David Byrne has spent his life making music, from the "Talking Heads" in the 70s and 80s to a Broadway musical today. In this episode, he sits down to discuss his career, collaborations, and reflections on the world we live in through music.
Kelly: So here's a bucket-list item.
I am biking around New York City with David Byrne.
What do you love about New York City?
David: I love the mixture of people
in New York City... Kelly: Yeah.
David: that you encounter all the time. I just love it.
If you're open to them, they're totally happy
to talk to you and tell you what they're doing.
[Distant siren] Well, we got the sirens,
people selling stuff on the street.
There was a new vendor
about a block from me who just set up a table
[chuckling] with lots of stuff on it,
and I thought, "Yeah, this is pretty good,
this is pretty good. I wonder what he's got."
"Unique" is almost always an overstatement,
but not when it comes to David Byrne.
I mean, even if you crossed Andy Warhol
with Kurt Vonnegut and added some Mister Rogers,
you still wouldn't quite capture his idiosyncratic magic.
He has been creating weird, wonderful art
with singular precision
for 50-some years.
A kid from Scotland,
a kid with Asperger's, a kid who still likes
to bicycle around the neighborhood,
David Byrne's work, from the Grammy-winning Talking Heads
to the Tony-winning "American Utopia," is unique.
I'm Kelly Corrigan. This is "Tell Me More,"
and here is my conversation with musician, icon,
and wakeup call David Byrne.
So one thing that didn't work out in middle school is
that you didn't make the choir because they said
that you were off-key. Do you remember that?
David: Yes, I remember getting kicked out of school choir.
Kelly: At that point, did you think, "I'm gonna be
a musician"? Like, this-- David: Oh, no, absolutely not.
No, absolutely not. I thought--
music was something I loved to listen to,
to play, in the kind of rudimentary way that I could.
No, I never thought that it would be a way to make a living
or anything like that. I thought, "No, those--
there's professionals that do that."
Kelly: So if I asked you, the day that you got cut
from the middle school choir, "What are you gonna be
when you grow up," what would you have said?
David: I enjoyed drawing, which I still do.
Kelly: Yeah. David: Drawing and...
I would make little cartoons, you know,
uh, and I thought, "I would love to do that."
And then I think I had ambitions to be a mailman--
well, let's say a mailperson--
because I thought, "Perfect job."
You get to be outdoors.
There's nobody, like, leaning over your shoulder,
checking on you all the time.
Kelly: Ha ha! Cool truck.
- Yeah, you--cool truck. - Nifty uniform.
David: Yeah, you can think whatever you like,
and I don't know what age I was,
but I already knew, "And you get benefits."
- [Chuckling] Oh, my God. - Heh! I don't know
what age I was, but I thought-- Kelly: Oh, my God.
You tuned in to benefits? David: Heh! I don't know
how that happened, but I--I knew that
this was a job that if you--
unless you really screwed up, you were set for life.
Kelly: That's incredible. [David chuckling]
That's incredible! And your dad was an electrical engineer?
- Yes, yeah, - And he did something
really sweet for you.
He changed something so that you could record music?
David: Oh, yeah, yeah. We had a small reel-to-reel
tape recorder at home. I was just, like,
fascinated, recording myself, trying to do this,
and he knew that there was a way to do
what was called sound-on-sound overdubbing,
where you could hear what you'd already recorded,
play along with it--maybe you play your guitar--
then you sing along with it or something like that.
That means that this recording that you first made of,
let's say, just the guitar part--
is gone forever.
Now they've permanently merged.
[Chuckling] You got one chance to do it.
Kelly: Yeah, right. I mean, it's intense.
David: Yeah, it's intense. You got one chance to do it
and get it right, or you have to go back to the beginning
and do it all over again. But just the fact
that you could do that
was incredibly exciting, just [imitates explosion]
Kelly: I just think it's so...
heartwarming that your dad showed you
the support in this way; like, he enabled some--
David: It's really nice.
Give my parents a lot of credit for that.
They didn't push me to do any of this stuff,
but when I was interested in something on my own,
they would say, "Oh, uh,"
you know, "Let me help you along here,"
which worked really well for me. Kelly: Yeah.
- It was really sweet of them... - Yeah.
David: 'Cause, I mean, they weren't--
they weren't thinking, um--
Kelly: He's the next David Byrne.
- Yeah, "he's the next..." - Heh heh heh heh!
David: Yes, "he's the next whoever, and he will
make a nice living doing this."
- Right. - This was not their plan.
- Guy's gonna be a postman. - Yeah, yeah.
