David Byrne’s songwriting has always been something of a riddle. The former Talking Heads frontman helped write some of the most characteristic tracks of the late 1970s and early ’80s, songs that capture the mood of the era from the perspective of an outsider looking in. But, even though the likes of ‘Once In A Lifetime’ were written 40 years ago, they still sound as fresh and vital today as when they were released. They say one new David Byrne fan is born every minute, and judging from the popularity of his new Broadway Musical American Utopia, I’m tempted to believe it.
Behind every great song is a songwriter with their own unique process. Back in the late ’70s, Byrne and the rest of Talking Heads pioneered a songwriting process that required each member to isolate a melodic fragment or rhythm, hone it, and then find a space for it in the canvas of the song. This form of music-making, inspired by Afrobeat, funk, and disco groups, helped the group curate an inimitable brand of new wave at once danceable and hooky as hell.
As a solo artist, Byrne continued to explore new and innovative forms of writing. Speaking to Wired, the musical polymath explained that good songwriting is all about routine: “I write, not quite 9-5, but sort of like that. I’ll go into songwriting mode when I’m on tour and performing. I’m maybe soaking up things, but I’m not really writing anything. And then I’ll take a break, and I’ll write – like a book writer would do – for a certain number of hours a day.”
For Byrne, having a schedule seems to be an essential aspect of the songwriting process. Many of us will have heard that famous Woody Allen quote: “90% of success in life is showing up”. Well, Byrne is proof of that statement. I highly doubt that Byrne sits down and writes ten songs in quick succession. Most of that 9-5 routine, I imagine, will be spent rewriting, editing, or otherwise exploring new ideas. The important thing is that he’s there, trying to make a crummy idea (because even the best songwriters have crummy ideas sometimes) into something cohesive.
Once Byrne has accumulated a selection of skeleton tracks, he’ll start crafting rough demos: “There might be hours of the mundane stuff like fixing a guitar part, he began. In more recent years, you can do demos and write at home on a laptop or a computer or something, so I’ll do that. And I’ll do that for months until I feel like I’ve got stuff, but it changes all the time.” During a Q&A at the Lincoln Center, Byrne explained that no two songs are the same: “I write songs in lots of different ways. I sometimes just start with words; if there’s a story – I’ve written for musicals – then you definitely have to start with the words first. And other times, I’ve got a great musical idea, a nice melody, and I’ll try and find words that fit that, which is sometimes a little bit of a longer process, but that can work as well.”
Whether it’s a question of time, perspective or approach, Byrne recognises that each song requires something different. This ability to adapt has allowed the musician to come out with striking new material time and time again. He always seems to have one eye fixed on the future another looking back on old ideas for guidance. “I think I write different things no than I did then, in the past,” he concluded. “Occasionally I’ll find bits of paper with old lyrics on, and some of them are still useful, useful because I look at them and I go, ‘i’d never write that today'”.