After a day of delayed flights and missed appointments, David Byrne has finally settled into his room at the Holiday Inn in Reading, England. It's 10 p.m. He's tired. Maybe he'll have a shower using complimentary hotel soap. Maybe he'll check to see if there's a bible in the drawer next to the bed. Or maybe he'll stick his head outside and watch particles spinning around a nucleus or planets encircling the sun before flicking on the news.
"You can make that leap from subatomic physics to the Milky Way to what I am going to have for breakfast--and somehow, there's no difference. The same kinds of forces and emotions are at work in the big and the little, the macro and the micro," says Byrne, talking on the phone about the mixture of the massive and the minute that characterizes his new album, Grown Backwards--as well as his everyday life. "It becomes like a game for me, like trying to find the implications for English economy and history in the décor of this hotel room, which I'm sure you could do if you looked at it long enough."
Given a few spins, myriad layers of meaning can also be found on Grown Backwards. Listen to the upbeat, percussion-rich opening song, "Glass, Concrete & Stone", and you could find a piece about immigration. Listen again, and it could be about how human beings struggle to differentiate themselves from animals. Once more, and you're listening to a meditation on our unfounded sense of safety--both in the world and in our own skins.
Throughout the record, lyrics about coffee cups and grocery checkout lines and tri-coloured carpets swirl around weighty themes such as death, civilization, war, and apocalypse. Opera (including a soaring duet with Rufus Wainwright), funk, quirky pop, dance music, and smooth balladeering mingle so comfortably that it seems they were meant to be at the same party all along. Sometimes Byrne's melodies--many of which he sketched out using a hand-held tape recorder while going about his daily activities--are sharp and angular; at other times they're long and smooth. But from start to finish there is one almost constant presence: the lush strings of the Austin-based Tosca String Quartet.
"In retrospect, I think I had been inspired by some other records--Caetano Veloso's records from a couple of years ago and probably some Björk and stuff like that. And I thought there might be a way for me to integrate strings into what I do in a way where they really become part of the band, and it's not sweetening or sugarcoating on top of a pop song. Strings also have the clichéd representation of being the heart, and the drums and percussion are the body of the song. So I thought it might be nice to have them in the same place," says the ex-Talking Heads front man and founder of Luaka Bop Records, who intentionally contrasted the dramatic strings with lyrics about life's everyday minutiae. "I think it's wonderful that they pull out the emotion that's latent in these small subjects. The strings put them on a pedestal, and if I'm careful, it works really well."
As if adding the sweetness of strings to quirky songs about subatomic physics and parading pirates weren't tricky enough, Byrne also decided to navigate the minefield of relationships on Grown Backwards. Of course, throughout his 30-year-long music career, Byrne has always managed to skirt pop clichés, and the latest album is no exception. Although he recently separated from his wife (with whom he has a teenage daughter) and was reported to be dating art curator Louise Neri, the songs don't talk about the pain of love lost or the glory of new love found. With lyrics like "Isn't she here? What time is it now? Is this the right place? I'm gonna be a civilized guy someday," Byrne touches on all of the deliciously uncomfortable foibles and fumblings that are part of relationships.
"I'm afraid that's how I feel most of the time," says Byrne, who performs at the Centre for the Performing Arts on Tuesday (August 10). "But I've got to believe that other people feel the same way and have the same kinds of insecurities and anxieties.
"It's difficult to write about these things in songs," he adds. "Nobody wants to hear a song about somebody just complaining or being totally full of anxiety. But I thought, 'Let me see if I can really get at what it feels like some of the time.' "
Byrne brushes away the suggestion that writing such highly personal material--especially when the light it casts is not particularly flattering--takes a great deal of courage. With a little prodding, however, the self-effacing musician admits that he does give himself the occasional pat on the back.
"There are moments in the creative process when I might write something that surprises me, or when I have a breakthrough of some kind," he says quietly. "And that's worthy of a good dinner."