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FILTER 49: David Byrne & St. Vincent: Songs Of Ourselves

By Nevin Martell; Photos by Brantley Gutierrez on November 12, 2012


FILTER 49: David Byrne & St. Vincent: Songs Of Ourselves

It’s a steaming hot late summer day in New York City. The air is breezeless and it feels just as sweltering in the shade as it does under the relentless sun. Everyone is sweating buckets without even trying. Yet when Talking-Heads-frontman-turned-multimedia-solo-artist David Byrne walks into a Lower West Side studio for an interview, he looks remarkably cool. Dapper, really. Dressed in a dark-slate, short-sleeved shirt and yellowish green pants, his near-white hair is swept back neatly. He doesn’t seem to have perspired at all.

A few minutes later, the door opens and Annie Clark—better known as singer-frontwoman-multi-instrumentalist St. Vincent—sweeps in looking equally put-together and unaffected by the heat wave. She’s in all-black summer wear with the exception of a brown leather band that rings the wide-brimmed floppy hat hiding her dark curls. 

She greets Byrne cheerfully but respectfully, still clearly a little in awe of him and his boundlessly colorful career as a songwriter, performer, cycling advocate, author, playwright, etc. Not that her own arc, though admittedly shorter, isn’t quite impressive. After stints in The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band, she charted her own course in 2006 with the solo EP, Paris Is Burning. Since then she has released three albums as St. Vincent, each one more acclaimed than the last—2007’s Marry Me, 2009’s Actor and 2011’s Strange Mercy. Like Byrne, she’s no stranger to collaboration, having worked on projects with artists as diverse as Bon Iver, The National, Kid Cudi and Andrew Bird.

She’s meeting up with Byrne today to discuss their partnership, Love This Giant, an album that was almost four years in the making. The name comes from a line in their song “I Should Watch TV.”

“And we thought that ‘Hate This Midget’ didn’t have quite the same ring to it,” Clark says.

The two collaborators settle down side by side on a long couch—his tan skin a body’s width apart from her pale complexion. It’s a striking contrast, but nonetheless complementary.

The pair first met in early May 2009 at the afterparty for the Dark Was the Night benefit concert in New York, where they had both performed. A few nights later, they ran into each other again at a Björk and Dirty Projectors gig. The one-off show, which was comprised of music written specifically for the event, was a fundraiser for Housing Works, a nonprofit focused on helping homeless and low-income individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

Later that evening, the organizers approached Clark and asked her if she would be interested in participating in the collaborative concert series. If so, who would be her dream partner? David Byrne, she replied. When Byrne was approached with the idea of creating a singular suite of music to perform as a benefit, he readily agreed. Neither artist knew just what would become of it, but both were intrigued. “We both thought, ‘We’d love to, but we can’t just fudge our way through this,’” Clark says. “We knew we had to really turn it on.”

Over the ensuing months, the two artists began trading ideas back and forth remotely. Slowly, a larger construct came into focus: the duo would focus on writing songs filled out by a brass ensemble. One of the first finished songs to codify this direction was “Who,” which ultimately became the lead-off track on Love This Giant. Beginning with ebullient horn bursts, the energetic track transforms into a slinking funk tune punctuated by Byrne’s karate chopping “who-ha” vocals and Clark’s sweetly sung refrain, “Who is an honest man?”

Though Clark had collaborated extensively with other artists before this project, she found that her songwriting approach metamorphosed specifically for her work with Byrne. “I can veer toward the melancholic, subverted anger or straight-up anger,” she says, “but David has a sunnier disposition. He can do ecstatic joy and wonderment in a really convincing way. So I was able to pull a bit more towards the middle in terms of dabbling in lighter moods, which was refreshing.”

Two of the songs on Love This Giant ultimately weren’t co-written. Clark contributed “Ice Age,” a dreamy indie head-nodder that would have fit comfortably on Strange Mercy, while Byrne composed the sweeping, swooning closing ballad “Outside of Time and Space.”

Their interactions weren’t restricted to long-distance songwriting sessions and electronic exchanges; the two spent time getting acquainted in person, too. Byrne invited Clark to a dinner honoring culinarian extraordinaire Alice Waters; Clark shared a series of Frederick Wiseman documentaries; the pair attended a John Kelly dance performance, “Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte,” based on Viennese expressionist Egon Schiele’s work. “It was important to get to know each other,” says Clark. “That way, you don’t rub someone the wrong way or hurt someone’s feelings in the process of working together.”

