Inside David Byrne’s Cheerful Dystopia

At the start of his career, when Mr. Byrne was the singer in Talking Heads, fans turned to him for alienation, not hope. He was so stressed and awkward onstage that people with Asperger’s syndrome embraced him as one of their own. After a final Talking Heads album in 1988, he pushed into a solo career that has set an enviable standard for variety and prestige: He started a record label that promoted the music of Brazil and Africa, wrote books and op-ed pieces, won an Oscar (in 1988, as one of the writers of “The Last Emperor” score), composed an operetta about Imelda Marcos and a musical about Joan of Arc, exhibited his visual art, and even had a guest spot on “The Simpsons.”

In Trenton, he was preparing a show so complicated and untraditional, the band and tech crew spent 90 minutes rehearsing how to block and light one transition. To create a bare stage — no amps, stands or risers — the drum parts have been divided between six percussionists. To make all 12 performers fully mobile, some musicians wear harnesses to hold their instruments, which means their matching gray Kenzo jackets need to be cut and resewn.

The choreographer Annie-B Parson, who is collaborating on the new show and has worked with Mr. Byrne since 2008, said he is “writing things that are much warmer now.” The Byrne she sees onstage is a giddy extrovert. “It’s almost like he’s from the old vaudevillian, British music hall tradition.” Without turning into Norman Vincent Peale or Dory, he has edged in the direction of hope.

“I think I am fairly cheerful most of the time,” Mr. Byrne said cheerfully, calling from a hotel room two days after our interview in Trenton. “But I can also be cynical and pessimistic about politics and issues like that.”

Mr. Byrne recorded this album — the follow-up to “Love This Giant,” his 2012 collaboration with St. Vincent — using a labyrinthine method. He heard some drum tracks created by the British producer Brian Eno, with whom he has worked steadily since 1978, and decided to pair them with lyrics he’d written in his notebooks. Mr. Byrne added more instruments, and felt the album was finished.

Then he played it for Mattis With, a producer and musician who also is an executive at Young Turks, the taste-making British label whose artists include the xx, Sampha and FKA twigs. Mr. With, 28, is a Norwegian living in London. (His gallivanting Instagram account will remind you how little you travel, how early you go to sleep and how few gorgeous people you know.) It takes no small amount of chutzpah for a 28-year-old to say that Brian Eno’s tracks aren’t good enough, but that’s what Mr. With gently did. “I thought they were maybe a starting point rather than a finished record,” he explained in an email. He proposed that Mr. Byrne revamp the tracks, using a new set of young collaborators.

Mr. With enlisted his pal Rodaidh McDonald, who produced the record with Mr. Byrne and Patrick Dillett. A 36-year-old Scotsman who’s worked with the xx, King Krule and Adele, and fell in love with Talking Heads while he was in art college, Mr. McDonald set up a kind of audition process, sending the songs electronically to different musicians, and instructing them to keep the structure, tempo and key, but “send me back a reimagined version of the song.” Then he and Mr. Byrne evaluated the competing tracks, decided which they liked best, deleted existing music they no longer loved (including, often, Mr. Eno’s), and sent the songs back to the collaborators who’d done the best job, with directions for further refinements.

“It felt like we were collaging the record back together,” Mr. McDonald said. In some ways, this process has less in common with the standard way of recording music than it does with the Willem de Kooning drawing that Robert Rauschenberg studiously erased in 1953, then named Erased de Kooning Drawing.

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