2020 Great Immigrants Recipient

David Byrne
Musician and Filmmaker
Born in:
Scotland

David Byrne was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, to a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. Byrne’s parents decided to leave for Canada because of the employment opportunities, and to escape the family backlash caused by their “mixed marriage” (sectarian tensions were still very much alive in mid-20th-century Scotland). The family arrived in the United States when Byrne was eight years old, settling in Arbutus, Maryland. Byrne’s Scottish accent was incomprehensible to American kids, and he worked hard to lose it fast so he could fit in. As Byrne has recalled, “I felt like a bit of an outsider. But then I realized the world was made up of people who were all different. But we’re all here.” Growing up in a family that loved music, Byrne learned to play the guitar, the accordion, and the violin.

During his sole semester at the Rhode Island School of Design, Byrne met Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz. They formed the New Wave band Talking Heads in 1975, and were later joined by Jerry Harrison. With Byrne as the lead singer and guitarist, Talking Heads would go on to release eight studio albums with iconic songs like “Once in a Lifetime” (1980), “Burning Down the House” (1983), and “Road to Nowhere” (1985). The band also collaborated on Stop Making Sense, a highly regarded 1984 concert film. One of the most influential bands of the 1970s and 1980s, Talking Heads disbanded in 1991.

Christened “Rock’s Renaissance Man” on the cover of Time magazine in 1986, Byrne has had a successful solo career as a singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, and filmmaker. In 2016, he started collecting good news stories as “a remedy and kind of therapy to the state of the world,” a project that evolved into the online publication Reasons to Be Cheerful. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the site has covered efforts in Seattle to build tiny houses for the homeless and looked at how science has shown that art can keep us from going “Covid crazy.” In “We Know How to Fix the Police,” Byrne reflects on the promise of police reform.

Byrne was inspired to write his 2018 studio album American Utopia after reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century classic Democracy in America. Byrne wanted to capture the French political philosopher’s admiration of the American experiment in democracy — and his concern about its fragility. The album and its world tour were adapted into the Broadway show American Utopia, which opened in November 2019 to critical acclaim and packed houses. A film version of the rock spectacle, directed by Spike Lee, will air on HBO in late 2020.

Byrne has been the recipient of many awards throughout his career, including an Academy Award for his contributions to the score of The Last Emperor (1987), a Grammy, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe. Byrne was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 with the Talking Heads.

A long-time green card holder, Byrne became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2012 so that he could vote, and has since been active in voter registration efforts, even putting a voter registration booth at each performance of his Broadway show. For Byrne, American utopia is “about the kind of deep yearning that people have for something better than whatever their current situation is, and a kind of hope that such a thing is possible.”