Byrne in April 2018
(m. 1987; div. 2004)
|Origin||Arbutus, Maryland, U.S.|
David Byrne (//; born 14 May 1952) is a British-American singer, songwriter, record producer, actor, writer, music theorist, and filmmaker, who was a founding member and the principal songwriter, lead singer, and guitarist of the American new wave band Talking Heads.
Byrne has released solo recordings and worked with various media including film, photography, opera, fiction, and non-fiction. He has received Academy, Grammy, and Golden Globe Awards, and he is an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of Talking Heads.
David Byrne was born on 14 May 1952 in Dumbarton, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, the elder of two children born to Tom (from Lambhill, Glasgow) and Emma. Two years after his birth, his parents moved to Canada, settling in Hamilton, Ontario. They then moved to the United States, making their home in Arbutus, Maryland, when Byrne was eight or nine years old. His father worked as an electronics engineer at Westinghouse Electric Corporation. His mother later became a teacher. The family had left Scotland in part because there were few jobs requiring his father's engineering skills and in part because of the tensions in the extended family caused by his parents' "mixed marriage", his father being Catholic and his mother Presbyterian. Byrne recounted these events when he appeared on Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 on 18 March 2018.
Before high school, Byrne already knew how to play the guitar, accordion, and violin. He was rejected from his middle school's choir because they claimed he was "off-key and too withdrawn". From a young age, he had a strong interest in music. His parents say that he would constantly play his phonograph from age three and he learned how to play the harmonica at age five. In his journals, he says, "I was a peculiar young man—borderline Asperger's, I would guess." His father used his electrical engineering skills to modify a reel-to-reel tape recorder so that David could make multitrack recordings.
Early career: 1971–1974
Byrne graduated from Lansdowne High School in southwest Baltimore County. He started his musical career in a high school band called Revelation, then between 1971 and 1972, he was one half of a duo named Bizadi with Marc Kehoe. Their repertoire consisted mostly of songs such as "April Showers", "96 Tears", "Dancing on the Ceiling" and Frank Sinatra songs. Byrne attended the Rhode Island School of Design (during the 1970–71 term) and the Maryland Institute College of Art (during the 1971–72 term) before dropping out. He returned to Providence in 1973 and formed a band called the Artistics with fellow RISD student Chris Frantz. The band dissolved in 1974. Byrne moved to New York City in May that year, and in September of that year, Frantz and his girlfriend Tina Weymouth followed suit. Unable to find a bass player in New York, Frantz and Byrne persuaded Weymouth to learn to play the bass guitar. Byrne gave her lessons. While working day jobs in late 1974, they were contemplating a band.
Talking Heads: 1975–1991
By January 1975, they were practicing and playing together, while still working normal day jobs. They founded the band Talking Heads and had their first gig in June. Byrne quit his day job in May 1976 and the three-piece band signed to Sire Records in November. Byrne was the youngest member of the band. Multi-instrumentalist Jerry Harrison joined the band in 1977. The band released eight studio albums before going into hiatus in 1988. Byrne desired to go solo, but it took three years until 1991 to announce that the band was breaking up. A brief reunion for a single "Sax and Violins" in 1991 occurred before dissolving again. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, when they reunited to play four tracks, including "Psycho Killer" and "Burning Down the House".
Solo album career: 1979–1981, 1989–present
During his time in the band, Byrne took on outside projects, collaborating with Brian Eno during 1979 and 1981 on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which attracted considerable critical acclaim due to its early use of analogue sampling and found sounds. Following this record, Byrne focused his attention on Talking Heads. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was re-released for its 25th anniversary in early 2006, with new bonus tracks. In keeping with the spirit of the original album, stems for two of the songs' component tracks were released under Creative Commons licenses and a remix contest site was launched.