There were also several sidebars on the music front. The pair performed “Who” as a part of St. Vincent’s headlining gig at the Lincoln Center’s Allen Room in early 2010 (they also performed the track together at Bonnaroo this past summer) and, a month later, Byrne’s Here Lies Love—a collaboration with Fatboy Slim—was released, which features Clark singing on the track “Every Drop of Rain.”

As the next two years slipped by amidst a flurry of other projects and tours, songs were roughly completed in batches of four. At that point, they were sent off to an arranger so they could, as Clark puts it, “translate what we had done into a language that real horn players could read.”

The horn section swelled to as many as 16 players during the recording sessions—“The One Who Broke Your Heart” even features the talents of two storied back-up bands, the Dap-Kings and Antibalas. Byrne and Clark finally made it into the studio themselves—together, in person—this past April to record across the Hudson River at Water Music Recording Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey. A call was also put into Clark’s St. Vincent collaborator, producer John Congleton, who did the drum programming. “It doesn’t take up a whole lot of sonic space, and puts the spotlight on the horns,” Clark says. “It’s able to steer the horns from being too genre-specific in any way, shape or form.”

Though there are currently no plans to put on the concert that initially sparked this unexpected union, the duo is touring for the album. Backed by an eight-piece brass ensemble, St. Vincent’s keyboardist Daniel Mintseris and LCD Soundsystem drummer Pat Mahoney, they are playing songs from Love This Giant alongside a few choice cuts from their own catalogs. But first, on this smoldering summer day in the Big Apple, they want to set the record straight about how they first became acquainted with the other’s music, why they warped their faces for the album’s cover and why a little disturbance or discomfort can be a beautiful thing.

When did you discover each other’s music?

Annie Clark: I first heard David’s music in a 1985 classic called Revenge of the Nerds, which includes [Talking Heads’] “Burning Down the House.” That movie was a big staple of my childhood. It was probably a little inappropriate for us, but we didn’t have a lot of supervision. And my sister had [Talking Heads’] Remain in Light, which she would spin on the record player constantly.

David Byrne: They couldn’t make that movie now, because the nerds aren’t underdogs anymore. Now it’d be Revenge of the Jocks.

Clark: I’m sure the jocks are still winning somewhere; definitely in the high schools of the world.

Byrne: I heard Annie’s music right after her first album came out. I bought the record, liked it, saw her when she was performing at the Bowery Ballroom and that was it. I liked what she was doing and thought the songs were really good; always slightly disturbing.

Clark: Thank you.

After Housing Works approached you two to collaborate together for a show, how quickly were you sold on the idea?

Clark: It took a little while. At first I was just so excited. I was thinking, “I’m doing something with David Byrne and that’s so cool.” It wasn’t until we recorded the first batch of songs that we started to get more of a sense of how to work with one another. As we kept writing, things kept getting better and more focused.

Byrne: There was a whole period of figuring out how to collaborate. With some things I’ve done, someone has almost completed the music, so I just write a melody over it and sing words. In this case, there was more of a real give and take. I’d send Annie a fragment of music or she’d send me one. It would get added to and deconstructed and arranged and passed back and forth until it was a song. Either of us would improvise melodics over it; sometimes we both did on the same song in different sections.

Clark: It worked in every configuration. For “The One Who Broke Your Heart,” he sent me a simple strummed guitar chord over a beat and that nice vocal melody, so I arranged a horn thing around it. But “The Forest Awakes” was one that I had been kicking around for a little while but couldn’t figure out how to make heads or tails of it in terms of making it a song-y thing. But when David sent it back, it was in focus.

When did you decide that you were going to be working with the construct of writing for a brass band?

Byrne: That was Annie’s idea right off, though we didn’t know how big it would be.

Clark: Originally the thought was inspired by the fact that Housing Works is a pretty small place. It’s a bookstore; it’s not really a venue. We thought that we’d work with a small brass ensemble and then we wouldn’t have to have much in the way of a PA. Then it kept growing and growing. There are so many colors and permutations within the thought of a brass band, so I didn’t know how it was all going to sound until it was mastered.

Byrne: I started referencing brass band stuff that I knew, thinking of the variety of directions it could go in. I pulled out some Italian records, like Banda Ionica, as well as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and New Orleans groups. Brass is restricting in some ways, but you can take those combinations of instruments and get a really wide variety of sounds and approaches. No matter what, it does tend to be big.

If you wrote a song that you would normally write on a guitar—like a folk-singing-type thing—you might write about something personal. “I got up in the morning and went to the coffee shop, blah, blah, blah.” In this context with the brass instruments, it becomes a metaphor for something else because of the big music and the big sound behind it.

