By Dani Blum
“The universe is a cruel bitch,” Vérité says, plopped on a velvet couch, crunching Skinny Pop. It’s a month before her second album, New Skin, comes out, and the brick walls of her PR manager’s office are studded with gold and platinum records. A Frank Sinatra doll, encased in plastic, perches over her left shoulder. No pressure. Kelsey Byrne, an indie-pop singer who chose her stage name from a list of French-sounding words, is in full album-release mode: fresh from the Pandora offices, now wilting in the PR office. She’s sore. She’s tired. She’s talking about the time she almost quit.
Four or five years ago, Byrne was getting ready to sign to Atlantic Records, the powerhouse home of artists like Cardi B, Missy Elliott, and Ed Sheeran. She was newly out of college, waitressing at the Applebee’s in Times Square, and playing what she calls “shitty bar shows” around the city. Just before signing day, she told her co-workers that she was leaving — that she was making it. And then the deal fell through.
She felt like she’d been punched. This was during a time in her life when she felt constantly cagey, “incapable,” she says, when introducing herself to a room full of people was a challenge. Vérité, as a name and a project, allowed Bryne to hide; she hated herself so much, she says, that she couldn’t fathom a way that just herself, stripped from the character, could be presentable to the public. Music gave her a version of herself she could control. Now, no other major labels were interested in her. Her vision of the future collapsed in on itself.
She should just give up, she thought on and off. She draped on the couch in her parents’ home upstate, mourning while her father brought her meals. After a few days, though, she went to her managers and asked them to give her a budget – how much money she would actually have to come up with to make it work as an independent artist. The number was $12,000.
She made it by returning to Applebee’s, working marathon shifts for five months while also writing and performing music. There were weeks when she didn’t see sunlight. She was so exhausted, she sometimes vomited at work. In one of her earliest interviews, which she now calls “bullshit,” a reporter asked where she liked to go out in New York.
“I was like, I don’t go out, I work 80 hours a fucking week,” Byrne says. But she wanted to keep up with the idea of Vérité, to live up to the concept she created. She took the interviewer into random bars she passed on the street, claiming they were her go-to spots. Sitting in her PR rep’s office, twisting a ring around a tattooed finger, she laughs and doesn’t look at me. “You want to be in the bubble,” she says. “You know?”
It’s easy to hear New Skin, the second proper Vérité album and first since her 2017 debut Somewhere in Between, as a love album. A relationship is an easily digestible narrative, she says, an emotional entry point anyone can understand. “Everyone loves a good breakup song, and everyone loves a new beginning,” she says. “But what about the middle? It’s just as devastating, but it’s not as easy.”
This album goes there. Songs steep in fights and jealousy and clothes left on the floor; synths bloom as Byrne hums about wanting to leave. Perhaps by design, her primary collaborator on the album is the man she lives with, her partner of almost five years, Zach Nicita.
“Is this about me?” Nicita, who has also performed with MS/MR and Ellie Goulding, says he would ask while working on songs about his partner grappling with stability and commitment. “Stressful” is the word Byrne uses. “We would fight all day, but get a bunch done, and then make up over ice cream and do it all again.”
The first time she performed music from the album, at a cramped show on an East Village rooftop, she shuddered over a keyboard, looking like each word was being yanked out of her. She had hitched her face to a steamer for an hour before the show, the way she does every time she sings live, sucking in fog and exhaling tendrils so that now her voice leaped across the stage. “We want therapy tonight?” she cooed at the crowd.
Byrne knows she’s on the brink. Almost every piece of press coverage, stemming back to her early singles, announces that she’s an independent artist about to puncture the mainstream. She’s played at Lollapalooza. She’s been on the Billboard dance chart. But there’s a voice that snakes through the back of her head. It tells her she’s a failure.
The new album just needs one thing, she says over and over again. The swell of an algorithm. One spot on Today’s Top Hits. A song that goes viral, the way her brooding breakup song, “Strange Enough,” galloped through Twitter in 2014 and became the No. 1 song on Hype Machine. Each spike in attention brings her to a new plateau, she says, flattening her palm in the air. “I’m like, cool,” she says. “What’s the next thing that’s going to level it up?”
“We look at the top 5 percent of artists who are crushing it,” she says, “and no one wants to talk about the hundreds of artists signed to major labels who never release music, never release a record, are caught in year-long deals where they’re not able to make money or even have the autonomy to move forward. A lot of that is a dude in a room, who’s just like, ahhh,” She shrugs, slumping her shoulders in leather sleeves. “I don’t know, you should sound like this.”
Control over her music is essential to her. She executive produces every album. She decides which single drops and when. On New Skin, she worked with a team of writers, including singer Madi Diaz, in recording studios in Nashville; they took shrooms and traded memories, writing an entire song in a day. The collaboration worked well, Byrne says, but she usually has trouble finding writers to work with. “I’m detached enough from my own fucking emotions,” she says. “Letting somebody else in is really hard, and it’s really easy for somebody to ruin it.”
“I’m very particular who I bring it to, even the smallest lyrical idea. Because they’re mine,” she says, her voice growing. “And I don’t want them to fuck it up.”