David Byrne inspires an inordinate amount of journalistic psychotherapy.
A recent New York Times profile nearly tripped over itself trying to pour words over his shy reserve, even descending into talk about his winding speech patterns and his quick goodbyes.
"Sometimes it's really amusing," says Byrne, on the phone from his hotel room in Santa Fe, N.M. "If it's well written it can be hilarious. It's like reading about somebody else that you know very well, but you sort of don't feel like it's you."
The truth is, for 25 years now, Byrne's been challenging the very foundations of what we consider popular music -- first as the leader of seminal art-rockers Talking Heads and then as an internationally collaborative solo artist and record-label head -- always dancing somewhere near the fringes of musical universality, but never falling off. His credibility seems to come from a tireless adherence to a greater creative vision, one often involving pathos and detachment, but typically delivered with an air of rhythmic celebration. He is American music's shy renaissance man. You can't help but try to figure him out.
His latest release, the beautifully eclectic "Look Into the Eyeball," is perhaps the grand realization of all that's come before it ... literally. When Byrne sat down to create the record, he crafted a wide-eyed mix tape of inspirational songs from sources as diverse as Björk and Marvin Gaye, delivering the tape to his corps of musicians as a template, and working from there to create a personal celebration of the power of music itself.
"I feel like that's how most change happens," says Byrne. "It's something that you hear and then can relate to little tiny sounds that get locked in your brain. They sort of mature or coalesce into a different way of looking at things. I like the idea that one day you can wake up and say, 'Today, I'm not going to do this anymore.'"
But Byrne -- who, on Aug. 25, brings his always pleasing road show to House of Blues -- still is doing exactly what he does best: interweaving complex narratives with organic, almost sexual rhythms. And changing constantly.
He's also sharing the wealth, promoting similarly visionary artists through his 12-year-old record label, Luaka Bop, which counts critical darlings Los Amigos Invisibles and Jim White on its roster. In a sense, he's creating a raised-bar tradition all his own, and insuring that the marketing of music doesn't overpower the evolution of its quality.
"It's all popular music -- Latin or Indian or R&B or whatever it is -- but it's coming from the edges. It still relates to popular styles, but the artists are coming in at an angle," he says. "It feels like the artists are doing a lot of what Talking Heads were doing. They're finding a place where they're not dependent on hit records, but they sure don't mind if they have one."
Talking Heads were formed in 1974, following Byrne's move to New York with fellow Rhode Island friends Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz. (Jerry Harrison joined the group later.) They were the antithesis of the CBGB dirt-punk scene they came to define.
The band scored some of the pop anthems of new wave's turning tide, including "Once In a Lifetime" and "Burning Down the House." Creative differences forced a split by the late '80s, forming a well-publicized rift between Byrne and his former bandmates. (Franz and Weymouth went on together as The Tom Tom Club. They still don't talk to Byrne.)
Byrne then predated the recent Latin music explosion with a series of collaborations, including his own solo debut, "Rei Momo." Although criticized along with Paul Simon for opportunistic cultural imperialism, Byrne insists he was just doing what he knew.
"To me it's a reflection of where I live," says Byrne. "I live in New York and that's a part of music that I hear in New York."
For Byrne, the solo turn also meant a shift in his songwriting angle.
"There's early stuff that was very conceptual and inwardly directed," he says, "and then there was a whole period where a lot of the songs, the words didn't mean anything, literally. There were series of nonsequiturs where it felt right but the words didn't make any sense."
With 1994's sparse eponymous record, Byrne stripped everything down and redirected his career towards more overt observationalism, offering quips like, "I'm just an advertisement for a version of myself."
"It was a conscious decision to try and do something that was less ironic and more personal," he says. "And be really obvious about it."
"Look Into the Eyeball" recalls the punchy exuberance of the Heads, but with the clarity of the new David Byrne. Its centerpiece, "The Accident," is as striking a suicide note as any pop song has ever been, detailing a romance as a car crash and offering "TV crews arrive on the scene and the anchorman may breakdown and weep," to the tune of a Kurt Weil flourish. On "Neighborhood," Byrne turns in a lush, Marvin Gaye afternoon stroll, flowing with breezy optimism. It's all a testament to a musical legend he's slyly become a part of.
"The fact that a song can kind of find its way into the collective consciousness is amazing," Byrne says. "That's pretty ideal, to be able to sneak into people's brains like that."