He's gonna be-- he wants to be a mailman,
a postman, postperson. I know there was a--
there was definitely a moment where I thought
I was...interested in a lot of what my father did--
science and engineering and all that, and still am--
and thought that that was an equally creative endeavor
as music and art and all that. I still think that.
Kelly: And at some point, you diagnosed yourself
as having Asperger's. David: Yeah, a friend, uh--
Ha ha! A friend explained to me, said,
"Oh, you know, there's this...
this idea, this concept of the spectrum,"
and she said, "David, I think-- I think you kind of--
this sounds like you."
Not severe, of course, um...
but I realized, I think, as a lot of people
probably do, that at a certain age,
you're uncomfortable about-- not completely understand
how the whole social interaction thing works.
- Right. - In retrospect, I realize
there's a--it has some positive aspects, too,
like I could really focus on learning my guitar
in my bedroom or whatever it would be.
Would just totally, you know-- vroom--laser focus on that.
Kelly: Like, the world would just fall away.
David: World would go away and we just do it.
You're not distracted by...
damn social stuff. Ha ha! Kelly: Yeah, yeah,
which most teenagers are, right? I mean, the--
David: Yeah, yeah, they're out, kinda trying to be cool and this
and that, and I just thought, "Well, mmm."
Kelly: "I'm very busy in here."
David: "I'm busy. I got things to do here."
- So it enables things. - It does enable things.
It also makes things difficult for you
in other kinds of ways.
I'm the kind of person who would go, "Why is that like that?
Why do we do that? Why do we think that way?"
- "How did we get here?" - Yeah, "how did we get here?
How did I get here?" All that, yeah.
And from an early age, I'm looking at other people and go,
"What does it mean when somebody does that?"
Kelly: So do you feel like, based on sort of who you are
and the ways that you work,
that at some point,
music was the only way?
David: Oh, no. Oh, no, not at all.
When I came to New York,
my ambition was to, uh,
make art of some sort.
Music was something that I did with friends,
and it was a great way to do things together
and do that, but I didn't have ambitions.
Kelly: When did you have them? What happened?
David: As I recall, my friends that I knew from art school,
we all shared a loft
here in New York, and I'd been writing
some songs and I said, "Oh, let's learn these,
"let's make a band and learn these,
"and there's a club around the corner where,
once we learn enough, we could audition and maybe play."
And that just seemed like a fun thing to do.
♪ I can't seem to face up to the fact ♪
♪ I'm tense and nervous and I can't relax ♪
We might have been playing to 20 people,
but a lot of 'em liked it.
Then I started to think, "We'll keep doing this.
If 20 people like us, maybe they'll tell their friends."
And sure enough, yes, that's what happened.
Kelly: "And maybe we'll sell out arenas
and become The Talking Heads."
♪ Fa-fa-fa-fa, fa-fa-fa-fa ♪
♪ Fa-far better ♪
♪ Run, run, run, run, run away ♪
[Chuckling] Maybe--yes, maybe we will.
Well, the first thing was, "Maybe we'll
get to a point when we can quit our day jobs."
- Yeah. - And--at some point.
Kelly: Tell me about quitting your day job.
David: It was just kind of like,
"Mmm, well, now,
"for a few months or whatever,
"we're making enough
"that once we divide it up, we can pay the rent
and pay for food and have a little bit leftover."
Kelly: What was your day job?
David: When I first came here, I was a theater usher
at a theater on East 34th Street.
It was my first job in New York,
and I loved it.
And so I just could turn around and watch the movie
once everybody was in; of course, it meant watching
the same movie over and over and over again,
but I learned,
I think, something by doing that.
Kelly: Yeah, it's like you were a de-facto student,
film student. David: In a way.
There was a Robert Altman movie called "California Split"
that played there and another one, "Young Frankenstein,"
that probably a lot of people have seen.
Those were so well done that you could watch 'em
over and over again,
and they never got boring.
Kelly: So it's, like, a high watermark for you.
Like, now, all of a sudden you're like, "If I'm gonna make
"something, I want it to endure.
"I want it to have an enduring appeal
for people that, um, where it just keeps giving."
David: Yeah, and you realize that things like that,
when they're well done, they really do keep giving.
There were crappy movies that played there, too, and I
realized that, "Oh, God, they were not that great the first
time I saw 'em, and I get to watch 'em over and over again."
[Kelly laughing] David: It's just like, mmm.
Kelly: Is there a favorite, a crowd favorite that you feel
obliged to play that you would rather not play anymore?
David: Oh, there's plenty, plenty of songs
that I get tired of, tired of playing
or that they don't have the same meaning for me.