Rei Momo (1989) was the first solo album by Byrne after leaving Talking Heads, and features mainly Afro-Cuban, Afro-Hispanic, and Brazilian song styles including popular dances such as merengue, son cubano, samba, mambo, cumbia, cha-cha-chá, bomba and charanga. His third solo album, Uh-Oh (1992), featured a brass section and was driven by tracks such as "Girls on My Mind" and "The Cowboy Mambo (Hey Lookit Me Now)". His fourth solo album, titled David Byrne (1994), was a more proper rock record, with Byrne playing most of the instruments on it, leaving percussion for session musicians. "Angels" and "Back in the Box" were the two main singles released from the album. The first one entered the US Modern Rock Tracks chart, reaching No. 24. For his fifth studio effort the emotional Feelings (1997), Byrne employed a brass orchestra called Black Cat Orchestra. His sixth Look into the Eyeball (2001) continued the same musical exploration of Feelings, but was compiled of more upbeat tracks, like those found on Uh-Oh.
Grown Backwards (2004), released by Nonesuch Records, used orchestral string arrangements, and includes two operatic arias as well as a rework of X-Press 2 collaboration "Lazy". He also launched a North American and Australian tour with the Tosca Strings. This tour ended with Los Angeles, San Diego and New York shows in August 2005. He also collaborated with Selena on her 1995 album Dreaming of You with "God's Child (Baila Conmigo)".
Byrne and Eno reunited for his eighth album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008). He assembled a band to tour worldwide for the album for a six-month period from late 2008 through early 2009 on the Songs of David Byrne and Brian Eno Tour.
In January 2018, Byrne announced his first solo album in 14 years. American Utopia was released in March through Todo Mundo and Nonesuch Records. He also released the album's first single, "Everybody's Coming to My House", which he co-wrote with Eno. The subsequent tour – which showcased songs from American Utopia alongside highlights from his Talking Heads and solo career to date – was described by NME as being perhaps "the most ambitious and impressive live show of all time", blurring the lines "between gig and theatre, poetry and dance".
Work in theatre, film, and television: 1981–present
In 1981, Byrne partnered with choreographer Twyla Tharp, scoring music he wrote that appeared on his album The Catherine Wheel for a ballet with the same name, prominently featuring unusual rhythms and lyrics. Productions of The Catherine Wheel appeared on Broadway that same year. In Spite of Wishing and Wanting is a soundscape Byrne produced for the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus's dance company Ultima Vez.
Byrne wrote, directed, and starred in True Stories, a musical collage of discordant Americana released in 1986, as well as producing most of the film's music. Byrne also directed the documentary Île Aiye and the concert film of his 1992 Latin-tinged tour titled Between the Teeth. He was chiefly responsible for the stage design and choreography of Stop Making Sense in 1984.
Byrne was impressed by the experimental theatre that he saw in New York City in the 1970s. He collaborated with several of its best-known representatives. He worked with Robert Wilson on "The Knee Plays" and "The Forest", and invited Spalding Gray (of The Wooster Group) to act in True Stories, while Meredith Monk provided a small part of that film's soundtrack. Byrne provided a soundtrack for JoAnne Akalaitis' film "Dead End Kids", made after a Mabou Mines theatre production. Byrne's artistic outlook has a great deal in common with the work of these artists.
In 1991, Byrne released a classical instrumental album The Forest, where some of the tracks were already featured as a score for 1988 Robert Wilson theatre piece of the same name.
His work has been extensively used in film soundtracks, most notably in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su on Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. In 2004, Lead Us Not into Temptation included tracks and musical experiments from his score to Young Adam. Byrne added "Loco de Amor" with Celia Cruz to Jonathan Demme's 1986 film Something Wild.
Byrne wrote the Dirty Dozen Brass Band-inspired score for Robert Wilson's Opera The Knee Plays from The Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down. Some of the music from Byrne's orchestral album The Forest was originally used in a Wilson-directed theatre piece with the same name. The Forest premiered at the Theater der Freien Volksbühne, Berlin, in 1988. It received its New York premiere in December 1988 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The Forestry Maxi-single contained dance and industrial remixes of pieces from The Forest by Jack Dangers, Rudy Tambala, and Anthony Capel.
