David Byrne is, of course, a legendary name. But part of what I love about music is, for all the hero worship that sometimes accompanies music writing and fandom, there’s always something to learn from musicians whose work you enjoy – whether famous or obscure.

David Byrne has been singularly open in talking about his work and process. In an extensive post this week, he shares how collaborations with other artists are born, evolve, and unfold:

03.15.10: Collaborations

And, boy, are the collaborations coming now. The new Here Lies Love is a project with Fatboy Slim. In the post above, he works with the fantastically-talented St. Vincent – Annie (who in turn enlists Bon Iver and Bryce D). In the video at top, there’s a terrific fusion of Byrne’s idiosyncratic songwriting with the quirky, sultry, original Santigold – a fusion you might think doesn’t work, then blows you away. (The work itself is politically poignant, the tale of Imelda taking political matters into her own hands and “handbag,” a telling message in today’s politically-delicate era. See the separate post on the video.)

But it’s not as simple as “I’m awesome, you’re awesome, the song is done.” In fact, David Byrne’s own revelation about how to make collaborations work may seem surprisingly familiar. Learning how to leave alone the other person’s work is a significant part of the process:

The unwritten game rules in these remote collaborations seem to be to leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you can. Work with what you’re given; don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is.

This presents some musical challenges, of course, but the benefits generally outweigh them. The fact that half the musical decision-making has already been done bypasses a lot of waffling and worrying. I didn’t have to think about what to do and what direction to take musically — the train had already left the station and my job was to see where it wanted to go. This restriction on one’s freedom — that some creative decisions have already been made — turns out to be a great blessing. Complete creative freedom is as much a curse as a boon.

(I could practically quote the whole article; go read the whole thing.)

Also, for any time any of us has said, if only I had time to build that new studio, if only I had time to clean this studio, if only I had elaborate soundproofing … enough already. David Byrne’s studio is in a warehouse with concrete floors and sheetrock walls (that apparently kinda sorta work as sound baffling) and some industrial carpet. And it’s messy. And he’s David Byrne. So there’s no reason not to make something work in the corner of your room, today.

Studio Byrne. Photo via journal.davidbyrne.com.

Of course, I know all of this not because I’m a privileged music journo or celebrity, but because the artist is sharing – a wonderful gift of our age, for those who so choose. Enjoy.


  • ehdyn

    Smart man that keeps a nord at the ready

  • Brilliant song. Odd idea for a project too.

  • I like how he talks about how tries to keep the other collaborators musical ideas intact, but how this limits his creative freedom in a good way.

    He remarks, "This restriction on one’s freedom — that some creative decisions have already been made — turns out to be a great blessing. Complete creative freedom is as much a curse as a boon."

    How true is that? Nice post.

  • Excellent post. I read through David Byrne's entire "Collaborations" post, and even got deep into another one–his speech at TED called Creation In Reverse, about context and the spaces that necessitate certain styles, even eras of music.

    A neat little synthesis of these two concepts– that of context/space and collaboration as described above– brings me to consider all aspects of the music creation process as one ultimate collaboration, a yin-yang of context-content.

    As a musician, composing electronic music on a computer, which occupies a totally virtual space (all software instruments & fx), I risk forever residing in obscurity, or even in isolation. Such an outcome is entirely possible if I begin in a bedroom and compose music only I can hear and perceive. Of course this is not my intention. I have never wanted more than to provide an uplifting experience for many people (eventually the universe) through music, whether on headphones or at a concert hall (or broadcast in live hologram throughout the galaxy).

    Just recently a small venue opened up here where I live, intended for the touring electronic artist/DJ/small band. I'm lucky enough to be close friends with these folk. So, I made a conscious decision a little while back to get a performance together, escape the studio and play that club.

    But what I realized right away was that my style had to change (reality check). If I were to reach people, and establish myself publicly through that space, I had to adapt using sounds and styles fitting more specific physical and social contexts– not just "music only I can hear".

    In his speech at TED, David Byrne exposed a critical thread in music evolution between the space/context/yin and the composer/music/yang that inhabits it. Because one necessitates the other, an intelligent balance must develop. Wonderful validation for my own personal progress!

    Lately I'm finding that my modality of song fits beautifully (perhaps better) in this new context. Couldn't be happier.


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