I mean, a really obvious one
is first song I wrote,
which became pretty popular,
and then, in putting together
the show for Broadway,
because of what the show is about and kind of
what it's meant to evoke in an audience,
and I thought that song is just not appropriate.
Might be a popular one, but it's not about the narrative
that I'm trying to put across in this show.
Kelly: Speaking of context, you have all
these interesting thoughts about...
music and creating it
with a specific context in mind,
like a church or a field... David: Mm-hmm.
Kelly: or a microphone or headphones.
- Exactly. - Can you talk a little bit
about what you can do in the theater?
David: At some point, I began to realize
that certain kinds of music sound good
in certain places
and not good in other places.
Sometimes, if you try, like, kind of loudish, rhythmic music
in Carnegie Hall-- Kelly: Doesn't work.
David: Carnegie Hall has this beautiful, kind of
That kind of music can turn into just
a slush, a mess.
And I realized, oh, I thought this was going to be
a real prestige and kind of the peak
of my performing experience,
and instead, it's a real kind of down-to-earth,
like, no, you should have probably
done something else here. Kelly: Whoops. Yeah.
David: And then, from that, I realized
that, oh, there's all these contexts
that affect the music that we hear
and how we hear it. - And do you love performance?
David: Yeah, I like recording and stuff, too,
but, yes, performance is-- that's what I started doing.
Kelly: But do you like the way you move?
David: Yes. I've come to like it.
At first, I thought I don't want to automatically
start moving like other people. Kelly: Uh-huh.
David: Like, "Oh, I'm gonna move like a rock 'n' roll guy."
Then I thought, "I don't know, you can't just do that.
"You have to figure out something that works
that is coming from you."
It took a while to realize
that there were certain ways
of moving that I was comfortable with.
Gradually, I kind of came into contact with choreographers
and different folks who kind of appreciated what I was doing
and said, "No, no, what you're doing is fine.
It's good. We just have to shape it a little bit."
Kelly: Yeah. Didn't you work with Twyla Tharp?
David: I worked with Twyla Tharp.
She wasn't choreographing me,
but I was doing music for her.
Worked with her, I worked with a dancer
and choreographer, Toni Basil,
and more recently
with Annie-B. Parson,
who worked on the current Broadway show.
Kelly: Let's talk about the current Broadway show.
So "American Utopia,"
it's so interesting because it's
this incredible mix of ecstasy
and also, like, technical precision,
like the lighting and, like, the way
the rhinestone curtain moved... [David chuckles]
Kelly: and your costumes in your bare feet and--
was there anything that you thought of
that somebody was like,
"Dude, you can't do that; it's too expensive,
it's too dangerous, it's too complicated," or were you
able to actually express your full vision?
David: It was a long road to get to this.
I think there was about a year of preparation,
just to figure out the technical things.
How can everybody be wireless
and be able to move around
onstage wherever they want-- everybody, whole band?
Kelly: Everybody's totally untethered, which is so weird.
I've never seen that before. David: Yeah.
All those things got worked out little by little by little.
Kelly: So, um, sequence
and adjacency are, like, such powerful creative tools.
And there's this little sequence in "American Utopia."
First, you put up a picture of Colin Kaepernick.
David: Mm-hmm. Kelly: Then you sing a song,
"How am I not his brother? How are we not the same?"
♪ How am I ♪
♪ Not your brother? ♪
♪ How are you ♪
♪ Not like me? ♪
Kelly: Then you remind everyone that you're an immigrant.
David: I myself am a naturalized citizen.
I--my parents brought me over from Scotland
when I was little. Audience member: Yeah!
Kelly: Then you remind everyone that they too
were once immigrants. David: Most of us are immigrants
and we couldn't do without them. [Crowd cheers]
Kelly: And then you play this song,
"Everyone Is Coming to My House."
♪ I welcome you to my house ♪
♪ You didn't have to go far ♪
Kelly: Can you unpack that... David: Ha ha!
Kelly: for me? 'Cause it's so brill--
I mean, that was the moment when I just so leaned in.
David: Thank you. A lot of those elements that you spoke of
were kind of already inherent in the concert,
but they needed to be brought out a little bit more.
So I worked with a director, Alex Timbers,
who I'd worked with before on musicals.
He was super helpful in that regard
in the--saying, "Oh, David, if you can
"somehow connect what you're saying here
"to what you said... a few minutes ago,
"then it really helps because it starts to make a thread
in the narrative that runs through the whole thing."
Kelly: Yeah. David: And people start to
realize this is all intentional. Kelly: Right.
David: This is not just a bunch of songs
with some blabbing in between. Kelly: That's right.
