David Byrne Is a Textbook Renaissance Man

Throughout his long and colorful career, David Byrne has done a lot of things. He revolutionized popular music as the leader of one of the 20th century’s most innovative bands, Talking Heads. He redefined what a live performance could be, only to redefine it again and again. He pushed the boundaries of film with his concert documentary Stop Making Sense and his Americana slice-of-life musical True Stories. He has made successful forays into theater, literature, acting, visual art and more. In short, Byrne is a textbook Renaissance man whose innovative spirit has only sharpened with age.

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In 2018, Byrne put out his first new solo album in nearly 14 years: American Utopia. In conjunction with that record, Byrne launched a non-profit online magazine called Reasons To Be Cheerful, which provides news stories about “smart, proven, replicable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” While the combination of a record and an online magazine may not seem like a conventional pairing… Byrne is anything but conventional. American Utopia originally emerged as a manifestation of the hope and optimism reaped from Reasons To Be Cheerful

Now, two years later, American Utopia has grown into something even larger: a critically acclaimed Broadway show. Featuring songs from all eras of Byrne’s career, the musical is an exciting and cutting-edge demonstration of what theater can be. On April 29, Byrne received a Special Citation at the New York Drama Critics Circle Awards (presented to him by comedian John Mulaney). Meanwhile, Reasons To Be Cheerful has grown into an impressive online publication and recently launched a series on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

American Songwriter caught up with Byrne last week via a telephone call. Fresh from completing his morning ritual of listening to music and dancing around the house, Byrne spoke to us about a wide array of topics ranging from politics to aesthetic philosophy to his next project, an immersive theatrical experience called Theater of the Mind. He even revealed what he’s been streaming during quarantine, and — if you don’t mind some meta-journalist humor — the answer might surprise you! 

Where did the idea to launch an online magazine like Reasons To Be Cheerful come from?

It came as a form of self-therapy. Like a lot of people, I wake up and think ‘dare I look at the newspaper?’ But I can’t help it, I’m a news junkie. I spend about an hour every morning in bed drinking coffee, looking at the paper online. You see a lot of stuff that’s really frustrated, angry, depressed, anxious, whatever… I started thinking ‘this is not good.’

So, I began saving stuff that seemed a little more promising or hopeful to me. Gradually, I realized that there was actually quite a lot going on in the world that was like that, but it’s not always getting a lot of news coverage. It’s not always on the national level, sometimes it’s on the local level — sometimes it’s just a little country or a little county or a little town, but they’re doing something that’s really working. I started compiling all of that and it helped me. I started doing some talks about these things to share them with other people and they seemed to like the idea. Eventually, I hired writers, editors, a social media person, all that kind of stuff to make it more professional than when it was just me doing it for myself.

We’re finding that people really want this kind of news. In fact, they complain if we do a story which isn’t hopeful enough — but I feel like we can’t give people false hope. Everything has to be really well researched and fact-checked to meet our standards. 

There’s an emphasis on local, community-based civic engagement — do you have much faith in federal politics these days?

In this country… well, I think we’ve got a lot to work out in this country. Reasons To Be Cheerful actually has a project coming up where we’re trying to address that, trying to find out if we have more in common with each other than we think we do.

But, there’s promise in other countries, other states — sometimes even a state in the U.S. We just posted a piece on how Alaska is dealing with the virus and they’re doing really well. Sometimes it’s other countries — the Indian state of Kerala is doing really well in many areas. The citizens have a lot of trust in the government there, they’re not suspicious. There’s a really diverse population in Kerala — they have Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jains and some others, all living together peacefully, unlike other parts of India. I think some of those things go hand-in-hand; when all these different people are co-existing and understanding each other they can get things done and there’s a little bit more trust.

That’s not always happening here in the United States, but we like to point out that it can happen. It’s not impossible. 

Reasons To Be Cheerful just launched a COVID-19 series — in your eyes, what is the biggest takeaway from the pandemic thus far?

