David Byrne on quitting Spotify and turning 70: ‘I think I’m more optimistic now’ | David Byrne

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

Even a “night off” is a misnomer – he speaks 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 says, checking his wristwatch. “It’s 8:30 at night here, so I’m probably going to go to a restaurant across the street, cook myself some dinner, grab 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 her book How Music Works and her concert film Stop Making Sense, and was immediately drawn to its vision. “I found these two texts so inspiring and they really transformed the way I approach live performance, at least as a body on stage,” she says.

“If I’m wrong, will I be left alone? Byrne sings on the track, which is inspired by a routine by English comedian Daniel Kitson, on 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,” Montaigne explains over email. “[Byrne and I spoke] about how you should be prepared to deal with this vulnerability when it confronts you.

Byrne shared his perspective on the track – as well as his thoughts on streaming platforms, the conclusion of American Utopia’s historic run and its impending 70th anniversary.

The lyrics of your verse in Always Be You are about the courage it takes to fall in love, and if you are satisfied enough with yourself to do so. Do you feel like you still ask yourself these 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 candid and honest way about their relationship — and then broadcasting it to the world. And I thought, wow, that’s pretty brave. I don’t know if I could do that. But I know that feeling, when you’re not sure everything is working. It was very easy to get into that head and identify with that. I think it was very personal [for her] but to me it felt very universal.

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

You wrote in 2013 that you had extracted as much of your catalog from Spotify as you could. I’m curious how your views on the platform have changed since then – if at all – especially in light of artists who have recently taken down their work in protest or negotiation.

A handful of mega, mega artists are doing just fine, and many more — especially emerging artists — are struggling. There was definitely a time when I was like, “Oh, this is going to be tough for a lot of artists,” especially with Spotify’s “freemium” layer.

I watched Taylor Swift go to Apple and say, “You can’t do that; 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 us.

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

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

And now there’s been all these things on the platforms having… let’s say questionable or controversial content [and] spreading misinformation or outright lies or… not exactly hate speech, but stuff that makes a lot of artists uncomfortable. And it’s pretty hard to do anything to help improve 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, across major global events. Now that you’re on the home stretch of his 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 worried about the division of the country: “Who are we? Where are we going? What is happening?” The show gave them a kind of hope, but it was also very emotional.

There are a few lines where I quote a Dada artist talking about war and nationalism, and immediately I can feel that the audience makes the connection with Ukraine. There’s this round of applause. That’s what’s really interesting for me: you can kind of take the temperature of the public. They react differently depending on what they bring, what they have in mind when they enter the room.

As the world moves outside the theater doors…

The world is moving outside! And they bring it 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. Photography: 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 usually associate with young people who haven’t been through the tough stuff yet. You are almost 70 years old, are you more idealistic or optimistic than when you were very young?

I think maybe I am. It’s a strange thing to say, given all that’s going on in the world. I have a little news web magazine called Reasons To Be Cheerful, and we report on people finding solutions to things in the world. This gives me hope that everything does not deteriorate; there are people who don’t just shout about something.

Over the years, I think my temperament has become more optimistic. I can, in a way, convey that to an audience without telling them, without saying to them: “Have hope”. I can show them. Through what we do on stage, who we are and how we work together, they see proof that things can be different.

Do you have plans for your birthday? Do you like to celebrate it?

Oh no. No, I want to avoid it. I can go. I can travel a bit to get away from having to party with friends or whatever. Just like, let me go.

“I’m out of town!”

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

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

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