The cast album for the critically acclaimed Broadway production of David Byrne’s American Utopia includes songs from his 2018 album, American Utopia, along with music from Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo career. Byrne shares the spotlight with a diverse ensemble of eleven musical artists from around the globe for an event that delivers "an experience unlike anything else," says Billboard. It's "a marvel of humanity and hope," says the Boston Globe.
I was born in Dumbarton, Scotland. It was what was called a breech birth … which often means butt first … which was probably exceedingly difficult for my mother and may have been indicative of a bad attitude on my part. I was there, but I don’t remember.
My parents had what was called a mixed marriage, which made life difficult. And there was little work in Scotland in those years. We moved to Canada on a boat, the QE2, when I was very young and after some years in Hamilton, the family moved to Baltimore, where I had my primary and secondary education. I loved art class and was asked to leave the school choir. I played guitar in a band with some friends; I think Ricky Brewster was the singer. At a high school battle of the bands, a rival band pulled the plug on us. We lost the contest.
I wanted to be able to study both art and engineering—as I saw creativity in both areas—but that didn’t seem possible, so I went to art school in Baltimore and Rhode Island. There I encountered people with backgrounds very different than mine. Very different class, cultural, and economic backgrounds. This was all new and hard to understand at first. I made music at the same time I was at art school, but not having training, I never considered it as a career. For a while I wore old suits and had a beard—local children in Baltimore asked if I was “one of those people who didn’t ride in cars.” I hitchhiked around the U.S., stayed on a commune and busked for money … but eventually I came back East, discovered I could write songs, and with some friends we played at art school events and parties. I moved to NY with some wild art-related ideas—one was a sort of rating system for the arts influenced by the books on cybernetics and systems theory that I was reading. I reconnected with my friends and we auditioned at a local club playing our own songs. A handful of people liked us, and so we stuck to it and surprisingly soon we were playing our music all over the world. I still do this from time to time, it’s hugely enjoyable. I have been lucky to be able to do these things.
Though music took up much of my time for many years, I eventually went back to re-engage with the visual side of things—directing some films and making picture books, art, and installations. I lived in L.A. for a while but now spend most of my time in NY. I began riding a bicycle as a way of getting around, and I wrote a book using those experiences as a way to talk about the things I saw. I made some custom bike racks for NY, for BAM, and for Stanford University. We need places to lock up.
I then wrote a book about music, or rather the contexts that shape and affect music.
I love working with other people. Though there are sometimes forks in the road, for the most part the convoluted path is worth it as together collaborators often end up somewhere neither expected. I wrote two musicals about powerful women—Imelda Marcos and Joan of Arc. When it works, a song can express a character’s inner feelings in ways that go beyond words. Songs help us understand things in a different way. There have been collaborations with Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp, St. Vincent, Fatboy Slim, De La Soul, and Brian Eno. Recently I conceived and presented a show that brought together ten musical acts and ten colorguard teams.
Now I’ve made a record that just has my name on it but is also the result of the contributions of many other people. I suspect that like me it is asking what are we like, what do we want, and what are we looking for.