Climate change is coming for us. If we can’t get it together for this pandemic, then climate change is going to flatten us all. We really have to work together, trust one another and have reliable information. We have to solve all of these problems that COVID-19 is revealing because the big one is coming down the road and it’ll be worse than this. When climate change really starts to hit us, it’s going to be a lot worse.

What do you see as the role of music and the arts in everything that is going on right now?

Like a lot of people, I listen to a lot of music, and now I’m home a lot more than I ever used to be. I used to go out to see music, but now I’m putting it on when I’m at home cooking, doing the dishes, just cleaning the house, stuff like that. I’ll even play a little music in the morning and dance around. It totally helps me. I miss going to live performances and being with other people, but I’m confident that it will come back eventually. I’ve also been watching a lot of movies, streaming a lot of stuff, catching up on stuff where I’ve thought ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to watch that movie — guess I’ll watch it now.’

What are some of the things you’ve been watching?

Let’s see… I’ve been watching the popular stuff. I watched that Star Wars series, ‘The Mandalorian.’ I watched all the old black-and-white Alfred Hitchcock movies. Then there were some other old films that I went through where I thought ‘oh, I love this director or actress, but I’ve never seen this film that they did.’ So, I’m catching up on that kind of stuff.

You’ve found success in quite a few different mediums, including music, film, theater, visual art, prose, etc. — do you see these as being separate expressions or as the same expression through separate channels? 

That’s a good question. I think it’s a little bit of both. I don’t know exactly what ‘it’ is, but sometimes I feel like I’m saying the same thing over and over again, just switching from a book to a song to Reasons To Be Cheerful or to whatever else it might be. I keep switching to different mediums but I’m basically repeating myself all the time.

But, at the same time, I feel like there are things you can say in a song which you can’t say in a movie or in a piece of writing. For example, a song can hold contradictory ideas simultaneously. The lyrics can be melancholy — about a breakup or someone who is struggling or whatever — but the music can still be upbeat. So, the music is saying ‘you’re going to get through this, it’s going to be alright’ while the words are kinda despondent, like ‘how am I ever going to get through this?’ You can combine those elements in a song, you can be in two different states of mind at the same time. It’s really hard to do that in other mediums. So, sometimes I think there are things you can say in one medium that you just can’t say in another.

You mention that sometimes you feel that you’re saying the same thing in a song as you’re saying in an article for Reasons To Be Cheerful — what is the relationship between creative expression and political expression?

Well, I realized some time ago that if you want to make certain kinds of statements you can’t always write a song about it. What we write about for Reasons To Be Cheerful, giving voice to social ideas and that kind of thing… it’d be pretty hard to write a song about some of that stuff. You could write a song in a personal way about somebody getting evicted from their home and having to put their life back together again. People have done that. But, understanding the wider policy in a way where you can break it down and say ‘this is how it can work and be successful’ — I think that only works in a piece of writing. You can’t do that in a song.

That’s reminiscent of one of your Reasons To Be Cheerful talks where you mention that you ‘have your doubts’ about the ability for music to spur significant political / cultural change — even if it can’t change the world in that way, music certainly does have power. What is that power?

I feel like the biggest power of music is that it makes people feel like they’re not alone in the world. Whatever your ideas or orientation or whatever, music can make you feel like there’s somebody else out there who is going through the same things that you are. I think it’s pretty rare that songs that deal with policy issues actually change people’s minds. There might be some, but… in general, I’d say that it’s a pretty tough thing. But, making people feel they’re part of a larger group is pretty effective. It unites us in common experience, which gives us strength.

Photo by Kate Cauthen.

When did you realize that some of your older songs would fit into the American Utopia live show? How did you approach arranging them for this new context?

