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Spotlights [Issue # 8 ]
David Byrne: No 'Grow'-ing Pains For Byrne

By Dave Lewis


he chameleon-like David Byrne may be best known as the main brain behind the Talking Heads, a band that pushed the limits of American pop. However, Byrne’s solo career has been even more adventurous. Grown Backwards (Nonesuch Records), his latest album, continues his habit of mixing genres in unexpected ways: opera collides with new wave, R & B meshes with world music, string sections meet Latin rhythms.

Byrne took an entirely new approach to composing the original tracks on “Backwards.” “Many of these new songs began as melodic fragments,” says Byrne. “In the past I would often begin songs based on improvised textures and grooves, adding melodies and then later on I’d write lyrics to fit. But this time I began carrying a little micro-cassette with me, and if a tune popped into my head I’d hum it, wordlessly, in to the mic, wherever I was.”

While on tour, as well as during an extended stay in Scotland working on music for the controversial film Young Adam, Byrne’s travels helped inspire his songwriting. “Some were originally sung in Glasgow, some in London, and most in New York,” Byrne states.

“Working with these fragments,” Byrne continues, “from the ‘top down,’ led to what I felt were more organic and possibly heartfelt melodies than those limited by grooves, which by nature are usually based on a few chords, and that was something I was maybe too used to doing.”

Grown Backwards also includes a number of unexpected cover songs, including Lambchop’s “The Man Who Loved Beer” and a re-recording of “Lazy,” Byrne’s 2002 collaboration with X-Press 2. Always one to experiment with genres, Byrne even includes two opera arias on the disc - Bizet’s “Au Fond du Temple Saint” and “Un Di Felice” from Verdi’s La Traviata.

Despite the unusual nature of a pop star attempting opera, Byrne’s arrangements of the selections work exceedingly well. “I’d heard some opera tunes before,” says Byrne, “and seeing ‘Un Di Felice’ sung live, I realized how this was one of those instantly memorable arias, a three-minute piece which was one of the ancestors of Western pop songs.”

Dueting with Byrne on “Au Fond du Temple Saint” is singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. “I had interviewed Rufus for the PBS show Sessions at West 54th,” says Byrne, “so I knew he was an opera fan, and might be amenable to joining me in this risky venture, and he was.”

Augmenting the album’s classically- influenced pop sound is the appearance of Austin’s Tosca String Quartet, with whom Byrne has toured. “The strings combined with the band brought out an emotional richness in the new songs and even in the old ones,” explains Byrne.

Though much of Backwards is classically- influenced, Byrne hasn’t lost his passion for the rhythms of world music, as evident in songs like the album’s infectious opener, “Glass, Concrete & Stone.” “Mauro Refosco plays percussion and mallet instruments,” says Byrne, “and I’ve worked with him since the mid-90’s when we recorded and toured together.”

With Grown Backwards, Byrne has combined all the varied musical elements of his 15-year solo career into a cohesive, exciting, and unique mix that evokes sounds of the past, present, and future. If only every artist could grow backwards.


Grown Backwards
Nonesuch

No 'Grow'-ing Pains For Byrne David Byrne Grown Backwards


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