In the summer of 2014, “Strange Enough,” a brittle gem of a break-up song, suddenly shot to number one on Hype Machine. The mysterious singer behind it, Kelsey Byrne, who goes by the name of Vérité, was declared Twitter’s viral artist of the week, and, like Lorde before her, seemed to appear on the Internet a fully formed pop star. Sensing that all she needed to take off were the resources, record executives swooped in. “I was all set to sign,” Byrne, now 26, recalled recently. “Then the deal fell through—and that was the best thing that ever happened.”
We were sitting in a generically Scandinavian cafe in downtown Manhattan. Byrne, who is petite and reserved, was in all black, with huge headphones that swallowed her neck like an infant’s pool float. Her head bobbed very slightly to the song playing overhead, “The Hills,” by The Weeknd, who, before his coronation as this generation’s Michael Jackson—before Bella Hadid—was also an unknown online sensation with no record deal.
“I’m not opposed to signing,” Byrne went on. “Major labels definitely have a purpose. But I really wanted to develop this project and have proof of concept and a very loyal fan base before bringing it into a very large mechanism that could potentially f—k it up.”
For an artist with mainstream appeal like Byrne’s—her catchy, synth-driven, artfully written pop songs could, with a label’s influence behind them, kill on the radio—to patiently develop unmolested by outside influences makes Vérité a rarity in an industry that prefers to shove indie discoveries into a studio with proven hitmakers like Max Martin or Dr. Luke. It’s not hard, in other words, to imagine a world where Vérité becomes Ellie Goulding.
Instead, over the past two years Byrne has acting as the head of the Vérité brand. “I love spreadsheets,” she said. “I do all the finances. I pay the publicists. I have to compartmentalize the creative and the business, so there are sacrifices. But ultimately I get to be the CEO of my own business.”
That business, by the way, is not funded by her parents, who are otherwise very supportive. “I started Vérité on savings from three years working at Applebee’s in Times Square,” Byrne, who is from upstate New York, told me. I must’ve looked deeply saddened by this information, because she laughed and added, “I was a ridiculously good waitress. I was making more money than my brother, who worked at a start-up.”
Although she has released a series of highly catchy songs—her third EP, Living, is out May 6 to coincide with her North American tour—Byrne is waiting to put out a full-length debut album. For that, she needs the push from a major label. “I always write with the intention of making an album, but if I put out the full length now, it’s not going to have the same impact,” she admitted. In the meantime, if things get really bad, there’s always Applebee’s.
“It’s only been a year since I left,” Byrne joked. She paused, and added with typical awareness of her own narrative: “The Applebee’s thing is just kitschy enough. But the hustle was real.”
Photos: Vérité, a Pop Star in the Making, Is Just Biding Her Time
Photo by Bon Duke. Styled by Sarah Zendejas. Acne Studios jacket, $1,850, and jeans, $280, acnestudios.com; Jennifer Fisher brass choker, $1,475, jenniferfisherjewelry.com. Hair by Michael Silva for Oribe at The Wall Group, makeup by Allie Smith at Sarah Laird. Produced by Biel Parklee. Photography Assistant: Colin Walker.
Photo by Bon Duke. Styled by Sarah Zendejas. Alexander Wang pullover, $750, and earrings, $295, similar styles at Alexander Wang, New York, 212.977.9683. Hair by Michael Silva for Oribe at The Wall Group, makeup by Allie Smith at Sarah Laird. Produced by Biel Parklee. Photography Assistant: Colin Walker.
Photo by Bon Duke. Styled by Sarah Zendejas. Isabel Marant top, $925, Isabel Marant, San Francisco, 415.781.0113; Jennifer Fisher brass choker, $1,570, jenniferfisherjewelry.com. Hair by Michael Silva for Oribe at The Wall Group, makeup by Allie Smith at Sarah Laird. Produced by Biel Parklee. Photography Assistant: Colin Walker.