I toured the show for about a year — it wasn’t exactly the Broadway show, but it was very similar, same set, same context. I realized that putting the show in a Broadway context poses a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that you have to give the audience a little more of a story arc than just the songs. You can’t just do a concert with some hits and some new songs, you have to take the audience on a journey that has a beginning and an ending. The opportunity is that a Broadway audience is going to sit down in those comfy seats and wait for you to start to give them that before they get too excited. They’re sitting there trying to figure out ‘what is this show? What is it about? How the hell are they going to do it? What’s their relationship to us as an audience?’ They’re trying to figure all that out, so you have an opportunity to plant the seeds of this journey in a way that you couldn’t do at a concert. For example, in the Broadway show I do a lot more talking. I talk about different issues, I talk about myself, my task — it’s not an autobiography but I engage more in that way. I could never do that in a concert… err, I could do that in a concert but then people would start yelling at me ‘play some music!’ But on Broadway, they love it when you talk. They want more than just the music, they want you to take them somewhere. 

So, there was a lot of trial-and-error. We would test things and if it didn’t work we’d take that song out. Luckily, I have a big enough catalog that I can kind of cherry-pick songs where I felt ‘oh, this one connects to this one. If I set this up with a certain story, then this song will be a connecting bridge between this idea and that idea and that’ll move us down the line.’ I’m lucky in that way. If I only had one or two albums it’d be harder to do that.

You are constantly innovating new ways to do things — have you ever said to yourself ‘I wish I had thought of that earlier?’

Hmm… you know, it seems to me that those kinds of ideas emerge in their time, when I’m ready to execute them. There are technical things that we do in American Utopia which wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago. New technologies will emerge which allow this to happen, which allows that to happen — that sort of thing. I might’ve loved some things if I had tried them years ago but it wouldn’t have been possible, it would’ve been a dead-end. Some of these things could only happen now.

What can audiences expect from your new project, Theater of the Mind?

Theater Of The Mind is a show I’m doing with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, but — like a lot of things right now — it’s postponed for about a year. It’s an immersive theater thing where a small audience of about 16 people will be led by a guide through a series of rooms. The guide is telling you the story of their life, going backwards. Every room is going from adulthood to young adulthood to adolescence to childhood and it gets really small by the end. In each room the audience has a disorienting perceptual or identity experience, they see things that aren’t there, they don’t see things which they know are there. All of sorts of things happen in each room, which helps with the storytelling. It raises these questions about perception and identity in a way that’s going to be fun. 

Both Theater of the Mind and the Broadway version of American Utopia create a sense of intimacy between the audience and the performer — what is the significance of intimacy in that setting?

Theater of the Mind is very intimate being as it’s only 16 people at a time, but even the American Utopia Broadway show is in a theater that seats a little under 1,000 people. As far as concerts go, that’s pretty intimate. I can talk to the audience and — even though the lights are sometimes down — I can see them all. I can direct my eyesight to different areas and I can tell when they’re engaged. You can tell that they know that I’m talking to them. Sometimes they respond to something I say and I respond to their reaction, so they know that I’m not just reading a script. I do follow a script, but I can adjust it depending on how the audience reacts. They know that I’m listening to them, that they matter and that how they respond will change the show. You don’t get that kind of connection from a record.

Both Theater of the Mind and American Utopia are projects which push the boundaries of what live performance can be — still, many fans and music journalists compare them to what you did with Talking Heads’s live show back in the day. Do you ever feel like you’re competing with your past self?

I’ve seen what people write and sometimes they start to compare what I’m doing now to what I did in the past. I tend not to think about it that much — once in a while I think about it, but not that much. I remember reading something about the American Utopia tour and Broadway show and it said that I was in my 60s and I was completely reinventing what a live show could be. That’s not something which happens often, getting to reinvent something at that age!

I don’t know, maybe it’s because I feel a little bit like an outsider that I can be like ‘eh, I don’t have to follow all the rules. If I can figure out my own way of doing things, then that might work.’ If I’m lucky, that might happen with Theater of the Mind as well. We’ve all seen various immersive shows, but most of them don’t really take you on a story, they’re mostly just an experience. But Theater of the Mind will want to engage with you emotionally as well.

What’s one reason that you’re cheerful right now?

This morning I put on some music and danced around the house a little bit. I videotaped it and sent it to a friend saying ‘I want you to learn this dance so we can do it together.’ We’ll see how that works out, but it was fun.

Listen to Byrne’s iconic song ‘Once In A Lifetime’ off of the Original Broadway Cast Recording of American Utopia below:

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