Isolation Drills: John Byrne

Like the majority of you, all of us in the Philadelphia area are staying at home, learning to adapt to our “new normal.” MAGNET is checking in with local musicians to see how and what they’re doing during this unprecedented time. Photos by Chris Sikich.

Byrne: I came back from Ireland at the beginning of March. My dad had died just a few days earlier, and to be honest, I was pretty much a walking zombie. We had a huge gig at World Café Live on March 6. It became a memorial to him. Many in my fanbase in Philly had met him, most of the rest knew of him through my writing, and it was a beautiful night. I knew it was going to be a struggle to get through what was going to be a hectic schedule for the next few months, dozens of gigs including two tours back home in Ireland, but I felt that the busier I was going to be, the better.

Then the bottom dropped out. We played our last gig on March 13 at a less-than-half-full Congress Hall Hotel in Cape May, a gig that’s usually packed. The next day it all shut down, and the day after that, I began playing online shows. I was doing three or four a week at first, figuring out how to make it sound OK, how to be present and feel the presence of an audience despite just being in a room with my wife and dog, figuring out how to present my songs solo, without the band that I had come to lean on and cherish.

In truth I was figuring out how to stay as busy as possible, trying to duck the grief waves that were flying in. The shut-down definitely forced me to face them head-on. There was no going out and putting on the mask (ironically) of John The Singer or John The Musician. The only direction left was to go inward for at least part of the time. I started some “long-finger projects,” learning Pro-Tools recording software, catching up on my ACT 48 credits (required professional development classes for teachers), doing yoga and some long-put-off projects in my house. I’m a chronic list maker, so I’d make a list the night before and try to be up early to begin going through it.

All through this, I kept up the online shows, and the response from people was incredible, something I couldn’t have foreseen. People were sending me messages, cards and letters saying how much it was helping them, too. Folks were dropping a few dollars in the virtual tip-jar and just generally being incredibly supportive. I owe a lot of people immeasurably.

In the past month, we’ve stepped out and played a few gigs here and there, only if it feels safe, and it has been nice to see people again. I’m still getting up, making lists, finding time to write, completing some tasks so that there’s a feeling of achievement to fight against the anxiety of the situation, trying to be socially conscious, talking to friends and family, doing the online shows once or twice a week and counting my blessings. I know there are people struggling far more than I am, and though sometimes its feels trivial that all I have to offer is a few songs, I know that it can help.

I have friends who are nurses and EMTs, and it’s hard to keep a positive perspective on what we do as writers, artists and performers. But all we can do it try to help others, feel good about ourselves if possible, be aware and empathetic and find a balance that keeps us calm and focused.