In late 2005, Byrne and Fatboy Slim began work on Here Lies Love, a disco opera or song cycle about the life of Imelda Marcos, the controversial former First Lady of the Philippines. Some music from this piece was debuted at Adelaide Festival of Arts in Australia in February 2006 and the following year at Carnegie Hall on 3 February 2007.
In 2015, Byrne organized Contemporary Color, two arena concerts in Brooklyn (NYC) and in Toronto, for which he brought in ten musical acts who teamed up with ten color guard groups. The concerts were made into a 2016 documentary film, directed by Bill and Turner Ross, and produced by Byrne.
Byrne appeared in comedian John Mulaney's children's musical comedy special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch on Netflix, where he performed the song "Pay Attention!" His song "Tiny Apocalypse" was also featured as the special's end credits song.
On February 29, 2020, after a 30-year absence, Byrne performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live with John Mulaney as host. Byrne performed "Once in a Lifetime" and "Toe Jam" with the cast of the Broadway show American Utopia and appears in the "Airport Sushi" sketch. This was Byrne's third appearance on Saturday Night Live. Byrne previously served as the musical guest as part of the musical group Talking Heads in 1979, and as a solo musical guest in 1989.
Other musical contributions: 1990–present
Byrne has contributed songs to five AIDS benefit compilation albums produced by the Red Hot Organization: Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter, Red Hot + Rio, Silencio=Muerte: Red Hot + Latin, Onda Sonora: Red Hot + Lisbon, and Offbeat: A Red Hot Soundtrip. Byrne appeared as a guest vocalist/guitarist for 10,000 Maniacs during their MTV Unplugged concert, though the songs in which he is featured were cut from their following album. One of them, "Let the Mystery Be", appeared as the fourth track on 10,000 Maniacs' CD single "Few and Far Between".
In 1992, he performed with Richard Thompson. Their joint acoustic concert at St. Ann & The Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, New York on 24 March, produced the album An Acoustic Evening which was released the same year. Byrne worked with Latin superstar Selena in March 1995; writing, producing and singing a bilingual duet titled "God's Child (Baila Conmigo)." This became the last song Selena recorded before she was murdered on 31 March. It was included on the singer's posthumous album Dreaming of You. In 1997, Byrne was the host of Sessions at West 54th during its second of three seasons and collaborated with members of Devo and Morcheeba to record the album Feelings.
In 2002, he co-wrote and provided vocals for a track, "Lazy" by X-Press 2, which reached No. 2 in the United Kingdom and number-one on the US Dance Charts. Byrne said in an interview on BBC Four Sessions coverage of his Union Chapel performance that "Lazy" was number-one in Syria. The track later featured with orchestral arrangements on his Grown Backwards (2004) album.
In 2006, his singing was featured on "The Heart's a Lonely Hunter" on The Cosmic Game by Thievery Corporation.
He is featured on the tracks "Money" and "The People Tree", on N.A.S.A.'s 2009 album The Spirit of Apollo. Also in 2009, Byrne appeared on HIV/AIDS charity album Dark Was the Night for Red Hot Organization. He collaborated with Dirty Projectors on the song "Knotty Pine". In the same year, Byrne performed at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. He also was a signator of a letter protesting the decision of the Toronto International Film Festival to choose Tel Aviv as the subject of its inaugural City-to-City Spotlight strand.
In 2008, Byrne and his production team turned the Battery Maritime Building, a 99-year-old ferry terminal in Manhattan, into a playable musical instrument. The structure was connected electronically to a pipe organ and made playable for a piece called "Playing the Building". This project was previously installed in Stockholm, Sweden in 2005, and later at the London Roundhouse in 2009. Byrne says that the point of the project was to allow people to experience art first hand, by creating music with the organ, rather than simply looking at it.
In March 2013, he debuted a fully staged production of his 2010 concept album Here Lies Love at New York's Public Theater, directed by Tony Award-nominee Alex Timbers following its premiere at MoCA earlier in the year.
