David Byrne Rocks The SHOF Master Sessions At NYU

By April Anderson

The Frederick Loewe Theatre was packed to the rafters on November 6 with an eager audience anxiously awaiting quintessential rock star David Byrne, guest for the next in the series of Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions at NYU. He certainly did not disappoint. Precisely led in conversation by NYU Faculty Songwriter-in-Residence and Master Teacher of Songwriting Phil Galdston, Byrne began with his Scottish roots, providing an explanation for his being “a bit reserved and socially inhibited.” He delved early on into writing songs and performing onstage as the way to express himself. There was the influential combination of electronics and folk music in his house growing up, and to encourage him when he took up guitar, his father made him two guitar pedals, one of which Byrne likened to a primitive Vocoder. As Byrne was beginning to flex as a songwriter, he said he consciously decided that his songs “didn’t have to be something that had been done before, but if they were, I’d like to think I’d do it differently.” He also said he’d “try anything, but mistrust it if it came too easily.”

After teaming up with his signature band the Talking Heads, he, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth penned the classic “Psycho Killer” as their first effort. Byrne said he’d originally envisioned it as a ballad, as it was “much creepier that way.” He said to this day, he still doesn’t understand why people liked the song so much that it went on to peak at number 92 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. He spoke of the Talking Head synergy, saying the group had similar musical discernment, and Galdston pointed out the band actually “reversed the mold” musically, going “against rock and pop sensibility.”

Byrne related that Sire Records president Seymour Stein discovered the band playing at CBGB in 1975 and wanted to sign them immediately. Byrne said they balked at first, since at the time they were playing in clubs two nights a weeks and able to cover their rent. They did capitulate after considerable persuasion.

Byrne explained his songwriting process as writing “from the point of view of a character, not confessional or commenting on myself.” At one point, Galdston pulled up a series of original handwritten notes to show the evolution of some of the big Talking Heads songs such as those for “Once In A Lifetime,” along with early audio of Byrne singing the equivalent of lorem ipsum lyrics as they worked out melody first.

Byrne also spoke of his innovative 1980’s collaboration with English ambient musician and composer Brian Eno on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was built around radio broadcasts Eno collected while living in the United States, along with sampling recordings from around the world, transposed over music predominantly inspired by African and Middle Eastern rhythms.

Everyone took away a glimpse of the complexities and many layers evident in Byrne’s music and personality. He is an unusually brilliant man and he “speaks” through his music. While he did say the songs he writes are not based on his personal experiences, they are representational of some of the intricacies of his mind…analytical and clinical, yet with a twist that has enabled him to enjoy a unique, diverse career as songwriter, solo artist, record producer, film composer, theatrical composer/lyricist, author, filmmaker, and visual artist.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame Master Sessions program at NYU is a major component of the SHOF educational outreach. Stay tuned to songhall.org for news of the next Master Session coming soon!