David: This is all leading somewhere.
I also realized that that-- doing all that
is something that you can do on Broadway that you--
would be very difficult to do in a touring concert.
The audience would get really impatient.
Kelly: They have different expectations.
David: Yes. Touring concert, they want to dance
and have fun and... Kelly: Yeah.
David: all that, and you can talk a little bit.
Kelly: Touring concert, they've had five drinks,
and Broadway, they've only had one and a half.
David: Yes, that makes a difference, too, and--
David: So you realized, OK, they're not gonna be
up and dancing in the first five minutes,
but that's an opportunity to do this other thing.
Kelly: Yeah. David: To kind of make
these connections and impart a kind of narrative that...
Kelly: Right. David: tells you about one thing
and then you realize, "Oh, that is connected to this
and this," and it makes you hear--
as you said, it makes you hear a song differently.
Kelly: Yeah. David: Once you're kind of
hearing it as part of this thread.
Kelly: Well, speaking of hearing a song differently,
you had written the song "Everyone's Coming to My House"
with one idea about what that meant for you,
like that's sort of an alarming prospect...
- Mm-hmm. - and then you gave it to
this marching band and what happened?
David: Ha ha ha!
The prospect of all these people coming to my house,
for someone like me-- even still now, I mean,
I do, have had lots of people over to my house--
it's a little terrifying, and you do think,
"When are they gonna go?" Kelly: Right.
David: Whereas... gave the song
to a high school choir in Detroit,
and they took it
and when I heard what they did with it, it turned
the meaning inside out. Kelly: Yeah.
David: Their version--and they didn't change anything
in the song, they didn't change the words or the melody
or anything--the whole attitude was about welcoming,
welcoming everybody over to their house.
All: ♪ Everybody's coming to my house ♪
♪ And we're never gonna be alone ♪
♪ Everybody's coming to my house ♪
♪ And we're never gonna go back home ♪
Kelly: And there's the immigration argument...
David: Yes. Kelly: right there...
David: Yeah. Kelly: in both versions.
Somebody said that there's
sort of a implication that socialism is
better than capitalism in "American Utopia," and it's
reflected by the fact that you're all in the same suits.
What do you make of that?
David: The suits are,
for me, purely practical.
They can be flattering, and I thought, "Let's level
"the playing field so that we're all wearing the same thing,
so that you see the person and not their clothes."
Kelly: Mm-hmm, and you say that the thing--like, we might
like to look at lots of things, but the thing we like to
look at the most is each other. David: It is.
I think that's true.
By working together,
and not all of them going, like, "It's my turn to solo,
I'm gonna--" you then--
you realize they partake in something
that's bigger than themselves, and that's something
we do as--as humans,
but sometimes, when we cooperate, we get something
that we couldn't get if we didn't cooperate.
Another crazy, powerful moment
in "American Utopia" is when you cover
the Janelle Monáe song. David: Well,
this is a song that Janelle Monáe
and some collaborators of hers did
in 2016, maybe?
The song says the names of people
who have been killed at the hands of the police,
and the song may-- pretty much just consists
of saying, "Say their name, say their name,"
then you say their name, and it's a way of--
it's an elegy, it's a remembering
these people that we've lost needlessly.
- ♪ Freddie Gray ♪ - ♪ Say his name ♪
- ♪ Freddie Gray ♪ - ♪ Say his name ♪
- ♪ Freddie Gray ♪ - ♪ Say his name ♪
- ♪ Atatiana Jefferson ♪ - ♪ Say her name ♪
- ♪ Atatiana Jefferson ♪ - ♪ Say her name ♪
- ♪ Atatiana Jefferson ♪ - ♪ Say her name ♪
- ♪ Atatiana Jefferson ♪ - ♪ Say her name ♪
David: I often ended a concert
with a cover of somebody else's song,
usually just for fun. This time, I thought
we have to reflect the world that we live in
and what we're going through
and just acknowledge that.
So I thought, "I'm gonna try doing this song"
and I wrote to her and said, "What do you think of, you know,
an older white guy doing this song?"
She loved the idea, so we went ahead with it,
and in the concerts, we had some walkouts,
but not--not that many, not that many, but I love
that the song is not-- it's not...really didactic.
It's not kind of telling you exactly what to think
or how to... how to think,
it's really just making this emotional connection
to "these are people that we have lost."
Kelly: I mean, it's so interesting because
so many people feel tongue-tied,
and you found a way to untie your own tongue
and then untie the tongue of the audience...
- Mmm. - because we repeat back to you.
David: Mm-hmm. Kelly: You say Trayvon Martin,
we say Trayvon Martin. David: Yeah.
