David Byrne is a mercurial artist, that is one fact that is utterly undeniable. He’s never stopped in his pursuit of artistic endeavours and has always pushed himself to the edge, never repeating, never re-hashing old ground, never looking back. As he once famously sang: “Say something once, why say it again?”
However, that is exactly what he was forced to do when he visited the studios of that British institution, BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, back in 2018 and was asked to look back at a career entwined with music. The show has welcomed some esteemed guests during its 70-year run but none were quite like David Byrne as he picks eight songs he couldn’t live without.
Byrne, never wanting to be like someone else, has always triumphed originality above everything else. With his band Talking Heads, he rose to the top of the pile in New York, soon enough surpassing his counterparts. But it was never enough for Byrne to pull out a greatest hits tour every few years to pay the bills, Byrne has far more integrity than that.
Instead, the singer continues to take his talents to wherever they lead him, whether that’s to Broadway working on his show American Utopia or indeed to the BBC studios to discuss being castaway on a desert island with only eight songs for company and the journey that brought him there. With David Byrne, nothing is ever ‘usual.’
He sat down with esteemed host Kirtsy Young for the conversation back in 2018 and, as ever, they began with his upbringing. The singer may be steeped in New York cool but he was actually born in Dumbarton, Scotland, reflecting on his parents’ decision to move: “Looking back I sense that they wanted economic betterment and I think they probably wanted to be free of all the mixed marriage religious stuff. It was quite oppressive.”
It leads quite nicely into his first song choice, Halsey’s ‘Bad At Love’. Byrne reflects on how impressive she was at the then-recent women’s march, suggesting she imbues her music with that same candour: “It’s a pop song. But it really does have something to say,” he said.
Byrne reveals that his parents were deeply supportive of his creativity despite his intense shyness, suggesting he would often hide from the friends he would invite to his house. He also reflected on how a lot of people would ask: “Well if you were so shy how could you possibly get on stage?” But to Byrne, it seemed fairly obvious: “If you’re really shy you have to get on stage because that’s the only way you can make your presence felt, or make your ideas known, or announce the fact of your existence. You can do that because it’s an artificial situation and then you can retreat back into your shell right after.”
His parents’ support is part of what leads him to his next pick, “the kind of music that was played around the house,” as he selects Jean Redpath’s ‘The Rowan Tree’. Byrne also suggests that there’s also “a real Celtic influence on some of the melodies I’ve done,” putting the blame on this song.
The next track is a must for any songwriter in the New York area, Woddy Guthrie’s ‘Do-Re-Mi’, “another folk song” he reflects as he looks back at the politics that weaved through his early childhood. He says of the song “It has elements of being a children’s song but it’s actually about, ‘you think you’re gonna do fine if you head for California, but if you don’t have the money, you’re not going to make it’.”
Byrne’s next choice comes from the days of transistor radios and how he kept it hidden from his parents. “I remember hearing this song from The Byrds,” he recalled of his childhood. “I didn’t know at the time that it was a Bob Dylan song, and this was a pop hit and from the very beginning, from the opening sound, I thought ‘wow, this is really different.'” Byrne said that this was the song that pushed him out of the suburbs and on his musical journey toward the bright lights of the city.
As he speaks to Young about his artistic pursuit (revealing he once shaved his beard off during a performance to rapturous applause) and the idea of pretentiousness, Young even suggests that Byrne does it on his fans’ behalf. If you were looking for the NYC in all of Byrne’s selections then you needn’t look any further as Byrne selects The Stooges’ ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, with Byrne saying the band came “from somewhere you didn’t know existed.”
Young and Byrne also discuss that famous giant suit as well as how difficult he may have been to work with among other notable moments in his career. Next up was another keynote in both Byrne and Talking Heads’ development, Funkadelic’s brilliant ‘One Nation Under a Groove’. Byrne says of the track: “At the same time [as listening to The Stooges] we, the Talking Heads and I, were listening to a lot of R&B.” The singer says that Funkadelic were the “aspirational and philosophical” vehicle for funk.
The final selections are a little more obscure, as one might expect, and sees him pick Tom Zé’s ‘Toc’, a song which Byrne describes as having “elements of Brazilian folkloric music and Brazilian pop music all mixed together, which to me said ‘wow!'” It’s a typically Byrne song which sees Zé play some power tools on the track.
The final piece of music, and his most cherished piece, is from the Joubert Singers’ ‘Stand On The Word’, a gospel track with a lot of heart. Byrne says, “It’s mixed by Larry Levan, one of the great DJs at Paradise Garage, in the early days of club music. Gospel music, if you listen to the lyrics it’s like, ‘do what the Lord says’, which is probably not the kind of ideas you would be putting forward in the Paradise Garage.”
And there you have it, the eight songs the unstoppable creative David Byrne would take with him to an inescapable desert island. You can listen to the scintillating conversations between Young and Byrne below as they discuss his entire career.
David Byrne’s eight favourite songs:
- Halsey – ‘Bad At Love’
- Jean Redpath – ‘The Rowan Tree’
- Woody Guthrie – ‘Do-Re-Mi’
- The Byrds – ‘Mr Tambourine Man’
- The Stooges – ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’
- Funkadelic – ‘One Nation Under A Groove’
- Tom Zé – ‘Toc’
- Joubert Singers – ‘Stand On The Word’