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David Byrne: “Humans can change. It’s not impossible”

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Main photo: Clement Pascal

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He has been a household name for half a century, but David Byrne’s music career continues to throw up joyous surprises. The latest curveball is that he’s going beyond music to celebrate the power of human potential, and prove that a better, more sustainable world is possible. In this interview taken from our annual magazine, Imagine5 asked him about hope, happiness and why he loves cycling.

At age 71, it feels like David Byrne is just getting started.

To many, the musician and artist remains best known as the frontman of new wave band Talking Heads, but it’s a long time since that label did him justice. He has an Oscar, a Grammy, a Tony and a Golden Globe, and his newest work continues to push boundaries and delight audiences. Here Lies Love, the disco musical about Imelda Marcos which Byrne created with Fatboy Slim, has been playing in gradually larger venues since it first opened 10 years ago, and this summer made it to Broadway.

Trying to sum up Byrne’s career feels like trying to review a whodunnit before you’ve reached the last ad break. Anything can happen.

This interview is the cover story from the latest Imagine5 magazine: 180 pages of impact and inspiration, available to buy now.

And yet, maybe that doesn’t make him special. Because Byrne’s recent work seems to hint that this potential to surprise the world (and ourselves) lives in us all. 

In 2019 Byrne launched an online magazine designed to offer an antidote to doom and gloom: sharing stories about what’s going right in our troubled times – and the people making it happen. It’s called Reasons to be Cheerful.

“I’ve come to realise that complaining doesn’t necessarily solve problems”

David Byrne

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Byrne’s American Utopia show is a chance to reach out and connect with people. The title is “not ironic”, he says. Photo: Andrew Benge/Getty Images

Does this upbeat attitude come naturally to him? “I am indeed fairly cheerful – more than I used to be,” says Byrne. “No idea why that is. I find plenty in the world to frustrate and annoy me. But maybe I’ve come to realise that complaining doesn’t necessarily solve problems.

The same outlook on life shines through – in an entirely different way – in Byrne’s 2019 live show American Utopia – an exuberant celebration of human possibility. The show, which is something between a rock concert and a musical, features songs from throughout Byrne’s career, including Talking Heads classics such as Road to Nowhere and Once in a Lifetime, plus several new numbers. There’s no “story” exactly, but there’s a clear feeling that the whole thing is a heartfelt effort to reach out across the void that separates us from every other human. 

At the same time, American Utopia finds ways to bear witness to the many aspects of 21st century life that are far from easy and far from fair. Utopia is not a given, it seems to say. It’s just something that, together, we have a shot at creating.

“Every day is a miracle,” sings Byrne on the song of the same name. “Every day is an unpaid bill / You’ve got to sing for your supper / Love one another.”

Byrne in his Manhattan studio. Humans have it in us to surprise ourselves, he believes. Photo: Clement Pascal

Seeking out good news

It’s that same grounded optimism that lies behind Reasons to be Cheerful, a much-needed corrective to what the media seems to give us by default: reasons to panic, scream, run away and give up.

Byrne says: “A number of years ago I started collecting news that gave me some hope, in response to all the negative news that bombards us. My folder filled up faster than I expected. Like most people I’m still drawn to negative news, and like most people those are the pieces I often forward. But at some point I realised this wasn’t helping my mental health or offering any solutions. So I made a conscious effort to collect more positive pieces and started Reasons to be Cheerful to give this collection and dissemination a structure.”

Recently the platform has reported on the return of sea otters to the coasts of California and Oregon, efforts to cut light pollution so astronomers can continue to enjoy the starry skies of Texas, and technology that helps prevent wind turbines in the Netherlands from killing birds.

We shouldn’t beat ourselves up for focusing more on what’s wrong than what’s right, Byrne says. “We have evolved to be attracted to scary, negative news. Being suspicious and even paranoid about that shape moving in the grass might save your life. Countering our evolutionary biases is tough. We have to find other ways to draw folks to our reporting beyond ‘this is the next horrible thing’. But maybe by reporting on this stuff we might actually spread the news of how someone made some version of the thing in the grass change or go away. That running away is not the only option.” The other benefit of seeking out encouraging news, he says, is that it “lets people know they are not alone – that there are like-minded people out there”.

