Girlyman’s Tylan Greenstein on breaking up and going solo

If you’re a fan of folk-pop group Girlyman, odds are you know some of their back-story. Doris Muramatsu and Tylan “Ty” Greenstein have played together since college, various members have been romantically linked and the whole band lived together in a tiny Brooklyn apartment before relocating en masse to Atlanta. Now however, the close-knit group is on hiatus, or as their website puts it, “taking some time to catch our breath.” In the interim, Ty, who now goes by Tylan has moved cross-country, undergone a break-up and is releasing a solo album. AfterEllen.comcaught up with her to discuss Girlyman’s relationship to its fans, advice she received from Indigo Girl Amy Ray, and the benefits of uncertainty.

AE: A lot has changed for you in the last couple years. Can you write through tumultuous periods or do you have to wait for the dust to settle?
Tylan Greenstein:
The thing about writing is you can’t wait to do it — there’s never a perfect time. That’s something I forget, so that doesn’t mean I’m one of those people who just shows up at my writing desk every single day no matter what, but that’s what I aspire to and I tend to be happiest when I do that. I’ve noticed that you really aren’t a good judge of what you’re good days are and you’re not a good judge of what you’re writing when you’re writing it — at least I’m not. it’s been good for me to learn that over the years. Maybe a day that I feel amazing, I don’t end up writing anything interesting and a day that I feel like shit, something comes out that needed to. You cheat yourself if you try to wait out tumultuous times. The ideal is to write through it all.

AE: How has your music evolved over the years?
I’ve always been really interested in complexity, but I think I’ve learned how to relax into the complexity more and just trust it. In the beginning I was really invested in very word being exactly right. I’ve learned that a good song doesn’t come from trying to control or intellectualize it. It comes from being able to grab the energy of the moment and put it on paper. I know better now than I’ve ever known that writing isn’t something I can control. Some of my strongest work is stuff that I barely edit at all.

AE: Can you point to specific songs the writing of which helped you grow as a writer?
“Somewhere Different Now.” It’s one of my favorite songs and it feels like every line really rings true. I wrote that kind of stream of consciousness and I had probably 10 more verses that didn’t make it in. I was literally driving around and just getting these verses coming to me. Writing that way taught me I don’t have to figure it all out and I think things really changed after that. I learned to trust even the weird things. Sometimes I write these weird phrases and they don’t even make sense to me when I think about them, or there’s this impulse to change them, but I’ve learned to just leave them alone. Sometimes I combine words that I wouldn’t have consciously thought to combine but there, it happened and it’s now more meaningful because of that — is this making sense?

AE: Yeah. It sounds like you’re talking about the relationship between the unconscious writing mind and the editing part of your mind you might choose to bring to bear on your process, and sort of getting out of your own way.
That’s definitely a part of it. Not that editing doesn’t matter, but it’s important to keep editing out of writing because they’re two completely different things. But that song taught me to let myself write and then later take a look with a critical mind and see what I need to take out. Sometimes I’ll still keep little things that probably don’t make any sense but they might have a sound to them, or they might go by really fast and you don’t exactly understand what’s going on but you feel it. There’s a line in my song “Any Person You Want,” where I say “I’m always in here, behind the old boxwoods and shed doors / Hiding my plums and my fears / The old owners planted before.” I liked these words together — boxwoods and shed doors — because boxwoods of course are vegetation but they don’t sound like it, they sound like shed doors. So I let those things go together. And then “hiding my plums and my fears / The old owners planted before” — there were lots of plum trees on my property. My hidden fears are so old and established that maybe the previous owners had planted them, like the trees. When I went back I knew it probably wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to anybody, but I liked how it sounded so I just left it. And I’ve never regretted decisions like that.

AE: Do titles come easily to you?
I’ve been playing around with knowing the titles earlier. I think titles often distill the information about the song, or at least that’s what I think they should do. Just take everything in the song and compress it into a word or two. Sometimes a song’s title is just the thing that gets repeated, but I think there’s a reason that thing gets repeated. And the earlier in the writing process that I know what that thing is, the more I can focus on what I’m really talking about.

