Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is blessed with a mind that will forever dazzle and, in turn, remains impossible to understand fully. Byrne operates on a mysterious level, a perch that makes him nothing short of an enigma within the world of alternative pop music. His broad taste is slightly puzzling, and in turn, the one song he can’t live without will take you by surprise.
Byrne has always triumphed originality above everything else. It’s what the foundations of his career have been built on since the halcyon days of CBGBs. With Talking Heads, the singer dragged them to the top of the renowned pile in New York and, soon enough, nobody could resist their delectable new-wave charm.
They were originators who became the crown jewel of the most alluring scene on the planet, a place where innovation was the only currency that mattered. Talking Heads were vastly rewarded for their imaginative avant-garde approach to pop music and took the city by storm.
The singer was the creative director of the group and could occasionally irritate his bandmates. Still, once Byrne has a vision, he needs to see it through, or he’d risk not staying true to himself on an artistic level.
Since the group’s split, he’s followed his head, allowing his talents to meander as far as Broadway, where he took American Utopia. It’s no surprise that Byrne’s career has been varied, considering the wealth of assorted music he grew up on, which includes a long-held love for Celtic music. With that, he even named Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath’s ‘The Rowan Tree’, a song that he couldn’t live without during an appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.
Byrne was born in Scotland, but his family moved to North America when he was just two years old because his father sought work as an engineer. Additionally, family tensions heightened due to his father being a Catholic and his mother being a Presbyterian, making them want a clean slate somewhere new.
Despite not being raised in Scotland, his heritage is an unshakeable part of his lineage, and music kept him in touch with his Celtic roots during his childhood — even though he was on the opposite corner of the globe. Byrne commented: “I can look at some of the melodies I’ve written over the years and I go, ‘oh’, there’s a real Celtic influence.”
Meanwhile, speaking to Pitchfork about the impact of Redpath on the earlier stages of his life, Byrne reflected: “In 1962, I was still listening to my parents’ records and vaguely aware that there were other things out there. Jean Redpath, a Scottish folk singer, sang in a kind of clear, quavery voice. They were traditional Scottish songs, but very simple arrangements, like folk versions.”
He added: “The Scottish influence was a big part of my parents’ record collection. They didn’t have Scottish bagpipes or anything; they were more interested in Scottish roots music: Woody Guthrie, Ewan MacColl, and different people from that era, who were writing folk songs that were vaguely political but also beautiful. I realised that this sounds very palatable and pretty on the surface, but there’s something darker going on underneath.”
Byrne’s comment about music that’s pretty on the surface with something darker bubbling away underneath is a perfect explanation of everything that he’s ever created throughout his pulsating career. Celtic folk music might be an unlikely influence on Byrne, but when has he ever been predictable?