HEAD, TALK­ING

Ahead of an Aus­tralian visit next month, Amer­i­can pop singer and song­writer David Byrne warms his com­puter chair for an email in­ter­view with An­drew McMillen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - David Byrne’s

When you first started writ­ing songs and play­ing mu­sic with an eye to mak­ing a liv­ing from this art, who were you writ­ing songs and play­ing I be­gan play­ing mu­sic when I was in high school, in the Bal­ti­more sub­urbs. I had no in­ten­tion of mak­ing it a ca­reer. I was mostly play­ing odd cov­ers. It was a hobby; a pas­sion­ate hobby, I guess one could say.

Even when Talk­ing Heads started re­hears­ing, and even­tu­ally play­ing, I had no plan ex­cept not to ad­here to stan­dard ex­ist­ing per­for­mance or writ­ing styles.

But I never pre­sumed it could ever be a ca­reer; I al­ways was pre­pared to look for other em­ploy­ment. I was writ­ing for my­self, and what I would have wanted to hear, but no­body else was writ­ing that ma­te­rial.

When we be­gan to play to tiny au­di­ences — 20 peo­ple, maybe — I re­alised there might be oth­ers out there who feel the same way. I still write what I want to hear, but will ad­mit I have a sense of what is ac­ces­si­ble and ap­proach­able: songs with hooks, grooves, not ex­ces­sive length. I want peo­ple to lis­ten, rather than do­ing work that pushes them away. But at the same time I don’t feel a need to pan­der, as I sense — as be­fore — that there are enough folks who feel like I do. My present record [ Amer­i­can Utopia], of course! I can’t an­tic­i­pate what folks will con­nect with. I my­self feel some records are bet­ter than oth­ers — some songs, too. But that doesn’t al­ways cor­re­late with what be­comes pop­u­lar. What is your sense of how much your skills have im­proved — as a song­writer, as a mu­si­cian, as a per­former? I think I have im­proved as a per­former and writer; I have more ar­rows in my quiver to draw upon. As a mu­si­cian, I am OK but no vir­tu­oso. Are there cer­tain as­pects of song­writ­ing or per­for­mance that you find more sat­is­fy­ing now than you did as a younger man? Oh yes, as a younger man I was per­form­ing out of des­per­a­tion. That was the only way I could com­mu­ni­cate, as I felt so­cially awk­ward and very shy. Grad­u­ally, that shy­ness re­ceded and I be­came more at ease and the per­for­mances — and the songs — ex­pressed more my idea of joy and hope, with a help­ing of re­al­ism as well.

Grad­u­ally, over the years, I found my own way to make a show that in­volves move­ment, cos­tumes, stag­ing.

Early per­for­mances were stripped down to noth­ing. Mak­ing the mu­sic and shows is pos­si­bly more sat­is­fy­ing than ever. I have more free­dom and range. But with the rise of the in­ter­web, ev­ery­thing has a harder time com­pet­ing with all the noise out there. (Noise is not a qual­ity judg­ment, by the way.)

We all can more eas­ily make the mu­sic we want, but it’s harder than ever to get it heard. Do you pay at­ten­tion to what your au­di­ence re­sponds well to, and what they tend not to re­spond to? I am aware, for ex­am­ple, that Talk­ing Heads fans — who are of­ten an older de­mo­graphic — will be hop­ing to hear those songs in a live show, and we play quite a few of them. But I know that if I only play the hits then I quickly be­come an oldies act, which I refuse to do.

The au­di­ences for this cur­rent show are broad and di­verse, which I think is a re­sult of me not pan­der­ing over the years to what gets the eas­i­est guar­an­teed re­sponse.

I have had my mo­ments of swing­ing too far the other way, and per­versely do­ing none of the old songs. But now I have fig­ured out how to in­te­grate new and old, so some peo­ple can’t tell the dif­fer­ence. Have you ever felt the lure of purely fol­low­ing what is pop­u­lar in your own work? As some­one else said, I might fol­low the fac­tory pro­duc­tion meth­ods and tai­lor my mu­sic to tastes and de­mo­graph­ics if I knew how, and that it would be guar­an­teed to work — but I have learned that I can’t pre­dict what will work. So if I tried to please, I would inevitably fail and de­stroy my cred at the same time. Why risk it? This email in­ter­view has been lightly edited for clar­ity and length. Amer­i­can Utopia tour be­gins in Syd­ney on Novem­ber 20, fol­lowed by the Gold Coast (Novem­ber 21), Mel­bourne (Novem­ber 24), and con­cludes in Ade­laide (Novem­ber 25).

IF I ONLY PLAY THE HITS, THEN QUICKLY BE­COME AN OLDIES ACT

DAVID BYRNE

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