In May 2014, Byrne announced his involvement with Anna Calvi's EP, Strange Weather, collaborating with her on two songs: a cover of Keren Ann's "Strange Weather" and Connan Mockasin's "I'm the Man, That Will Find You".
Byrne founded the world music record label Luaka Bop in 1990. It was originally created to release Latin American compilations, but it has grown to include music from Cuba, Africa, the Far East and beyond, releasing the work of artists such as Cornershop, Os Mutantes, Los De Abajo, Jim White, Zap Mama, Tom Zé, Los Amigos Invisibles and King Changó.
In 2005, Byrne initiated his own internet radio station, Radio David Byrne. Each month, Byrne posts a playlist of music he likes, linked by themes or genres. Byrne's playlists have included African popular music, country music classics, vox humana, classical opera and film scores from Italian movies.
In 2006, Byrne released Arboretum, a sketchbook facsimile of his Tree Drawings, published by McSweeney's. Byrne is a visual artist whose work has been shown in contemporary art galleries and museums around since the 1990s. Represented by the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York. In 2010 his original artwork was in the exhibition The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.
David Byrne has also been a speaker at the TED Talks conferences. In June 2010, he spoke at the TED conference about the effects of architecture on music. Later in October 2010, he performed a hit from Talking Heads's 1988 album Naked titled "(Nothing But) Flowers" along with Thomas Dolby and string quartet Ethel-the TED2010 house band.
Although a resident of the United States since childhood, Byrne was a British citizen until 2012, when he became a dual citizen of the United Kingdom and the United States. He lives in New York City. His father, Thomas, died in October 2013. His mother, Emma, died on 25 June 2014.
Byrne had a brief relationship with Toni Basil in 1981 and he dated Twyla Tharp between 1981 and 1982. While visiting Japan in 1982, Byrne met costume designer Adelle Lutz, and they married in 1987. They have a daughter, Malu Abeni Valentine Byrne, born in 1989. Malu spoke about one of her middle names, Abeni, in a 2016 interview with Elle: "It is Nigerian, and it means 'We asked for her and she came to us.' My parents had a hard time having kids, and when I finally came along, their good friend offered up this name." Byrne and Lutz divorced in 2004. After his divorce, he became romantically involved with art curator and Gagosian Gallery sales director Louise Neri. He also had a relationship with the artist Cindy Sherman from 2007 to 2011.
Byrne is known for his activism in support of increased cycling and for having used a bike as his main means of transport throughout his life, especially cycling around New York. In Los Angeles, Byrne drives a Citroën DS, but in New York, he does not drive a car.
Byrne says that he began cycling while he was in high school and returned to it as an adult in the late 1970s. He likes the freedom and exhilaration cycling gives him. He has written widely on cycling, including a 2009 book, Bicycle Diaries. In August 2009, Byrne auctioned his Montague folding bike to raise money for the London Cycling Campaign.
In 2008, Byrne designed a series of bicycle parking racks in the form of image outlines corresponding to the areas in which they were located, such as a dollar sign for Wall Street and an electric guitar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Byrne worked with a manufacturer that constructed the racks in exchange for the right to sell them later as art. The racks remained on the streets for about a year.
