job.
This was no spur-of-the-moment impulse move on the part of 31-year-old Byrne, however, but rather the outcome of several years of carefully assessing the trajectory of his musical career – which, following the release of his first album in 2010, only continued to rise. Toward the end of 2014, Byrne – who was providing tech support for the University of St. John’s distance education program – found himself needing so much more time to devote to his music that he went to his managers and asked for a one-year leave so he could narrow his focus. They gave it to him.
And then came 2015: He released the album “Hearts & Heroes,” which garnered widespread critical acclaim and considerable radio airplay, and he also performed more in the US, including in Lowell last year as part of the first “Summer Celtic Sojourn” show. So he returned to his bosses and put in his notice.
“It kind of freaks me out,” says Byrne with a laugh of his status as a full-time professional musician. “But really, everything is going very well. It just seemed that every year, I had a bigger base with which to get work, so cutting the cord made more and more sense. I’m very gratified by all the support I’ve been getting.”
Byrne will experience some of that support as a performer in this year’s “A St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn,” which takes place this month in Worcester, New Bedford and Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre [see separate story]. It’s his first visit to the Boston area since last April, when he performed at a house concert sponsored by the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston.
Those attending the “Celtic Sojourn” shows who aren’t familiar with Byrne will discover the qualities that have gained him such a following: a clear, resonant voice of subtle strength, complemented by a limber, graceful guitar style, and a repertoire rooted in a ballad tradition – with such songs as “Claudie Banks,” “Bold Nelson,” “The Jolly Ploughboy” and “Plains of Waterloo” – that for Byrne is not only an attribute of his native land, but a family legacy as well.
“Matthew is one of those special performers who can really put it all together: an extraordinary voice, great guitar-playing, and a whole bunch of good songs you want to listen to,” says WGBH-FM radio’s Brian O’Donovan, creator and host of “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn.”
Byrne thinks establishing an acquaintance with Boston, and Massachusetts, seems an entirely natural progression. “Historically, there was always a line of shipping between Newfoundland and ‘the Boston States,’ as they were called in maritime Canada. So I think singing songs about Newfoundland, and about sea-faring, provide a strong connection.”
Where connections are concerned, Byrne has a particularly meaningful bond with his music, because it evokes family history.
“Both my parents are from ‘resettled’ communities – these were once fishing villages that have now ceased to exist. Dad was a singer and guitarist who recorded an album, and Mom was a song collector as well as a singer, and between them they had a huge repertoire that included songs from my grandmother, my great aunt, my great uncle. My mother recorded and wrote down songs from them and our neighbors, and I’m so grateful she did that.”
Form thus becomes content, he says: “These songs are windows into the lives of those people, and the time and place in which they lived. The ballads all tell a story, of course, in a way that’s unique. And so, by keeping these ballads alive, this way of telling a story becomes a story in and of itself.”
Not surprisingly, then, music was a facet of Byrne’s life from the beginning. “My brother and I were humming traditional melodies before we could talk,” he says. “It felt very natural for me to start playing the music when I was older, whether on my own or sometimes with my brother.”
This musical heritage helped Byrne find his voice as a singer, literally and metaphorically, early on. “For me, it’s always been that combination of a beautiful melody with a beautiful story – whether it’s about love or going to sea – which draws me to a song. I’ve never tried to pigeon-hole myself, and I inherited that from my mother: I’ve gone through her collection, and she would have some rare version of a ballad no one else had ever come across, but she’d also have something like ‘The Wild Rover,’ which everyone knows.
“I love being able to bring a song to an audience that perhaps is unfamiliar to them, and then go onto a song they’re more likely to know. By the same token, I’ll do a song that’s a couple of centuries old, but I also like singing a contemporary one like ‘True Love Knows No Reason’ [written by Norman Blake].”
Two defining experiences for Byrne came in a span of two years. In 2009, he became a member of The Dardanelles, a group of young Newfoundland musicians that set out to bring their native tradition to a wider audience. They played at major festivals around Canada, such as Winnipeg, Vancouver and Mariposa, and also did some tours in the US, UK, and Australia. For Byrne this was “a way to get on the radar” as a performer, and to get a taste of what a musical career might be like.
A year later, he released his first album, very aptly titled “Ballads.” “I had a collection of songs that I’d been singing since I was knee-high, and just felt I wanted to bring them into a studio and see what happened. Once I did, I realized that they were all ballads, and that just crystalized for me my feeling about the music and how I approached it.”
So four years later, when Byrne decided he wanted to do another recording, he had a very useful point of reference.
“With ‘Ballads,’ my mindset had been that I wanted to make an album as a personal achievement, and who cares where it goes from there,” he explained. “So there was desperately minimal marketing or publicity for it. With the second album, I knew I wanted to establish myself more as a guitarist, with a breadth of styles, different tunings, and so on, but also make a more concerted effort to market it and build an audience.”
“Hearts & Heroes” went on to earn “Traditional Album of the Year” at the 2015 Canadian Folk Music Awards and widespread praise in North America and abroad. Not a bad start to a full-time musical career. And Byrne looks forward to building on this promising beginning through his involvement in “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” and appearances at events in the northeast US such as the Mystic Seaport and Old Songs festivals.
“I’ll also probably take some time to conceptualize a new album,” he muses. “One thing I’ve found already is, it’s hard to make new music when you’re touring and performing a lot. That’s a balance I’ll have to find, but you know what? I’m glad I have the opportunity to do it.”