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David Byrne: ‘Not everything you do has to find an audience’

David Byrne discusses music, rebellion and those early days in New York for the Big Issue's Letter To My Younger Self
Singer and musician David Byrne. Credit: Catalina Kulczar/Redux / eyevine

As a shy teen, David Byrne wondered whether he’d find his crowd. But the 1960s scene in New York gave him an exciting opportunity to be surrounded by authors, artists and musicians who would later inspire his music and creativity.

Now, the Talking Heads legend has revealed all in The Big Issue’s latest Letter To My Younger Self about anti-war protests, art and America. He said he was inspired by his mother’s activism, and as a teen who liked music, it was almost inevitable he would be involved in the protests of the 1960s and 70s.

Speaking to Adrian Lobb, Byrne started his letter to his younger self by reminiscing about the early days.

At 16, I was extremely shy but already starting to perform. I was in high school and taking an interest in all kinds of music, but I had no aspirations that it would be my future. It was just something I loved and would tinker with. I had, for a brief time, a band with some schoolmates and then started doing very odd performances at coffee shops in Baltimore. So I was kind of precocious in that sense, yet I remained extremely shy. The two went hand in hand, because that was my way to communicate, by performing.

My pop music heroes were James Brown, The Beatles, The Temptations but I had a growing awareness of all sorts of other music. I listened to electronic music and records on a label called Folkways, which was folk music from other parts of the world. It was available from the local public library.

I can’t imagine how well the vinyl held up, being lent to all these people, but it opened up the world to me. Look, there’s all this other music besides the pop music you hear on the radio! It was incredible. Listening to experimental music, I realised there were so many ways of making music and constructing sounds, and that all kinds of sounds are valid.

I drew surreal cartoon strips and my versions of the psychedelic posters that were around in the late 1960s. I had not done any drugs but I would go down to the basement, get out the paints and create my own trippy drawings. I was also fascinated by science so I applied for art schools, based on my drawings, and an engineering school. I thought: OK, let’s see where you end up.

The engineering college was quiet. But when I visited art schools, there was more ferment, the creativity was on the walls. They’d scrawl things everywhere and work was spilling out of the studios.

David Byrne performs in a white suit in Barcelona
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David Byrne performs in Barcelona in 2009. Image credit: Alterna2/Flickr

I would tell my younger self don’t worry, there are people like you and you’ll find them. At that age there are worries your older self could help you with – I felt like a lot of people do, like you’re different and don’t fit in. Especially growing up in a little suburban town, you think, do I belong? Is there a place for me? Are there any other people like me?

I’d like to have had that reassurance. People would find their people on the dance floor or through writing, but you had to actively seek them out. I’d wonder, where are these folks who are like me… maybe they are in art school.

My mother was politically involved, starting from when I was an adolescent and the anti-Vietnam War protests. She continued to protest. She was out there demonstrating about the invasion of Iraq and all sorts of other things. Even though she’d get yelled at by the neighbours she stood her ground. She set a real example that way. As a young person who liked music, it was almost destined I’d also be involved in the anti-war movement. I marched against the Vietnam War when – as there is now – there’d be tear gas and you dealt with it by wearing a bandana across your face.

The country had been – as it is now – ripped in half. To some extent it felt generational. And there was still – as there is now – a kind of urban versus rural split. You sensed this patriotic core in rural America, but we felt we were being patriotic too. We were trying to hold the country to its core values when we were being lied to by our government. Again, not dissimilar from now. I would tell my younger self although you may win this battle, you will have to keep doing this over and over and over again.

I enjoyed that early scene in New York. I was still shy and introverted so it was incredibly exciting to be surrounded by all these authors, artists and musicians. The fact that my younger self would find people who shared common interests would fire him up. It would be good to hear he has it to look forward to. I was not as socially engaged as some of my friends but I got to tag along to the clubs, art galleries or studios. I got to be there. And on the stage I was in the middle. Then I had a voice.

In the early life of Talking Heads I tried to educate myself about the music business. Because these things weren’t taught in schools. You have to fi nd out for yourself and the stories of musicians being taken advantage of were plentiful. I didn’t want that to happen to us. I remember reading music business books and things like Alice Cooper’s autobiography to educate myself. Maybe I needed [Byrne’s 2012 book] How Music Works.

So much of pop music seemed to be about rebellion, overthrowing the old order. I wanted to know what comes after that. My younger self would like the idea that he could keep exploring and moving forward. It would be good to confi rm to him that it is possible. But it is not always easy. Sometimes you meet with resistance.

There were times when my interests and the interests of existing Talking Heads fans diverged. They would be like, ‘Oh, where’s he gone now? OK. We’re not going to follow him there’. That was tough. But one keeps working. The work is not always the same quality. It goes up and down. But then something emerges that’s as good as anything you’ve ever done. You have to keep toiling away.

I have collaborated with so many people and learned from each one. I have worked with Brian Eno on and off for decades and each time is different. Last time it was these drum loops he’d done, which I thought were amazing. And I’ve worked with Annie-B Parson, the choreographer who did this new show, three times.

I’ve learned that collaborations don’t always work, but you can gently guide them so there are good odds of something interesting coming out. Listen and be open to the other person’s ideas – if they reciprocate, you’re in a pretty good place.

My younger self would say, how did you end up doing all this variety of stuff when you have no particular skills in that area? What gives you the qualifications? I’ve been doing pen and ink drawings lately that he’d recognise. He’d go ‘Those are just like the ones I do’. But American Utopia, the film of my concert show that is coming out, would seem completely unfathomable, immensely complicated and convoluted. How many parts have to fit together? But it’s a coming together of everything I’ve done before.

From working on musical theatre projects, I was aware you could trigger a narrative through songs and staging. It might not be an obvious arc but you sense there’s a structure. And having enough of a catalogue, there is clay to shape that. It would have been inappropriate to have Psycho Killer in there – it would not have fitted the story that’s being told.

We moved a lot when I was young. In retrospect, I think it influenced me because it means you have to find a new set of friends every time, which can be tricky. It takes work but is also an opportunity. Every time you are in a new place, you gravitate toward the ones that share your current interests – so at each point you have a chance to reinvent yourself.

I would attach myself to a person and form feelings then not know what to do or how to act. There wasn’t an instruction book. Being shy was not easy. Whether it was physical attraction or conversation, it was like, how do you do this? But I didn’t feel disadvantaged in my romantic life. I was aware some people seemed to find it easy and I may not have been as successful as people I saw in movies, but I felt like I was doing the best I could.

Not everything you do has to find an audience. I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to stretch my creative muscles in all sorts of ways. So all the things I was doing as a teenager, whether it was psychedelic drawings or electronic experimentations, I’d say to keep on bumbling about at. Try different things. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t find an audience.

As citizens, we have a duty to participate in our democracy. As a younger person, we may be more concerned about our careers, how we’re going to make our way in the world, who our friends are and whether we will find true love. But being a citizen is important too.

David Byrne’s American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee, is out on on-demand services and DVD from December 14.