You both wrote your own lyrics with one exception. David, you wrote the lyrics for “The Forest Awakes,” but you insisted Annie sing the song. Why?

Byrne: The lyrics sounded big; they’re about natural forces and the movement of peoples. There’s no irony in it, but I thought people might hear my voice and think that I was being ironic anyway. But [I wanted] it taken at face value. I thought Annie doing it would help people hear the song more and not hear whatever baggage I bring to it.

Clark: I was happy to get to sing it; I love that song. Those were some of the first words that were written. That song really dictated the lyrical themes for the record—natural forces, micro-macro, the universal consciousness. You know, simple stuff.

Both of your catalogs have works that are greatly influenced by film. Did that medium influence this collaboration?

Byrne: I tried writing lyrics on “I Am An Ape” that were some sort of film noir narrative. I had this whole thing worked out with some mysterious woman with all the noir clichés, but it didn’t work. I had to abandon that idea and start from scratch.

So I take it that “Ice Age” isn’t intended to be the theme song in the next installment of the popular animated film series?

Clark: [Laughs] Oh yeah. I want a wooly mammoth to sing that. I was writing that with Ray Romano’s voice in mind. It’s a shame I had to sing it.

David, it’s my understanding that Walt Whitman was the lyrical inspiration for “I Should Watch TV.” Why was he a touchstone there?

Byrne: I had the beginning of the song, which was totally autobiographical. At one point, I felt that I should watch daytime TV—not the good stuff at night—to understand the land I live in and the people I live amongst and the culture. I’d absorb it like E.T. opening up the refrigerator. That is how I would learn to fit in. That’s a truthful but amusing beginning, but where does it go from there? The song needed to go somewhere else. Instead of just having this honest but goofy idea, it has to take a twist where it has a revelation so it means something else. I thought of Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” where he says, “I contain multitudes.” And I thought, “The multitudes are all the people on the TV, phones, Internet and everywhere else. They’re all around you all the time.”

Speaking of visual elements, who did you get to design the album cover and manipulate your images?

Byrne: There was very little manipulation. It was all done with prosthetics that were put onto our faces by this prosthetic artist, Gabe Bartalos. It’s not Photoshop.

Clark: David suggested the idea of beauty and the beast, but I would be the beast and he would be the beauty. He would be Mr. Virile Astronaut Buzz Lightyear Man. Just to play with things a bit. We threw around the idea of me having little ears or being feral in some way. Later, we refined the idea, so maybe I didn’t have fur on my face but maybe I would have a distorted jaw instead.

Byrne: People don’t even notice that the bridge of Annie’s nose in the picture is really wide. It’s like a dog, wolf or leopard. She’s going more towards animal, but it’s very subtle.

Clark: The nose is very Avatar-y. We went away from something immediately shocking and distorted to something that you look at twice and go, “Ugh. That makes me feel uncomfortable, but I’m not entirely sure why.” The funny thing to me is that I’ve seen a lot of people not notice [David’s] prosthetic. It’s stately, but also like plastic surgery gone a little awry.

Byrne: I wore that prosthetic to a dinner party afterwards. The cabbie who took me there didn’t notice anything. I asked the doorman for directions and he didn’t notice anything. I arrived at the thing and they sort of didn’t notice. I had to say, “This is not real,” and start pulling it off.

Is there a meaning behind the costumes you’re wearing in the picture?

Clark: David had this idea that it would be like back in the day when it was rare to come upon a traveling photographer. We’re proudly posing for the portrait because it’s the only picture that will be taken of us.

Byrne: I went online and pulled a lot of things; pictures of Mormons, a picture of [Latter-Day Saints founder] Joseph Smith, couples—just how they stood next to one another and how their bodies related to one another—and a John Singer Sargent painting.

For the tour, you are playing selections from your back catalogs along with tunes from this new album. Which of your own songs are cropping up in the set lists?

Clark: I’m going to play—and I’m putting this in quotes—“the hits”: “Cruel,” “Cheerleader” and “Marrow.”

Byrne: My choices were rather pragmatic. You have to give people something familiar, so I’ve got [Talking Heads’] “Burning Down the House” and “This Must Be the Place” in there, as well as “Strange Overtones” [from 2008’s Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a collaboration with Brian Eno]. Those will help people find a way into the sound through something they already know. I’m also playing around with adding in a mash-up of [Beyoncé’s] “Crazy in Love” and “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley. We’ll see if it works.

Clark: Maybe you could throw in Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

Byrne: That would be great, though we’d have to speed it up a bit. Sorry, Patsy.

This article is from FILTER Issue 49