Byrne hopes to shine a light on human potential through his constructive journalism platform Reasons to be Cheerful platform, as well as in his creative work. Photo: Jody Rogac/Trunk Archive

Creating a platform for constructive journalism is a world away from the kind of communication Byrne is used to. “I can’t really write a decent song about the initiatives and technologies we often report on,” he says. “But it’s also true you can’t dance to a piece journalism. We need both. In my performance and theatrical work there is also an emphasis on giving audiences not just entertainment, though that is essential, but also a sense of hope and community with their fellow audience members.”

Like much of Byrne’s work, Reasons to be Cheerful is a collaboration. “Our writers, editors and the rest of the team bring way more to the project than I ever could alone,” he says. “Besides invaluable creative input there is also the chance to see through someone else’s eyes – to see how they move, or play or write, design or direct.”

High on the list of topics where the world could use a dose of optimism is the climate crisis – as long as that optimism is grounded in reality. Otherwise it just adds to the flow of ‘greenwashing’: when companies and governments make out that they’re greener than they are, in order to avoid real change. “Journalism is one of the key ways those hypocrisies get pointed out,” says Byrne. “The world is indeed warming. One of our evolutionary tendencies is to ignore slow, long-term changes – both good and bad. A slow drop in crime, for example, doesn’t make the news. The inevitability of the effects of global warming we tend to ignore unless it’s a giant catastrophe – droughts and floods. But even then, how much has California, Nevada, or Arizona done to conserve water? Not nearly enough. I see hope that [conservative US] states are taking up green energy initiatives often because they make financial sense and create jobs, and therefore votes.”

Byrne performing with Talking Heads in San Francisco in 1983. Photo: San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images

One of Byrne’s most famous looks. Photo: Deborah Feingold/Getty Images

Byrne has been known to explore environmental concerns in song. In Talking Heads’ 1988 single (Nothing But) Flowers he turned Joni Mitchell’s famous “paved paradise, put up a parking lot” refrain on its head, imagining a future Garden of Eden whose inhabitants lament the loss of those parking lots – and shopping malls and Pizza Huts. “There was a factory, now there are mountains and rivers”, he complains. “We used to microwave, now we just eat nuts and berries”. Beneath the sarcasm you can hear that same little voice cajoling us: come on, we can do better.

In his own life, Byrne says he does “all the things individuals can do”. “I ride a bike, I compost, I don’t own a car, I only run AC once in a while, I reuse bags, I am eliminating plastic containers… those things are all good but my understanding is they are a drop in the bucket as far as seriously cutting CO2 emissions. Flying over various countries one can see how much humans have taken over and shaped so much of the landscape. We have always had an impact on the landscape, animals do too, but the scale of our impact is massive and our survival might depend on learning that we are part of nature and not separate.”

Byrne arrives on the red carpet at the 2023 Met Gala in New York. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

A future on two wheels

This year Byrne famously showed up to the Met Gala on his bicycle. Fans will know that he has long been a big advocate of cycling – although not so much for its green credentials as for the fact that “it feels good”, he says. “I never ever urge people to ride because it’s worthy – it’s not spinach (which I like), but it’s actually efficient, cheap, fun and sometimes the fastest way to get from A to B.”

 Appearing on two wheels was quite the statement at an event where the red carpet has become a grand spectacle. Does he think biking to the Met could go from the niche to the norm? “I think the Met Gala allowing me in with my bike was a bit of a photo opportunity that worked both for them and for cycling,” he says. “I don’t know if they’ll repeat that – but I do notice more people are giving bikes a try than in years past. Electric bikes allow folks who live further out to commute and get around. So that might help too.”

Like with anything else, the potential is there. And that goes for the big challenges as well as the small ones.

“Long term, I see hope in the fact that humans, maybe more than most animals, can change their behaviour,” says Byrne. “In most of the world slavery is frowned on. Gay rights are becoming broadly accepted. Seatbelts. Smoking. Duelling as a way to settle an argument. Women have the vote – that was hotly debated at one point – they were considered too ‘emotional’ to be allowed to vote! Things can and do change. One hopes our lifestyles can change and we can abandon high-energy products (crypto! AI!) and fossil fuels. 

“It’s not impossible. We’ve done it before.”


We’re able to tell stories like this because of people like you. Join others from around the world in supporting Imagine5’s mission towards a sustainable future. Become a member, or donate what you can. Find out more here

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