If there’s something to be learned from the recent collaboration between St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, it’s that with certain artists, you simply never know what you’re going to get. The pair met three years ago in New York City, pushed together by the same folks who united Björk and Dirty Projectors a few years back. Given a platform to perform a few songs for a good cause (the Housing Works Bookstore in SoHo), the duo began writing, exchanging ideas and treatments via email from their respective homes and tour buses. Not surprisingly, the pair hit it off. After all, both Byrne and Clark are known for their quirky and cerebral take on pop music, both work mostly on guitar, and both lay claim to wonderful and instantly recognizable voices.
As with most musical collabs, the writing eventually gave way to recording, which brings us to the pair’s recent release, Love This Giant. The record is a surprising and horn-driven collection that melds Clark’s intricate, tightly wound compositions and icy deliveries with Byrne’s socially inquisitive lyrics and fun-loving arrangements. “There was no leading,” explained Clark recently via phone. “It’s a pretty even collaboration. We were both all over every part of it.”
This Thursday, October 11, at the Arlington Theatre, Byrne and Clark bring Love This Giant to life, brass section and all. I caught up with Clark to talk about the process, the live show, and the dance moves behind the collaboration.
You’ve rubbed shoulders with plenty of music legends at this point. Were you starstruck when you first met David? Yeah. I was starstruck when I met David, for sure. But once we started working together, he just becomes your friend and your collaborator and your musical partner. I did have a moment onstage just a couple nights ago, though, when we were playing “Burning Down the House.” I looked over and I was like, “I’m playing ‘Burning Down the House’ with David Byrne. This is the first song that I ever heard from the Talking Heads when I was 3 years old, and I am playing this song with this person.” It’s nuts.
How did the writing break down? We had to kind of figure out a way to work together. Everyone has their process; some people start with words and then write music to it, and some people write music and words are the last thing. There’s a number of ways to do it. At first, David sent me some words and was like, “Will these help?” and I had never worked like that, so that didn’t work out very well. But the way that we ended up doing it, he or I would send the other person a little bit of music and the other person would add a melody to it, or it was a simple melody and the other person would deconstruct the chord part of it and make it a horn arrangement. So, we worked in a number of ways.
Was there anything that stood out to you about his approach? What I really like about David is there’s this sense of just going for it. He’s not afraid to look or sound silly when he’s trying ideas out, and I think that’s really important. It’s a cliché, but you know, no risk, no reward. I think we have complementary ways of working in that we both tend to look at music almost like puzzles and riddles to be solved. In that way, it didn’t feel like we were going to step on each other’s toes if we moved things around or cut and pasted and deconstructed the other person’s work.
For a record made by two prolific guitar players, there’s not a whole lot of guitar on this album. Yeah. My instinct at first was just to put guitar on stuff, just because that’s such a big part of what I do. But David said no, let’s strip it back and make it really just about the horns. You’ll hear a little bit of his rhythm guitar, which acts more as a percussive rhythmic thing than a chordal thing, which is great. I think it really allows the record to be its own thing and not sound like it was trying to get pulled too much in either direction. It’s its own voice.
How did the horns work into the writing process? That was really what we were focusing on most, making sure the brass arrangements were really solid. Part of that was totally logistical; we needed to hire the brass players, and we needed the arrangements to be really tight because we had one group of players coming in for a three-hour chunk of time, and the charts have to be ready. You can’t do a whole lot of rewriting on the spot. I tend to really not know what I’m working with until I hear it with real players, and then it’s like, “Oh, no, let’s move this and shift that around.” But David is a bit more methodical and likes to have things more figured out and prepared before you go into the studio, which I really respect. So with the horns, it was really a mad dash of get the take, get the take. But they’re all live, real horns in real time. It was exciting to be in the room when it was all finally coming together.
And you’ve got the brass section out on the road with you. How have the shows been going? Yes. We’ve got eight horns, down from 16. The shows have been great. We started about a week ago in Minneapolis, and it’s a really fun mix. There’s something for everyone with the live show. We’re playing most of Love This Giant, but we’re also playing David’s songs and Talking Heads classics and St. Vincent songs, so the energy starts high and stays high, which is nice. With all that music to choose from, you don’t have to play too many B-sides. [Laughs.]
I’ve heard rumor of choreography. Yeah. The woman who choreographed [the show] is Annie-B Parson of the Big Dance Theater and she’s great. She really works with what people can do and what they feel comfortable doing and makes that work for the show.
Have you given any thought to what comes next, or more collaboration projects in the future? Well, I’ve kind of reached the top of who I want to collaborate with with David, so I don’t know if I’ll start collaborating with just anybody down the road. But I think we’re going to do this tour in the States — we’re in Canada right now — and we’re going to go to Australia in January. I’m hoping we go to Europe with it in the spring. It’s a really good show, and it’s an artistic show that, I think, doesn’t come off as pretentious or too hoity-toity. I’m really proud of it.
Finally, favorite Talking Heads album? I’m going to say Remain in Light. That’s definitely my favorite record.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents David Byrne and St. Vincent in concert at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) on Thursday, October 11, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info.