For its brand-new bi-weekly column All Eyes On, SPIN rounds up the young and the restless (or just very talented) musicians you might not have heard before, but whom you definitely should be watching. So stop scrolling through SoundCloud or pressing play on New Music Tuesday, sit back, and let us do the work for you.
If Kelsey Byrne, a.k.a. alt-pop performer VÉRITÉ, wasn’t making music, she’d likely be working at Applebee’s. That’s not a slight against her — she readily admits as much. “I was joking with someone about this the other day,” the blonde singer admits between sips of coffee. “They were like, ‘You talk about Applebee’s as if it was your ex.’ I miss it; I miss setting up tables at 6am. I’m f—ed up.”
Dotting her speech with another round of expletives (“I curse like a truck driver”), the Orange County, New York native describes how, before she quit the food industry to focus on music full-time, she spent a total of ten years waitressing; a few of them involved slinging Mud Slides and serving “literally the craziest, craziest people” at the Times Square eatery.
Though some might cringe at the idea of serving up burgers and fries to the dregs of NYC’s tourist population, Byrne’s years in the crushing bosom of Midtown Manhattan has had a positive effect on her career, which is on the upswing thanks to a handful of viral, room-filling hits like the urgent “Colors,” the clap-clap-thumping “Heartbeat,” and the ominously synth-backed “Strange Enough.”
“When I released ‘Heartbeat’ I had management my put it on YouTube, and people called it pop,” Byrne says of her assigned genre — a sonic quality she doesn’t spend time worrying over. “I was just like, ‘OK, I guess it’s pop.’ She closely illustrates her songwriting process, which sounds simultaneously studied and organic. “When it comes to production and the overall sound I don’t really have a lot of intentions with it,” she says. “I start off with melody and a lyrical idea, and then build off of that story. All the lyrics were written from stream of consciousness, and then I tried to string together these little bits of inspiration into a cohesive idea.”
Byrne, who grew up listening playing piano and listening to “every stereotypical angsty teenage girl music you could ever think of” — the Cranberries, the Breeders, Nirvana, Green Day — expects to release her second EP independently on June 9, which will feature a few tracks she wrote mid-shift when she was “bored and in my own head.” “I wrote [the unreleased] ‘Sentiments,’ like, literally at Applebee’s waiting tables,” she says.
All-day shifts in Times Square are precisely what enabled Byrne to independently finance her artistic pursuits, which began with self-releasing tracks that blew up on the Hype Machine. Eventually, she started playing gigs promoted by staunch supporters Neon Gold Records (she played their South By Southwest showcase last March), and, most recently, Byrne snagged a high-profile gig opening for Montreal-based indie-pop staples Stars at Webster Hall in New York City. Playing to her biggest crowd to date “was definitely a huge high,” she says, “A bucket list kind of thing.”
On top of funding her career, her culinary hustle never dented Byrne’s spirit — if anything, getting her hands dirty on the regular has only incentivized her to more fervently chase down her artistic interests. When she was in school, the 24-year-old would sometimes pull 70-hour weeks juggling work and studying studio composition at SUNY Purchase. “Yeah, I don’t do a lot of breaks,” she admits. “I wasn’t a very good student, but I got a degree out of it.”
Where college years tend to be a beer-soaked playland many twentysomethings look back on with blurred nostalgia, Byrne refers to her time at Purchase with a shrug. “I was commuting and I was working full time. I was very distracted,” she explains. “School was just kind of something where it was like, ‘Um, I guess I should get my bachelor’s.’ My mind is always geared towards the practical.”
Purchase was also where Byrne met another buzzy New York-based singer: Mitski. “It’s really cool because we weren’t very close in college, and then we seemed to be on a similar trajectory in completely different genres,” Byrne says. “We just get coffee and we’re just like, ‘Oh, this is what you are doing, and this is what I am doing.’ It is f—ing awesome.”
Byrne might not be lining the pages of New York Magazine like her pink guitar-playing peer (yet), but she’s got one very pronounced asset: working the music industry with the same focus she used to reserve for 6 am to 6 pm waitressing shifts. “The idea of [being] the starving artist and [raising money via] Kickstarter never really made sense to me,” she says. “In my mind, if I was going to do this, I was going to make the money and do it in a way [where] I am in control.”
Despite that survivalist exterior, inside is a super-amiable, outgoing girl who is always, always extra-polite to the serving staff. “I know they hate me,” she says. “Whatever I’m going to ask them for, they are just going to be like, ‘F–k this bitch. No, I don’t want to get you your f–king ketchup.’ I am so sympathetic to that.”
“I feel like I can’t say anything bad about Applebee’s because it has enabled me to do all of this,” Byrne continues. “Even at the worst aspects of [working there], I am grateful that they gave me employment. I miss it. I’m gonna go back tomorrow.” She pauses, smiles naughtily, and says, “I’m joking.”