By Annie Reuter
The story of Mya Byrne begins with a vivid image. She is standing on the iconic stage of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in a beautiful white dress and a flower in her hair.
“I saw myself, transitioned, on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium,” Byrne recalls. “I saw it clear as day, and I just burst into tears and I looked at the sky.”
“Typically, as a rabbi’s daughter I thought, ‘This is your plan for me!’” Byrne says while she motions her arm to the sky. “But in that moment, I decided, it was sealed. I realized I needed to be an advocate.”
As a transgender roots/Americana singer, Byrne immediately had a long road ahead of her. But she found her voice within her music and her debut solo album As I Am.
Much of her new album is an extension of the sound she explored with her previous band, New York-based rock/soul/Americana group the Ramblers. As I Am embodies that band’s stellar guitar playing and soulfulness, but the songs here also show how she’s grown both musically and personally.
The bluesy “Don’t Hurt No One No More,” for instance, which came to her in the form of a dream, showcases the rollicking spirit of her previous group, but with more personal reflection, as she wrote the song after a breakup. “I don’t want my love to cause pain,” she says of the song. “I don’t want anybody’s love to cause pain. I have a lot to learn about love and relationships, and that’s the whole point of the song.”
Other songs, like “Leave on the Next Wind” and “Power of the Lord” sound like open prayers and spirituals. The latter is a swampy gospel track, with haunting bass and electric guitar work that’s fronted by Byrne’s steady, memorable vocals. And one of the best moments on the album is a cover of Bob Dylan‘s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” which transforms the song into a fast-paced Southern rock jam. You can easily envision it getting thumbs-up approval from fans of bands like the Eagles and the Allman Brothers.
(Credit: Neale Eckstein)
Getting to this point, though, wasn’t easy for Byrne.
While she initially started to transition in 2012, she soon stopped, because the pressure was too high.
“Familial pressure became a little too much,” she says softly, looking down from the leather booth we’re sitting in. “I sort of pushed myself back in the closet, and it took me a long time to pull myself back out of it.”
After time spent at the beach the following summer, Byrne realized she needed to affirm “who I really was.” On Sept. 30, 2013 she made the decision to transition, and on Oct. 7 she began hormone replacement therapy. Just over a year ago, on May 31, 2014, she came out to the world.
Nothing could have prepared her for the hurdles she would soon face, but Byrne says her family and the roots music community have come around.
“Some of my family was not supportive at first, and now I’m being embraced more,” she explains. “My name has always been Mya to my family, so for a lot of people in my family it was a bit of a shock, but at the same time, I reclaimed the name that I always had.”
Mya says while she’s trying to reconcile with her family, at the same time she needs to take time to embrace herself, and with that her music. She admits that one of her biggest fears was being rejected in the music community.
“There aren’t a ton of queer people in my neck of the woods. That said, I found a bunch of allies, other trans people who I privately started to have friendships with,” she explains.
One of those allies is Tracy Grammer, formerly of folk duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. Years ago, Grammer broke the news that Carter had been transitioning at the time of his death.
“I came out to her and I said, ‘I want to talk to you because I need your advice and I’m scared.’ She said, ‘You know, I think this community is going to surprise you and be very embracing.’”
To Byrne’s shock, she says her career has changed very positively and she has been celebrated within the community.
“Not to quote my own album, but people see me as I am and really react strongly to it,” she says with a smile. “When I sing songs about my transition, I’ve been told by people it’s inspiring and it’s very, very humbling. It’s just being myself. I think the hardest part has been experiencing sexism from certain people but at the same time, once they realize what’s been going on they’re like, ‘Oh. You rock. You should come play with me.’”
Byrne says embracing her affirmed self has been like taking a filter off. She adds that the only place she used to feel free was when she was onstage, but at the same time it was often a struggle to get past her physical reality. She used to drink and smoke to numb herself.
“I had great shows, but I never felt completely in tune or in touch the way I did when I was younger. What’s been amazing about my transition is the line between thought and action, or just the emotional aspect of music. My connection to my instrument and to my writing has changed,” she explains. “It’s truly become second nature in a way. It always was, but it’s becoming easier to tap into every little bit of myself and output music. I realized what I had been searching for all my life was me.”
One of those songs that has allowed Byrne to open up is “Lost Angel,” a song that she wrote while she had de-transitioned in 2013, and one she calls the centerpiece of the album. On the track she sings, “Your pain is one thing, your heart’s another.”
“I’m saying there’s a separation between the external and the internal pain we feel as trans people when we haven’t transitioned and when we don’t even know that we are trans,” she explains. “A lot of people don’t know and there’s something within you that’s saying, ‘Hey, hey. I’m here. I’m here waiting for you to find me through this big wall.’”
She adds: “For me, ‘Lost Angel’ is about embracing the person within yourself who is already there, who is you and accepting that reality exists. It took me a long time to accept that that reality existed.”
Mya admits that she believes she knew when she was 14 that she was trans, but she pushed both her queerness and trans-ness down. She says she feels a kinship towards Caitlyn Jenner, as Byrne herself went through her transition in the public eye, since she was still performing under her former name.
“It was exciting to have that secret so to speak but it was also really frightening because all I wanted to do was come out and I didn’t know how to do it,” she explains. “The last few months before I came out, I started to get in a really dark place mainly because I hadn’t settled on my identity. We saw with Caitlyn, it took Caitlyn a while to figure out what she wanted and how she wanted to be. That’s her business. It took me a long time to figure that out.”
Byrne adds that Jenner always had a presence in her young life as she remembers when she had guest-starred on The Muppet Show. She says that she made no assumptions about Jenner’s life in the public eye and whether or not she was transitioning herself.
“Her attitude, her life had always struck me as interesting. When the press started ripping her apart and being cruel, I actually thought about a lot of these parallels. ‘Wow, how privileged am I that I transitioned in a very similar way?’ I transitioned with people seeing it happen and not quite knowing what was happening. I got to prepare the people close to me for this.”
However, the cruelty is something that Byrne doesn’t wish upon anyone. Byrne confesses that she has been followed, called names and taunted frequently. She is more aware of her surroundings and makes sure not to take the subway alone late at night. While she tells me all of this, she gets serious and says that it is often worse for trans women of color.
“I’m very lucky that I have a credit card. If somebody’s chasing me down the street I can hail a cab. Some people aren’t so lucky,” she says gravely. “People don’t realize they’re privileged or how lucky they are. My experiences of harassment have not been as severe as other people’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less frightening or dangerous.”
So how does Byrne suggest people react if someone in their life tells them they’re trans? She says an appropriate reaction is a simple, “Congratulations.”
“That was always my favorite reaction when I started coming out to people. Say, ‘What’s your name? What should I call you? Congratulations. What are your pronouns?’ Maybe, ‘I don’t understand it completely, but I’ll do my best to try.’ That’s all anybody can ask.”