Tag Archives: David Byrne

Different as It Ever Was: Kidjo’s “Light”

On their 1980 album Remain in Light, Talking Heads thought and acted global. Over the course of their previous three albums, they had made the transition from art-school weirdos to acclaimed rock band. Now, as darkness dawned in Reagan’s America, they wanted to do something truly historical. They thought big, expansive, the foundation of humanity. They thought Africa.

On Remain in Light, an album on the Library of Congress registry, the rock quartet gathered musicians and sounds. Inspired by Afrobeat artists, specifically Fela Kuti, they played with polyrhythms, long jams, horns, backup singers. Most critics and listeners loved it. But even that many years ago, some denounced the white Americans for cultural appropriation. This is what makes Angelique Kidjo’s reinterpretation, or reappropriation if you will, of this seminal album so interesting.

Kidjo is from Benin, West Africa. As a young singer recording her first album in the early 1980s, she enjoyed considerable less cultural freedom than Talking Heads. In fact, in ‘83, she fled the country’s military-controlled government for Paris, not wanting to be pressed into civic service (a story remarkably similar to Celia Cruz’s flight from Havana to the U.S.). In the decades since, she has become a global pop star, famous for her powerful voice, Afrocentric anthems, and irrepressible dance moves. A few weeks ago, she staged a concert-cum-revival at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, mostly playing all the songs from Remain in Light, but also leading the audience — and Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison — in a conga line around the venue for some of her own classic hits.

I love the original Remain in Light; it lived on my turntable when I was in college. But Kidjo makes the songs her own, digging into their juju and finding new resonance in David Byrne’s famed lyrics of alienation — “this is not my beautiful house,” the colonized female sings the colonizer male’s words. Vivien Goldman says Kidjo “triumphantly re-claimed the album for her continent” in her essay on the musician for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the anthology I edited (hitting stores October 9). As you can see from the video above, when Kidjo sings “Born Under Punches,” it’s not a metaphor.

The show was great, phenomenal. But the one thing I missed from the original version were the backing vocals. The interplay between the awkward Byrne in his Tom Wolfe-esque white suit and the grooving singers (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry) was one of the elements that made the live shows captured by Jonathan Demme in the film Stop Making Sense both sweet and transcendent, hilarious and delirious. Fortunately the backing vocals are more prominent on Kidjo’s album version, which drops June 8. But also, the singer brings front and center what the Heads placed 20 feet from stardom, as the saying goes: #BlackGirlMagic

I hear from reliable sources (my brother and St. Vincent) that David Byrne’s current tour is also incredible, which I don’t doubt. I watched Stop Making Sense for the first time in years last weekend; it’s an important document of a band in transition. (Though you do have to wonder what everyone was on that allowed them to perform at that speed and intensity — ah, the ’80s.) Check out the mixture of aerobics and modern dance in “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense.

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King Princess’s Contagious Freedom

“Freedom is contagious,” St. Vincent said at the ASCAP Expo Panel I moderated May 7. It was her lovely, evocative way of answering my question about what it was like to make an album with David Byrne, which she did in 2012, on Love This Giant. In three words, this gifted musician summarized the spirit of artistic collaboration, of two souls open to innovation and communication bouncing ideas off each other, emailing each other bits of sounds and bobs of lyrics, not being afraid to fail in front of each other or to embarrass themselves. I want this saying on a T-shirt: FREEDOM IS CONTAGIOUS. Let’s catch it.