AE: What motivated you to create a solo album?
Several things. I had a lot of material that hadn’t made it onto Girlyman albums. The three of us are all writers so on an album of twelve or fourteen songs you only get maybe three or four. A lot of songs fell on the cutting room floor. They felt different which I think is why they didn’t make it onto Girlyman albums. Like, they didn’t necessarily lend themselves to three part harmonies or our typical arrangements. I’d never done anything on my own musically. Doris and I worked together from a eally young age so I never had a period of exploring my own work and then for the past 10 years I’ve been working exclusively with Girlyman. So it started to gather this creative momentum. At the same time that was happening, Girlyman was talking about taking some time off the road so the moment felt right. Everything has fallen into place really easily.

AE: Amy Ray provided vocals for one of the songs off the new album. Obviously she’s someone known for her work with Indigo Girls who also chose to do some solo projects. Did she give you any advice or is there anything you feel you’ve learned from her?
It’s definitely been interesting to watch her solo career for the last few years. I just think she’s such a powerful performer and songwriter and it seems like through her solo work she has really developed her voice. Even her Indigo Girl songs have changed; everything just sounds more developed. To watch her perform solo — it’s of course really different than playing in a group because you’re carrying the whole show, so my question was how is she going to do that? She does it because she writes these great songs and she’s a monster onstage, just a ball of passion. So that’s been really inspiring for me. When she came to do her vocals on the track we talked a little bit about the difference between carrying a show alone and playing with a group and it was interesting for me to hear her perspective. She didn’t use the words oranges and apples, but she said it was two completely different things, like you can’t even compare them. That’s been my experience as well.

AE: So what was your first solo show like?
Girlyman is such a well-oiled machine. From the time we get to the venue, everything was worked out. I really appreciated that on my first solo gig. I had no idea how to set up my technical equipment because usually we have a tech doing that. There was just a lot more to think about before I got onstage. And then when I got onstage I felt like I’d never done it before. I was sweating bullets, looking out at all these faces and everyone was just completely silent. When I thought about it later, I realized, well, they were listening. [Laughs] But it was terrifying. By the time I was onto the second set I actually started to have a really good time. I was able to relax and joke around with the audience.

AE: Girlyman has always cultivated a really intimate relationship with their fans. Do you think as a solo artist you’ll feel the need to be a little more self-protective?
Something about setting off on this path by myself has really woken me up to a lot of things. I’ve always felt really supported by the fans but I don’t think I ever felt quite as close to the fans as I do now. I just feel like they’re part of my circle of friends. It’s really a community. With Girlyman, we played bigger venues and I felt like I had to have very clear boundaries. And it’s not that I don’t have boundaries now, but I’m realizing more and more that we are all going through the same shit and part of my work is to be really open about that. I think that’s something I can offer. So it’s kind of great actually, to be so open and so honest and just let people in.

AE: On Girlyman’s website, you address the fact that the group is on hiatus. It reads like two parent sitting down to tell their kids they’re separating. What do you feel your responsibility to your fans is during this time of change?
I’m usually the one who writes that copy so I’ve actually thought about it a lot. I get upset when I feel like people have too little information to understand what’s happening. And because our community with our fans really has been a family — we developed it from nothing and a lot of our fans have followed us for 10 years — it didn’t feel right to obscure what was going on or to play it off as no big deal or minimize or even pretend like we completely understand it because we don’t. I just felt better putting it all out there. Just saying, we don’t really know where this is going, but we know it’s the right thing to do at this point. I feel like if you’re completely honest than any criticism or backlash that comes your way, that’s not really your problem, that’s that person’s stuff. But if you’re hiding something — I just can’t stand that. I have no interest in hiding anything.

AE: You got a little backlash about your now canceled subscription series.
I think the fact that there were negative reactions made us all sit down and reevaluate whether it was really a good idea to come together and create more content at a time when we felt the need to take a break from Girlyman. It felt like the fans were picking up on something and we needed to listen. It didn’t feel mean or like people were being pissy with us. It just felt like they weren’t quite buying it. That set off a red flag for me. Because we’d never gotten that response before. Everything we’ve done had been met with a really enthusiastic, unmitigated joyful response from the fans. And when we talked about it again it just felt better to us not to do it. Just to accept that it’s not a time for us to be working together.

AE: What’s your hope for next period of time?
I’m really open to whatever is meant to happen right now. It’s weird to not be with Girlyman after so much time working with that same group of people. It’s scary. I also feel like so much is possible right now. I’ve had an incredible time collaborating with Michael Connolly on my album — that taught me there are other great collaborations in my future. I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve been so uncertain about what’s going to happen. I just feel like it’s all up for grabs and that doesn’t happen that often in life, so while it’s terrifying it’s also really exciting.