Born on May 14, 1952, in Dumbarton, Scotland; immigrated to United States, 1958; British citizen; son of Thomas (an electrical engineer) and Emily Anderson (a teacher and activist; maiden name, Brown) Byrne; married Adelle Lutz (a designer and actress), 1987; children: Malu Abeni Valentine. Education: Attended Rhode Island School of Design, 1970-71, and Maryland Institute, College of Art, 1971-72. Addresses: Record company--Nonesuch Records, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10104, website: http://www.nonesuch.com. Website--David Byrne Official Website: http://www.davidbyrne.com.
More than almost any other popular musician, the multitalented David Byrne is at home in many worlds: rock music, "art" music, ballet, film music, photography, and filmmaking. His solo musical work, begun while he was still guitarist and lead vocalist for Talking Heads--a defunct new wave band formed in New York City in 1974--reflects his wide-ranging interests. Byrne has also experimented extensively with world beat music, implementing African and Latin rhythms. The Talking Heads albums of the 1980s--including Remain in Light, Naked, and Speaking in Tongues--show a substantial blending of international styles. By the end of his time with the band, Byrne's work with them and on his own was deeply influenced by world beat, featured cerebral, angst-ridden lyrics, and was heralded in the music world as eclectic and original.
Acknowledged as an intellectual rock star, Byrne, as frontman of Talking Heads, was an innovator in the emerging new wave rock scene of the late 1970s. A native of Scotland, Byrne immigrated to the United States and during his teens and early twenties played in small rock bands. Seeking the company of art students, he enrolled in several classes at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he eventually met up with his future Talking Heads bandmates Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz.
"[I was] fascinated by conceptual art," Byrne told Jerome Davis, author of Talking Heads. "In particular, there was some that just used language. They'd just write a statement on the wall." He called such work "the ultimate in refining and eliminating all the superfluous stuff in art and being left with nothing but the idea." Friends grew familiar with the young Byrne's quirky concepts, including his song "Psycho Killer," a notorious ballad that later became one of the Heads' first recordings.
Made a Statement With Talking Heads
For the Talking Heads, whose members included Weymouth, Frantz, and Jerry Harrison who joined in 1976, Byrne wrote songs in praise of gainful employment, buildings, and television, but his words and his voice conveyed such underlying hysteria that the result verged on satire. But if Byrne criticized society, he did so indirectly, for his lyrics were characterized by their strange wording and absurdist humor. As Christopher Connelly observed in Rolling Stone, the songwriter "took cultural cliches--on everything from true love to civic pride--out of their customary contexts" and mixed them into dreamlike, ominous new statements, "whose odd juxtapositions and things left unspoken were rich with wit and insight."
Byrne's first major solo endeavor--which appeared after the release of four Talking Heads albums by Sire Records--was a collaboration with longtime Talking Heads producer Brian Eno on a 1981 album entitled My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Demonstrating Byrne's growing interest in music of other cultures, the LP includes rhythms of Africa and the Middle East. Some critics found fault with such cross-cultural musical borrowings. John Pareles of Rolling Stone, for example, wrote that My Life in the Bush of Ghosts "raises stubborn questions about context, manipulation and cultural imperialism."
Also in the early 1980s, Byrne was becoming a popular figure among New York's avant-garde artists, sometimes joining them on projects outside the band. He provided music and lyrics for The Catherine Wheel, a dance production by choreographer Twyla Tharp, and later wrote music and texts for The Knee Plays, interludes in an epic opera by experimental dramatist Robert Wilson, with whom he later wrote the 1988 stage performance piece The Forest. In 1999 Byrne collaborated with Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus to write the score for the full-length dance piece In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, which explores the difficulties of expressing one's innermost thoughts and desires.
Explored Rhythms of African Music
Byrne's intellectual approach to popular music and his desire to do more than play with sounds comes up again and again in interviews. When asked by Rolling Stone why he was interested in African music, Byrne stated that at first he just liked the music. Then, "later on, when I started breaking the beats down and putting them back together again, I saw how African and Afro-American songs were put together in similar ways. I saw there were social parallels to the music and a kind of sensibility and philosophy and even metaphysics that's inherent in the way the music's constructed and the attitude in which it's played."
Byrne's interest in African and Caribbean music has led him to a study of those areas' religions, but he never loses sight of the music. He commented in Rolling Stone, "Artistically, you notice that this is the route where a lot of music and sensibility and attitude finds its way into popular music and popular culture. So it's a pretty natural thing to want to find out where all this came from: Let's get back to whatever it is."
