David Byrne on leaving Spotify and turning 70: ‘I think I am more optimistic now’

Talking Heads frontman speaks about his new song with Australian musician Montaigne, the bravery of Taylor Swift and why he feels hopeful for the future

David Byrne has a night off. A tireless collaborator, the 69-year-old Talking Heads frontman has been especially busy recently, serving as the guest music editor of Harper’s Bazaar’s March issue, releasing a duet with Mitski and a new book titled A History of the World (in Dingbats), an illustrated meditation on life’s oddities. He is also performing his Broadway show American Utopia – adapted from the 2018 album and into the 2020 Spike Lee film – until early April.

Even a “night off” is a misnomer – he’s speaking to Guardian Australia from his home in New York, following an interview and performance on The Tonight Show. “It’s my night off, now that we’ve done a TV show,” he clarifies, checking his wristwatch. “It’s 8:30 in the evening here, so I’m probably going to go to a restaurant across the street, get myself some dinner and take a little tablet and read a book.”

Always Be You by Montaigne and David Byrne.

Last week, Australian musician Montaigne announced Byrne as a guest on her new single, Always Be You. She was 19 when she first encountered his book How Music Works and his concert film Stop Making Sense, and was immediately drawn to his outlook. “I found those two texts so inspiring and they really transformed the way I approached live performance, at least as a body on stage,” she says.

“If I get it wrong, will I be left alone?” Byrne sings on the track, which draws inspiration from a routine by English comedian Daniel Kitson, in his show It’s Always Right Now, Until It’s Later. I really resonated with the part where he talks about how intimate/romantic relationships are really miraculous unions that have absolutely no right to work out,” Montaigne explains over email. “[Byrne and I spoke] about how you have to be willing to face that vulnerability when it confronts you.”

Byrne shared his perspective on the track – along with his thoughts on streaming platforms, wrapping up American Utopia’s landmark run, and his impending 70th birthday.

The lyrics to your verse in Always Be You touch on the bravery required to fall in love, and whether you’re content enough with yourself to do that. Do you feel like you’re still asking those questions, or have you found the answers?

David Byrne: I certainly don’t think I’ve found the answers. [Montaigne and I] did another song together called Gravity, and in both songs she seemed to be talking to her partner in a very blunt and honest way about their relationship – and then putting it out to the world. And I thought, wow, this is pretty brave. I don’t know if I could do that. But I know that feeling, when you’re not sure if everything’s working. It was very easy to put myself in that head and identify with that. I think it was very personal [for her] but for me it seemed very universal.

Byrne performs remotely with Montaigne in February.
Byrne performs remotely with Montaigne in February. Photograph: Darren England/EPA

You wrote in 2013 that you’d pulled as much of your catalogue from Spotify as you could. I’m curious to know how your views on the platform have changed since then – if they have – especially in light of artists recently removing their work as a form of protest or bargaining.

A handful of mega, mega artists are doing really well, and many of the others – especially emerging artists – are having a tough time with it. There was definitely a period where I thought, “Oh, this is going to be tough for a lot of artists”, especially with Spotify’s “freemium” layer.

I watched as Taylor Swift went to Apple and said, “You can’t do this; you can’t have a freemium layer that will last forever.” And she – I mean, bless her heart – she managed to get them to [change their policy]. Which I think was brave for her and good for a lot of the rest of us.

It’s a very powerful bargaining chip an artist like her holds.

Yes, she does. We don’t all have that!

And now there’s been all these things about platforms having … let’s say questionable or controversial content [and] putting out misinformation or outright lies or … not exactly hate speech, but things that are making a lot of artists uncomfortable. And it’s pretty tough to do anything to help ameliorate that unless you’re a Drake or Taylor Swift, or those kinds of artists. It’s pretty hard for the rest of us to have influence.

You’ve been performing American Utopia since 2019, through some major global events. Now that you’re on the home stretch of its Broadway run, has your intention for the show changed?

I don’t know if my intention has changed, but the way an audience reacts changes all the time. When we were doing it in 2019 and early 2020, people were very anxious about the division in the country: “Who are we? Where are we going? What’s happening?” The show gave them some sort of hope, but it was also very emotional.

There’s a couple of lines where I quote a Dada artist who talks about war and nationalism, and immediately I can sense that the audience relates that to Ukraine. There’s this burst of applause. That’s what’s really interesting for me: you can kind of take the audience’s temperature. They react to different things depending on what they’re bringing in, what’s in their minds when they walk into the theatre.

As the world is shifting outside the doors of the theatre …

The world shifts outside! And they bring it in with them, then take what we give them.

Byrne performs at the Broadway reopening of American Utopia in October 2021.
Byrne performs at the Broadway reopening of American Utopia in October 2021. Photograph: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

When I watched the Netflix version of the show, I was really struck by your idealism, which is a trait I’ve generally associated with young people who haven’t yet experienced hard things. You’re turning 70 soon – are you more idealistic or optimistic than you were when you were very young?

I think maybe I am. It’s kind of an odd thing to say, given all that’s happening in the world. I have a little news web magazine called Reasons To Be Cheerful, and we report on people who are finding solutions to things in the world. That gives me hope that everything’s not going downhill; there are people who are not just shouting about something.

Over the years, I think my temperament has become more optimistic. I can, in some ways, convey that to an audience without telling them, without saying, “Be hopeful”. I can show them. By what we do on stage, who we are and how we work together, they see evidence that things can be different.

Do you have plans for your birthday? Do you enjoy celebrating it?

Oh no. No. I want to avoid it. I may go away. I may travel a little bit to get away from any obligations to have a party with friends or whatever. Just like, let me go away.

“I’m outta town!”

“I’m outta town! I’m sorry, I can’t do anything.”

Always Be You by Montaigne and David Byrne is out now (Sony)


Brodie Lancaster

The GuardianTramp

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