Art critic Dave Hickey says in The Invisible Dragon: Essays in Beauty, ‘beauty is, and always will be blue skies and an open highways.’ Julie Byrne’s folky ‘Natural Blue’, replete with sweeping strings, atmospheric ‘ooing’ and smoky-soft intonations not only conjures up all that is beautiful about blue skies but also the loveliness of life and longing on the road.
A lyrical interpretation of Natural Blue
Our protagonist is on tour in America’s South-Western towns, witnessing along the way, ‘sun split ember, fields that span both ways forever’ which is where she first sees her love.
We then discover, in the next verse, that this is a memory, as she’s now on a porch at night. She’s not listening to those talking around her but is instead lodged in the recollection of her experience under blue skies. With the line, ‘Been a long time since I’ve been moved’ we become aware that there’s a bittersweet longing, the dark starry sky emphasising the antithesis of the blue on the day she met her love.
Another verse, another memory, in fields of chicory, her love burns their knees in the grass, yet no harm’s done: ‘walk forward from your open wound’; signifying perhaps that a fresh and unblemished love, just like a clear blue sky, is the cure for pain.
And then a verse underlining the sweetest part of longing, for in her reverie she says, ‘I remain forever inside the colours you’ve shown to me.’ The reliving of a past moment brings into the present a beauty, a learning, and a realisation that that experience has helped shaped the person; it’s one of the most satisfying fragments of nostalgia and one of the most rewarding parts of a reminiscent tour, particularly if it involved a love under a pure blue sky.
The song’s inspiration however, comes not from a love found under the sky, but actually for the sky itself.
Julie Byrne’s inspiration
Julie had indeed been travelling in south-western towns, but the tour was with her band. The stimulus for this song came after an all-night party in an area of Boulder, Colorado, that had been hit by a devastating flood. At the party there was a big release; drinking, partying, dancing, crying. As day broke, after no sleep, there was pure blue above, the calm after the storm, the endless skies giving both hope and consolation.
It had a profound impact on her personally. She felt a connection with the sky, its beauty and boundlessness acted as validation for her decision to be on the road, for choosing freedom. In an interview with NPR she said, ‘At that time in my life, I had given up home in service of something I longed for and there was a real freedom in knowing that no place waited for me. I lived where I stood at that moment and I traveled thousands of miles with that longing as my guide.’
The beauty of longing
Both the song’s inspiration and its lyrics point to the endless blue sky as a catalyst for longing, one that could relate to the remembrance of a relationship or the magic of a nomadic lifestyle, embracing the indefinite, with no knowing where the road will lead or what the future may hold. And longing, like blue skies and open highways, will always be beautiful.