Since his interest in African music, Byrne's world musical tastes have moved closer to home: On 1989's Rei Momo he collaborated with Latin musicians and songwriters. Critics seemed to like the music, but only after they imagined Byrne out of it. A Down Beat correspondent wrote that Byrne just didn't understand the musical style he was using and that his effort was merely a pastiche. In a review that was even less forgiving, a Melody Maker critic accused Byrne of voyeurism on another culture and its music, of hiring authenticity rather than being true to himself. Byrne finds such criticism difficult to understand; he remarked in Musician, "Musically, you can't really ask musicians to sit still and not try to work with music that they enjoy. Most of the time, I work with the people, I'm friends with them. It's not like I just hear something on a record and go, oh, I'll cop that. But I don't see the press jumping all over Rod Stewart 'cause he stole Jorge Ben's song for 'Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?'"
Critics have continued to find fault with Byrne's enduring interest with non-Western music over the years. In 1999 Byrne turned the tables on such criticism in a New York Times commentary titled "I Hate World Music." "In my experience," Byrne opined, "the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life.... It would be strange to imagine, as many multinational corporations seem to, that Western pop holds the copyright on musical creativity." He further maintained that "This interest in music not like that made in our own little villages (Dumbarton, Scotland, and Arbutus, Maryland, in my own case) is not, as it's often claimed, cultural tourism, because once you've let something in, let it grab hold of you, you're forever changed.... That's what art does; it communicates the vibe, the feeling, the attitude toward our lives, in a way that is personal and universal at the same time."
Formed Luaka Bop Records
In 1989 Byrne produced Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical, a compilation disc featuring highly acclaimed Brazilian pop artists. The success of this first compilation led to Byrne's formation of the Luaka Bop record label, which has from its inception promoted global music not readily available. Byrne's interest in Latin music wasn't a passing fad. He compiled several albums featuring Brazilian musicians and has been a participant in the constant definition and redefinition, appropriation and re-appropriation of African music that Latin musicians have been engaged in for centuries. Byrne's infatuation for Latin music eventually shifted to the rhythms of Cuba. In the early 1990s Byrne and Luaka Bop label president Yale Evelev gained permission to tour Cuba, where they listened to contemporary Cuban music as well as perused the files of EGREM, the official record label of the Cuban government. Byrne released two anthologies of Cuban music: Cuba Classics and Cuba Classics 2: Dancing with the Enemy.
Byrne's second solo album, Uh-Oh, appeared after the breakup of the Talking Heads in 1991. Uh-Oh, released by Luaka Bop/Sire Records in 1992, features some of the Latin musicians who appeared on Rei Momo and again displays Byrne's wide musical interests as well as his themes of alienation and social injustice. Well received by critics, Uh-Oh is a collection of mostly up-tempo songs with an undercurrent of sarcasm and irony. "Twistin' in the Wind," for example, "is a chipper diatribe about dirty dealings in Washington, D.C., and Everytown, U.S.A.," according to Josef Woodard in Rolling Stone. Rating the record an A-, Entertainment Weekly's Stephanie Zacharek noted that "Byrne integrates musical genres with still more confidence.... And nearly every arrangement has been burnished to a luster."
Feelings, Byrne's solo work released in 1997, garnered attention both for its arresting cover--a Ken doll image of Byrne's head--and its stylistically broad arrangements. Collaborating with a number of other artists--including the British trio Morcheeba, Black Cat Orchestra, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale of Devo, and deejay Hahn Rowe--Byrne draws upon a slew of such contrasting influences as drum 'n' bass, bossa nova, country, rap, rock, calypso, and techno-pop, yet the album somehow remains cohesive. Robert Levine of Rolling Stone dubbed the album "a marvel of musical collage," and further noted that "lyrical and musical juxtapositions could be a recipe for disaster, but on Feelings, Byrne manages to make them sound catchy rather than convoluted."
Although Byrne's solo endeavors did not achieve the commercial success of his work with Talking Heads, and critics were sometimes lukewarm toward his solo recordings, he continued to release albums that satisfied his own interests. In an interview with Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot, Byrne stated, "I keep making records for the same reason I jump up on stage and do something foolish: I have to. Even though I am not in the center of the commercial tornado, I do feel like some kind of survivor. I've been able to make the kind of music I want to make. I've been able to do side projects and quirky things, and to make pop music the way I want to make and not cater to whatever the flavor of the month is."