Kelly: And, you know, in some ways,
you--you are keeping this--the energy intact,
lest it sort of dissipate and we forget, again.
David: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Kelly: Collaboration,
I think, um, you know, there are people
who would say that, like, tyrants make great art
and that compromise is the death of, like,
a really specific idea being delivered.
David: Ah, I've heard people say that, too.
Kelly: Are you good at collaborating?
Do you like collaborating? Do you ever feel like it's
getting in the way of, like, a more complete expression?
David: I do a lot of collaborations, and they're
not always successful, but sometimes they are,
and when they are, you get something
that's not "A" or "B."
It's "C." It's something else.
It's neither one of you or the other.
It's something that is maybe a little bit greater than that,
or at least something different that would not exist at all
if it was just you or just the other person.
Kelly: You've done so many cool projects over the last 10,
20, 30 years, and one of them is "Reasons to be Cheerful."
David: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
It was purely personal at first.
I wake up in the morning, I'm a little bit of a news junkie,
and I'd read through bunch of papers
and be sort of...
angry and exhausted and--
Kelly: Hopeless. I mean, we could go on all day.
David: Yeah, all day, yes. You'd go on all day,
and I thought, "Wow, this is not a good way to start your day."
It's not going to solve any of these things, either.
When I do see something that's hopeful
or somebody who's actually successfully solved
some of these problems that there are in the world,
"Let me save that, just--I'll save that
to a little folder in my computer."
And so I started doing that,
and before too long, I realized
that I had a lot, and I started posting them
about two years ago, maybe.
I decided to turn it into a real thing.
Formed a non-profit and hired editors
and researchers and a web designer and--
Kelly: It's like David Byrne's "good news" newspaper.
David: That's the spirit. It's not just for me,
which is how it started, but for people who read it.
We came up with little rules for ourselves,
that if we report on something,
there has to be evidence that it's succeeding.
And it may be small and, like, just be in a small town,
but that doesn't mean it can't be replicated.
Kelly: So "Tell Me More" has this little, special element
that we call "Plus One." David: Mm-hmm.
Kelly: And it's where we ask our guest to name someone
who's really affected your thinking
or your state of mind about the world,
and you picked...
David: Uh, Youyou. That's not her full name.
She's a Chinese scientist
who won a Nobel Prize and discovered
or possibly rediscovered treatment for malaria.
Kelly: That's now used worldwide.
David: Now used worldwide. A few weeks ago, it was
reported that China had eradicated malaria.
Other countries said, "We want to learn. How did they do that?"
Kelly: Yeah. David: She went to
a fourth-century herbal text
and discovered that there was this kind of tincture,
this distilled essence of wormwood, that it claimed
in the text treated all these symptoms,
which, if you looked at the collection of symptoms,
you'd go, "Well, that's malaria."
She tried it on mice and it worked.
She tried it on people. It didn't work.
Then she went back to the old texts and noticed, "Oh,
it says you have to distill it in cold water, not hot water."
She followed the old texts, and--boom--it worked on people,
and that is the biggest way of treating malaria in
the world now, but the amazing thing for me on this story was
that sometimes these things get put aside like, "Oh, that's
just folk--folk remedies." Kelly: Yes, yes.
David: But sometimes-- Kelly: Maybe not.
David: Sometimes there might be something there.
Decades later, somebody said, "Who discovered this?"
Nobody knew her name.
They dug around and found out that it was her,
it was Youyou, and she won the Nobel Prize.
Kelly: We got to write the musical on this.
David: Ha ha ha! Kelly: I want to--I want to work
on this project with you 'cause that is--I can hear the song.
"Youyou! Her name is Youyou!" David: Ha ha ha!
"Tell Me More" has a speed round.
- OK. - Are you ready?
- Mm-hmm. - If you could change one law
or flip one Supreme Court case?
David: The Citizens-- what's it called?
Citizens United? Does that count?
- That's mine, too. - Tsk. There you go.
Kelly: There, brother. Who was the last person
to make you laugh really hard? David: I watched a lot
of stand-up comedy over the pandemic.
Who is your standup favorite? David: Wanda Sykes.
- Oh, isn't she great? - Heh!
Kelly: If I looked at your Spotify playlist,
what would be on the top?
David: I went down this rabbit hole
of African electronic music.
Best live performance you've ever seen?
- James Brown. - And what's
your go-to mantra for hard times?
David: I've had failures and disappointments in my life,
and somehow, I just go,
"OK, learn from this and keep going."
Kelly: When was the last time you cried?
David: Not that long ago, actually.
I think I was listening to some music.