Exploring the musical collaborations of David Byrne

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Exploring the musical collaborations of David Byrne

David Byrne St. Vincent
Words by Mixdown staff

Brilliant results have been gleaned when Byrne has combined his entirely unique creative sensibilities with those of other artists.

More often than not, when we think about Talking heads front-man – and artist in his own right – David Byrne, his singularity comes to mind; how his distinct voice and ability to merge eclectic musical genres with thought-provoking lyrics have immeasurably impacted the music industry. The avant-garde approach to performance, at which Bryne was at the helm in the 1980s, undeniably redefined the concert experience for generations to come. Beyond music, Byrne’s forays into film, literature, and visual art demonstrate a multifaceted creativity rarely paralleled. A true renaissance man!

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However today, we will be looking at the brilliant results this man has gleaned when combining his entirely unique creative sensibilities with those of other artists. In fact, David Byrne’s passion for collaboration stands as a defining facet of his decades-spanning artistic journey.

Throughout his career, the musical luminary has eagerly joined forces with a diverse array of artists, transcending genres and styles altogether. His collaborative spirit has birthed groundbreaking projects. Beyond Talking Heads, Byrne’s partnerships with luminaries of the likes of Brian Eno and St. Vincent have yielded critically and culturally acclaimed works. His commitment to bridging cultural and artistic boundaries through collaboration showcases his open-mindedness and an unwavering dedication to exploring new creative frontiers. With all that being said, let’s slip into our oversized suits and explore some of the best and most ground breaking David Byrne musical collaborations that have been recorded and released over the past few decades.

St. Vincent

David Byrne’s collaborative album with St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), Love This Giant, is a captivating showcase of each artist’s respective talents and aesthetics. Released in 2012, it combines Byrne’s distinctive vocals and abstract lyrical prowess with St. Vincent’s signature innovative guitar work, jagged synthesizers and ethereal vocal stylings. The album’s brass-heavy arrangements create a sonic landscape that recalls both the expressive swagger of Talking Heads and the art-pop theatricality of St. Vincent’s prior records; and yet, yields a sound that is entirely its own. The two spoke about their experience joining forces in an interview with The Guardian, with Clark explaining:

“When we started this project… it was less about songs and more about ‘art music’. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. But over the course of it, we started to veer more towards songs.”

Byrne continued: “Annie suggested we think about using a brass band as the core, and I loved that idea… So a lot of it became about finding the voice; what sorts of melodies and words go with it, how our stuff would fit into that musical universe. Plus, I knew it would give the record a very unique sound that’s different from Annie’s records, or mine.”

Clark added further: “Not that the sound of brass is necessarily timeless, but it’s not as if we’re chasing some sort of musical ephemera that’s going to pass quickly, like, ‘Oh, we’d better get this new wave record out before people get tired of new wave.'”

Brian Eno

Byrne’s longstanding partnership with the grandfather of synth and producer extraordinaire – Brian Eno, birthed iconic albums like his 80s solo outing My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. Eno’s electronic textures and ambient sounds fuse seamlessly with Byrne’s idiosyncratic compositional tendencies and vocal delivery. Their work not only transcended rock conventions, ushering in a new era of avant-garde music, but expanded the possibilities of sound and production, leaving an enduring legacy of boundary-pushing creativity that continues to influence and inspire artists across genres.

“Brian is someone who besides just being very innovative, he pushes the people he works with to go a little bit outside of their comfort zone,” Byrne told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 (via Music Radar) in 2022.

“He’s done that with me, done it with Talking Heads, which is really productive.

“Sometimes it’s not that comfortable but… One of the ways that Brian navigates that kind of thing, and I think all producers do this to some extent is, they’re great cheerleaders. They’re great salesmen, saleswomen, whatever. So when something is in between stages, and it’s not quite good yet, but it’s getting to be something really interesting, they are jumping up and down going, ‘this is going to be amazing. This is going to be incredible. It’s going to be like nothing else’. They keep the enthusiasm going so that you don’t fall back and go, ‘I don’t know’.”

Marisa Monte

The significant AIDS awareness benefit album from 1996, “Red Hot & Rio,” featured an impressive lineup of musical legends spanning the globe. Byrne, known for his interest in, and passion for, world music, seized the chance to collaborate with the contemporary Tropicalia sensation Marisa Monte. Together, they tackled a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina’s iconic duet. In the introduction to the clip, Byrne commends the song’s surreal qualities, making it a seamless match for his own distinct and eccentric style, affirming his status as the king of quirk in this unique musical pairing.

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ever the multi-medial creative savant, one of Byrne’s most notable collaborations was with the late Japanese composer, musician and record producer Ryuichi Sakamoto and Chinese composer Cong Su on the soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Last Emperor in 1987, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Score. Shortly following Sakamoto’s tragic passing earlier this year, Byrne cast his mind back to the time of this collaboration, telling Metrograph:

“Me and Ryuichi were both pretty popular, so we couldn’t just drop what we were doing and say ‘I’ll cancel my tour to work on your movie.’ But both of us had little slots…

“[Bertolucci and producer Jeremy Thomas] would give us scenes to do, and there might have been a bit of overlap that we weren’t told about where we were told to score the same scene…

“I can’t listen to the stuff I’ve done objectively, but I hear some of the ones Ryuichi did—there’s one where it goes duh duh duh duh duh. Very rhythmic and pulsing. I thought, ‘Now, there you go! There’s some real music that’s really working in a scene.’

“I think I expected Ryuichi would write some themes that were vaguely Asian sounding. Which he sort of did, but they’re a lot less Asian sounding then the stuff I wrote. So people often get the cues we did mixed up. His have a kind of subtext, there’s a melodic reference to Asian music in his orchestral themes, but the fact that they’re orchestral means they don’t sound typically Asian.”

Dirty Projectors

Opening the 2009 “Dark Was The Night” compilation, Byrnes collaboration with American indie rock band dirty projectors exudes joyful energy. It’s a brief, charming pop song clocking in at slightly over two minutes, featuring the delightful vocals of the Dirty Projectors’ female leads. The standout moment occurs just past the one-minute mark when David Byrne and David Longstreth brilliantly share the lead vocals during the second verse, adding a unique and captivating layer to the song’s dynamic.

Fatboy Slim

Released in 2010, Byrne and Fatboy Slim teamed up on a balls to the wall concept album – an exploration of the life of Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines, presented as a disco-infused, electro-pop opera. Collaborating on this project, they enlisted the talents of over 20 vocalists, including renowned artists like Florence Welch, Santigold, Steve Earle, Sharon Jones, and Cyndi Lauper. Their creation, Here Lies Love, has not only pushed creative boundaries but also inspired a musical adaptation which continues to captivate Broadway audiences, solidifying its status as a one-of-a-kind artistic achievement with enduring influence.

For more information on the stage adaptation of Here Lies Love, head here.