The flavor of his 2001 CD Looking into the Eyeball seemed to please most listeners, and even prompted Guardian critic Ian Gittins to declare Looking into the Eyeball "is undoubtedly the warmest and most humane record [Byrne has] made." Songs on this album explore the oddities of modern life, blending Afro-Latin rhythms and string orchestrations with Byrne's own idiosyncratic pop melodies. From the perspective of several critics, Byrne's trademark edgy persona seemed to have been replaced by a more serene presence. New York Times reviewer Ann Powers observed that in his live show "New songs like 'The Great Intoxication' and 'U.B. Jesus' employed a seductive brew of intense rhythms and balmy strings to mellow Mr. Byrne's nonlinear perspective."
Byrne's orchestral music to The Forest, a theatrical piece by the avant-garde performance artist Robert Wilson, continues many of Byrne's earlier concerns with identity and disaffection. In the liner notes accompanying the 1991 album, Byrne wrote that "The Forest is less a piece than a process. A process of discovering what it is we are made of. What kinds of ideas, what prejudices, what propaganda fills us up, what we think is beautiful and what we think is ugly, what we consider Nature and what we think is God." The Forest, like most of Byrne's work, tackles the musician's interest in life's larger questions as well as the enduring aspects of the industrial age. Set in the mid-1880s, the piece features probably the most classical of all musical styles Byrne had yet employed. Byrne's interest in classical music forms led him to incorporate opera into Grown Backwards, his 2004 solo work released on Nonesuch Records. Included along with eleven original songs that evoke loneliness and isolation and a cover of indie rock band Lambchop's "The Man Who Loved Beer," Byrne adds Verdi's aria "Un Di Felice, Eterea" from La Traviata and Bizet's aria duet "Au Fond du Temple Saint" from The Pearl Fishers. Critics and fans greeted this latest foray into the classical with appreciation for Byrne's efforts to keep pushing the limits of musical boundaries.
Byrne has also composed music for films, most notably for True Stories of 1986--a motion picture he also co-authored and directed--and 1987's The Last Emperor, a Steven Spielberg creation. Despite the fact that The Last Emperor score, co-written with Rhuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su, garnered Byrne an Academy Award, it is his least discussed endeavor. True Stories, on the other hand, was Byrne's project and displayed many of his familiar concerns--about truth, identity, and post-modern alienation. The film and music were criticized by some as voyeuristic and exploitative, while others praised their quirkiness and humor. Years later Byrne's approach took a different track with the score Lead Us Not into Temptation that accompanied the 2003 Scottish film Young Adam. Departing from Afro-Latin and Caribbean influences, Byrne created, according to All Music Guide reviewer Sean Westergaard, music that "often echoes the gloom and dankness of the Scottish climate."
Byrne's artistic activities are myriad, as displayed by his musical interests. His own albums and those he produced for the Luaka Bop label offer bold amalgamations of African, Latin, Middle Eastern, East Indian, Japanese, rock, and classical music. Maybe Byrne's goal is not, as former bandmate Tina Weymouth once said of the Talking Heads, to change the face of music; his aim is perhaps to change the face of contemporary American culture.
by Tim Taylor and Elizabeth Henry
David Byrne's Career
Vocalist and guitarist with Talking Heads, 1974-88; solo artist, 1981-; conceived stage performance for film Stop Making Sense, 1984; co-wrote and directed film True Stories, 1986; producer of rock videos and recordings; actor appearing in television programs, including Surviving a Family Tree, c. 1985; formed own label, Luaka Bop, at Warner Bros. Records; illustrator, including art for Talking Heads albums and cover of Time, October 27, 1986; composer of scores, including The Catherine Wheel, 1982, The Forest, 1986, The Last Emperor, 1987, In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, 1999, Young Adam, 2002; photographer; cult artist; author, including books Strange Ritual, 1995, Your Action World, 1999, The New Sins, 2003, Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, 2003; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2002.
David Byrne's Awards
Film Critics Award, Best Documentary, for Stop Making Sense, and Video Vanguard Award from MTV, both 1985; Academy Award, Grammy Award, Golden Globe Award, and Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award, all for Best Original Score for The Last Emperor (with co-composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su), all 1987; Music Video Producers Association, Best Special Effects, for She's Mad, 1992; Ivors Dance Award for "Lazy," (with co-writers Ashley Beedle, Darren House, and Darren Rock), 2002.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- (With Brian Eno) My Life in the Bush of Ghosts Sire, 1981.