Studio albums with Talking Heads
- Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
- More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978)
- Fear of Music (1979)
- Remain in Light (1980)
- Speaking in Tongues (1983)
- Little Creatures (1985)
- True Stories (1986)
- Naked (1988)
Solo studio albums
- My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) (with Brian Eno)
- Rei Momo (1989)
- Uh-Oh (1992)
- David Byrne (1994)
- Feelings (1997)
- Look into the Eyeball (2001)
- Grown Backwards (2004)
- Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008) (with Brian Eno)
- Love This Giant (2012) (with St. Vincent)
- American Utopia (2018)
Soundtracks and music for theater
|Year||Album details||Peak chart positions||Notes|
|1981||The Catherine Wheel
||104||—||Music for the 1981 Twyla Tharp dance production of the same name.|
|1985||Music for "The Knee Plays"
||141||—||Music for Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's play The Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down. Re-released as The Knee Plays in 2007.|
|1986||Sounds from True Stories
||—||—||Soundtrack to the film True Stories.|
|1987||The Last Emperor
||152||—||Score to the film The Last Emperor, composed with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su.|
||—||—||Music for the 1988 Robert Wilson theatre piece of the same name.|
|1999||Your Action World
||—||—||Music for Byrne's art presentation of the same name.|
|1999||In Spite of Wishing and Wanting
||—||—||Music for the Ultima Vez dance production of the same name.|
|2003||E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information)
||—||—||Music for Byrne's speaking tour and PowerPoint presentation of the same name.|
|2003||Lead Us Not into Temptation
||—||—||Soundtrack to the film Young Adam.|
|2008||Big Love: Hymnal||—||—||Soundtrack to the second season of Big Love.|
|2010||Here Lies Love||96||76||With Fatboy Slim. A disco song cycle occasionally given staged performances.|
|2019||American Utopia on Broadway Original Cast Recording
||—||—||Original cast recording of the Broadway production of American Utopia.|
- "—" denotes albums that were released but did not chart, albums not released in a particular territory, or chart information is not available.
Film and television
|1984||Stop Making Sense||Himself||Concert film from Talking Heads tour; also composer|
|1992||Between the Teeth – Live||Himself||VHS release; also composer|
|2010||Ride, Rise, Roar||Himself||Concert documentary|
Other film and television
|1979||Saturday Night Live||Himself||Episode: "Cicely Tyson/Talking Heads"|
|1986||True Stories||The Narrator||Feature film; also director, writer, composer|
|1987||The Last Emperor||—||Feature film; composer|
|1988||Married to the Mob||—||Feature film; composer|
|1989||Ile Aiye (The House of Life)||—||Documentary; composer|
|1989||Saturday Night Live||Himself||Episode: "Woody Harrelson/David Byrne"|
|2003||Young Adam||—||Feature film; composer|
|2003, 2012||The Simpsons||Himself (voice)||Episodes: "Dude, Where's My Ranch?", "How I Wet Your Mother"|
|2007||Big Love||—||12 episodes; composer|
|2011||This Must Be the Place||David Byrne||Feature film|
|2016||Contemporary Color||—||Feature film; composer|
|2019||John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch||Himself||Children's musical comedy special|
|2020||Saturday Night Live||Himself||Episode: "John Mulaney/David Byrne"|
Awards and nominations
|1987||Independent Spirit Awards||Best First Feature||True Stories||Nominated|||
|1987||Los Angeles Film Critics Association||Best Music||The Last Emperor||Won|||
|1988||Academy Awards||Best Original Score||Won|||
|1988||Golden Globe Awards||Best Original Score||Won|||
|1989||British Academy Film Awards||Best Original Music||Nominated|||
|1989||Grammy Awards||Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media||Won|||
|Best Concept Music Video||Storytelling Giant||Nominated|||
|2010||Best Recording Package||Everything That Happens Will Happen Today||Won|||
|Best Alternative Music Album||Nominated|||
|2013||Drama Desk Awards||Best Music||Here Lies Love||Won|||
|2019||Grammy Awards||Best Alternative Music Album||American Utopia||Nominated|||
|2021||Best Musical Theater Album||American Utopia on Broadway||Pending|||
- True Stories (1986)
- Preface for Occupied Territory by Lynne Cohen, Aperture Foundation (1987)
- Strange Ritual, Chronicle Books (1995)
- Your Action World (1999)
- The New Sins (Los Nuevos Pecados) (2001)
- David Byrne Asks You: What Is It? Smart Art Press (2002)
- Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information with DVD (2003)
- Arboretum (2006)
- Bicycle Diaries (2009)
- How Music Works (2012)
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one of Scotland's most famous expats
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born in Dumbarton, Scotland (a point of pride, like his British passport)
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I think a lot of places I lived – Glasgow; Hamilton, Ontario; and Baltimore – at the time were all industrial towns.
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