It was an honor to share the stage with St. Vincent, and a pleasant surprise to be there with King Princess, a new artist who is already blowing up on YouTube. My first question was to point out that not only do they both have stage/pen names that denote a high sense of self-esteem, but they are also identities that are at least partially masculine: What kind of freedom does such a put-on persona give them? Both pointed out that their given names — Annie Clark and Mikaela Straus — don’t exactly shout “rock star!” Clark said her given name sounds like a “stoner babysitter from 1985.” “King Princess is like an attitude,” Mikaela explained. “I take comfort in it as kind of a shield to exist in, where I can make cohesive art.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – MAY 07:St. Vincent, Evelyn McDonnell and King Princess attend The 2018 ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO at Loews Hollywood Hotel on May 7, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ASCAP)

Her Holiness and Her Majesty were both articulate, engaging, empowering. I loved the way they spoke to each other, sharing their experiences of being college dropouts (St. Vincent, from Berklee School of Music, King Princess from USC) and urging audience members, especially women, to take advantage of the cheap and easy affordances of such gear as Apogee. But their personal styles were so different. Clark sat straight in her chair, looking elegant and poised in a long dress she had gotten that morning, while Straus lounged in hers, all comfy in a long shirt, pants, and track shoes.

At just 19, King Princess is already a fledgling online celebrity. She has earned her followers not just because she has a strong, vulnerable, warbling voice (think Regina Spektor, kd lang, Amy Winehouse, Lorde) but also because she writes melody-driven songs about longing and loss, aimed unabashedly at female love interests. In interviews and at the Expo panel, she is candid and open about her sexuality. Her song “1950” is an ode to queer history, specifically the book The Price of Salt. She just released her latest song and video. Like “1950,” “Talia” is a song about a lost lover, represented by an inflatable love doll in the video. Watch it here:


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Tharp's Creative License

Twyla Tharp conducted her lecture at USC’s Bing Theatre Oct. 13 a little like a therapy session. She was speaking about “creative skills,” drawing upon her 2003 book The Creative Mind. These skills are rather like self-help exercises, except Tharp drew upon the works of such great artists as Mozart, Shakespeare and David Byrne, not such great psychiatric thinkers as Freud, Reich, or Jung.

I find that when I’m having creative failure (aka writers’ block, and when I say writers’ block, I mean sinking into that abyss where I wonder who am I fooling thinking I can write and start combing the help wanted ads for a “real” job, any job), I often get inspiration by revisiting the work of a favorite inspiration. When Tharp is stuck, she reads Shakespeare sonnets so she can be assured that “someone once knew where they were going.” Choreographing the Milos Forman movie Amadeus, she was endlessly inspired by Mozart’s genius and work habits. He wrote “clean scores,” she marveled — that’s the 18th century equivalent of recording a hit song in one take.

Tharp herself is a bit of a great artist. So I took her adages more as koans than cliches. “When you’re working you can not be critical,” she advised — i.e., when the juices are flowing, don’t stop them by self-censoring. “You get energy from secrets,” she said, explaining why she never reveals what she’s working on next. “Collaborations offer tutorials in reality,” she said. “In the long run, you learn something from everyone and everything.”

The latter words of wisdom are lessons offered in her forthcoming book, The Collaborative Mind. Tharp, after all, has worked with such artists as Byrne (The Catherine Wheel), Billy Joel (Moving On), and Frank Sinatra, or at least his estate (her current show, Come Fly With Me). Having recently read and reviewed Byrne’s new book Bicycle Diaries, I really liked her description of the former Talking Head as a polymath and a poet. She said that The Catherine Wheel is likely to get restaged in 2015, the 50th anniversary of her life as a creative mind.

Ordinarily, I might have found Tharp’s presentation too touchy-feely for my punk hide. And I’m sure glad that I wasn’t the woman who had to go up there and lie on the stage like an egg. But I had just come from a class where a bunch of students had been scoffing at the idea of the artist as some Romantic vestige. I thought such postmodern Barthesian concepts of the death of the author had finally been bankrupted — as Jeff Chang would say, “that’s so 9/10.” (Jeff was talking about the idea of “branding,’’ but I love that phrase and now say it every chance I get.) “Pomo no mo’” is my motto. In the age of content, creativity has been woefully commodified and needs celebrating. So I was up for exercising the creative mind.

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David Byrne Review in LA Times: More Words about Buildings and Food

Ex-Talking Head David Byrne offers a travelogue and eco-exercise musings in his new book, Bicycle Diaries. I reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times. But they took out my favorite line, where I refer to the writings as “more words about buildings and food.”

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