- The Complete Score from "The Catherine Wheel," Sire, 1982.
- Songs from the Broadway Production of "The Catherine Wheel," Sire, 1982.
- Music for The Knee Plays ECM, 1982.
- Score for Something Wild MCA, 1986.
- (With Rhuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su) Music for The Last Emperor Virgin, 1987.
- Score to Married to the Mob Reprise, 1988.
- Rei Momo Luaka Bop/Sire, 1989.
- The Forest Luaka Bop/Sire, 1991.
- (With Jack Dangers and Rudy Tambala) Forestry Luaka Bop, 1992.
- Uh-Oh Luaka Bop/Sire, 1992.
- David Byrne Luaka Bop/Sire, 1994.
- Feelings Luaka Bop/Warner Alliance, 1997.
- Visible Man Luaka Bop/Import, 1998.
- Score for Wim Vandekeybus's In Spite of Wishing and Wanting Luaka Bop, 1999.
- Look into the Eyeball Virgin, 2001.
- (With X-Press 2) "Lazy" (lyrics and vocals) on Muzikizum Skint/Columbia, 2002.
- Score for film Young Adam Lead Us Not into Temptation Thrill Jockey, 2003.
- Grown Backwards Nonesuch, 2004.
- With Talking Heads
- Talking Heads: 77 Sire, 1977.
- More Songs About Buildings and Food Sire, 1978.
- Fear of Music Sire, 1979.
- Remain in Light Sire, 1980.
- The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads Sire, 1982.
- Speaking in Tongues Sire, 1983.
- Stop Making Sense Sire, 1984.
- Little Creatures Sire, 1985.
- True Stories Sire, 1986.
- Naked Sire, 1988.
- Popular Favorites: Sand in the Vaseline Sire, 1992.
- Stop Making Sense: Special New Edition Warner Bros., 1999.
- Once in a Lifetime Rhino, 2003.
- Selected writings
- (With Robert Wilson) The Knee Plays (play comprised of interludes in Wilson's epic opera The CIVIL WarS ), 1984.
- The Tourist Way of Knowledge (performance art), 1985.
- "Liquid Days" and "Open the Kingdom" (lyrics, with music by Phillip Glass), CBS, 1986.
- (With Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky) True Stories (screenplay), released by Warner Bros., 1986.
- (With others) What the Songs Look Like: The Illustrated Talking Heads (lyrics), illustrations by Byrne and others, Harper, 1987.
- Stay up Late (lyrics; for young people), illustrations by Maria Kalman, Viking, 1987.
- (With Robert Wilson) The Forest (stage performance), 1988.
October 2005: It was announced that Byrne's artwork, Fargfabrieken, a paint factory-turned-giant musical instrument, would be displayed in Stockholm, Sweden. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, October 10, 2005.
- Davis, Jerome, Talking Heads, Vintage, 1985.
- Rockwell, John, All American Music: Composition in the Late Twentieth Century, Knopf, 1983.
- Tamm, Eric, Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, Faber and Faber, 1989.
- Boston Globe, August 8, 1997; May 7, 2001; May 22, 2004.
- Chicago Tribune, April 29, 2001; May 22, 2001; June 20, 2004.
- Down Beat, January 1990.
- Entertainment Weekly, March 13, 1992.
- Fader, August 2004.
- The Guardian, September 7, 1999; April 27, 2001.
- Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1997; April 25, 2004.
- Melody Maker, October 14,1989.
- Musician, April 1992.
- The Nation, May 20, 1990.
- The New York Times, October 3, 1999; May 15, 2001.
- Pulse!, February 1992; June 1992.
- Rolling Stone, November 3, 1977; October 19, 1978; November 15, 1979; November 29, 1979; October 16, 1980; October 30, 1980; June 9, 1983; October 27, 1983; October 25, 1984; November 6, 1986; April 2, 1981; April 21, 1988; March 19, 1992; January 29, 2004; April 29, 2004.
- Spin, March 1992.
- Time, October 27, 1986.
- "David Byrne," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 18, 2004).
- "David Byrne," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com (August 18, 2004).
- David Byrne Official Website, http://www.davidbyrne.com (August 18, 2004).
- Luaka Bop Official Website, http://www.luakabop.com (August 18, 2004).
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