David Byrne on Broadway, Doodles, and “Reasons to be Cheerful” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, November 23rd, 2020  

David Byrne on Broadway, Doodles, and “Reasons to be Cheerful”

Oh My Gosh!

Nov 12, 2020 Photography by Jody Rogac Web Exclusive
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Champions and lovers of art, in all its forms, likely have come across the work of musician and performer, David Byrne. The Hall of Fame songwriter rose to prominence in the ’80s and ’90s with his band, Talking Heads, releasing all-time classic tracks like “Psycho Killer,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Once in a Lifetime.” He is known for co-producing one of the most beloved concert films of all time, Stop Making Sense, and more recently, Byrne has made headlines for projects like his positive-thinking magazine, Reasons to be Cheerful, and his Broadway stage show (recently released on HBO MAX), American Utopia. 

A quick note on Byrne’s Reasons to be Cheerful: The publication, borne out of a want to balance negative news with solution-based stories, is put together by a small editorial team, which includes editors Christine McLaren and Will Doig. Of the passion project, McLaren says, “Reasons to be Cheerful is a publication about very serious issues that maintains a fun and accessible tone. The sensibility that David brings to the project is delightfully whimsical and a little wacky in the best of ways.” And Doig adds, “I've spent the bulk of my career reporting on problems, debacles, and disasters. Those are easy stories to tell. Telling stories of positive change is tougher. To some degree, you have to reinvent what narrative means, since most narrative tension relies on conflict.”

Byrne was born in Scotland, but moved to Canada at age two, before his family settled in the Maryland when he was eight or nine years old. It was in the early 1970s that he met his future Talking Heads bandmates Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, when they all attended Rhode Island School of Design. Talking Heads played their first show in 1975, opening up for Ramones at CBGB, and released their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, two years later. Talking Heads released several more acclaimed albums over the next decade, culminating with 1988’s Naked, before breaking up. Since then Byrne has kept plenty busy with solo albums, soundtrack/score work, and collaborations with Brian Eno and St. Vincent (releasing 2012’s Love This Giant with her). His most recent studio album was also titled American Utopia. 

Here, we present our conversation in full with Byrne on his many noble projects, what it takes to inspire others, and how this all creativity began.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): When did you first realize you were creative and what did you tell yourself after that realization? 

David Byrne: Oh my gosh! I remember, I guess, as a teenager I had what then—you might call them hobbies. I loved to draw cartoons. I loved to draw these kind of psychedelic art, which was all the rage at the time. I was learning how to play guitar. But I didn’t take those things as being necessarily creative. It was creative but it was more like a hobby, I guess you would say. I never thought of it like I was going to invent something or that I was going to create something that had never been created before. I just wanted to do these things that were, in some ways, very much like the things that I loved. I’d be happy to have just done copies of stuff [laughs], you know, or imitations of songs that I liked or images that I liked. 

You’re also a dual citizen. Does that affect the way you look at the world socially or politically today?

I’m sure it has some affect. But I think what had maybe more of an affect was growing up as an immigrant—although, I was quite young when my parents moved here. But I think it meant that I never thought there was just one way of doing things. My family maybe ate this kind of food but the kids at my class maybe their families ate a different kind of food. So, I realized, “Oh people do different things!” That was, in a way, kind of a nice thing. Because it could have been, like, “Well we’re Americans and this is what we do.” Instead, it was like, “Oh, no there’s lots of people who live a good life who do lots of different things.” 

When did you get the idea for the magazine, Reasons to be Cheerful, and what has it been like to develop it along with the “We Are Not Divided” project? 

A few years ago, I guess, it might even have been before the 2016 election, it might have been that long ago, I started collecting articles in magazines and in newspapers and things like that that I would read online. I’d save the ones that were encouraging to me, hopeful, evidence that people were finding solutions to different kinds of problems. And eventually I started posting those or my summaries of those. Then eventually I decided that this kind of self-therapy was something that other people were interested in as well. So, I kind of put together a real little team of editors and writers and web designers. That was only about a year ago, a little over a year ago. 

American Utopia was recently released on HBO—36 years almost to the day after Stop Making Sense—what was the genesis of the show and did its original thesis or aim hold true? 

The show started as a concert. I did a concert tour about a year—we toured for about a year before we went to Broadway. And then when the idea of taking the show to Broadway came up, I thought, “Oh, this is—we’re going to have to change it. We’re going to have adjust the show.” Because a Broadway audience is not a concert audience. It’s a different kind of thing. Concert audiences, you know, are ready to dance after the third song. They want to let loose. And a Broadway audience [laughs] that’s not quite their mindset when they spend all that money for tickets. So, I took that as an opportunity. An opportunity for me to kind of introduce various ideas and build on them and kind of almost tell a kind of story or, at least, a progression, which is something you would not have a chance to do on the road in concerts. Concerts you just have to keep the momentum going all the time. So, that was good! It allowed me to add some depth to the whole thing.

You’ve talked before about maturing as a person. How you once were more demanding and harder to work with. Given how you’ve seen yourself change, how does that influence the way you believe or hope other people can change? 

Oh, that’s a good point. I think the fact that I’ve seen myself change, seen myself change as a person, I realize that this is something that can happen to anybody. That nobody is really stuck exactly where they are. At any particular moment, they could change into something else and we hope that it’s something better. But yeah, it made me feel like sometimes I should reserve judgment on people. Because in a year’s time, they might see things or do things differently. Sometimes it just takes time for people to figure things out.

How do you go about inspiring others to join your noble endeavors—from a band to a publication to stage performances? 

Wow! I’m [laughs]—I try to inspire people by saying we’re going to try doing something different, whether it’s the stage show or online magazine. We’re going to try to do something a little bit different that’s not going to completely be different from the ground up. But it’s going to be a little bit different than anything I’ve seen so far. And that can be kind of exciting. The thrill of the unknown that people—you can kind of inspire them by describing to them what it is you’re trying to do. And then it’s exciting because they know that they’re part of that project. Or that idea. They’re helping realize it or adjust it and change it and make it happen. They’re not just there following my orders. They’re actually helping to create it, as well. That’s a pretty good reason to join in on something. 

What do you love most about music? 

What do I love most about music? I love that music can express things that are really hard to express in other mediums. You can have a song that has a really catchy, say, melody or rhythm. But then the lyrics can be kind of sad or melancholy. And that can work in a song. It’s not a mistake. In fact, it can be a positive thing to have two different feelings kind of at—not at war, but pushing against one another. That can really work in a song and it’s very difficult sometimes to pull that off in other mediums—like in a book, or something like that. 

www.davidbyrne.com

www.reasonstobecheerful.world 

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