Why David Byrne has made it his priority to keep positivity alive during the pandemic

Musician David Byrne has put his music on hold to focus on a new project: a website called Reasons To Be Cheerful, which publishes diligently researched stories about good things happening in the world.

'We're kind of biologically programmed to pay more attention to bad news,' Byrne told q's Tom Power

Musician David Byrne has put his music on hold to focus on a new project: a website called Reasons To Be Cheerful, which only publishes stories about good things happening in the world. (Jody Rogac)

If you're feeling bombarded with scary news these days, it can be really tough to stay hopeful.

Musician David Byrne, formerly of the new wave band Talking Heads, has made it his priority to keep positivity alive, especially during the pandemic.

He's put his music on hold to focus on a new non-profit editorial project called Reasons To Be Cheerful, which only publishes stories about good things happening in the world.

Byrne joined q's Tom Power from his home in New York to explain why he wants to provide hopeful headlines to his readers during these challenging times.

Here's part of that conversation.

How is self-isolation going for you?

You know, I think a lot of people are finding this: that you end up taking so many Zoom meetings and calls and conferences — and then there's all the cooking and washing up and everything else — and you go, where'd the time go? I'm busier now than I was before this happened and I think that's true for a lot of people. It's not entirely bad, but there are some mornings I wake up and I think, why am I doing these various projects? Where are they going? When will anyone ever see them? 

I know what you mean. In my opinion, your art has always been about community. It's always been predicated on people being together, whether it be an audience or people on stage. Are you able to make art? Are you able to create by yourself like this? 

Yeah, in some sort of things. I've been doing these little drawings, I've been writing the Reasons To Be Cheerful stuff. I'm not writing a lot of songs. It's, I don't know, it feels like these other things are pressing in on my mind.

Let's talk about Reasons To Be Cheerful. What's to be said for bringing some good news into the world right now? 

I did a talk with a podcast not too long ago and they made the point that we're kind of biologically programmed to pay more attention to bad news. Things that might be dangerous to us. We've evolved to watch out for ourselves that way and so we give those things more attention. And the news media naturally follows that trend.

The better news, the news of solutions, problems that are being solved and progress being made on things that were once thought intractable — they don't make the headlines quite as much, but they're out there.

So we're kind of pushing against our own biological tide in a certain way to bring that stuff to our own attention and to the attention of other people. It's often referred to as a kind of solutions journalism. That's kind of the official word for it. And well, we find that the more we look, the more we find. It's actually pretty good.

Do you have some reasons to be cheerful for us today?

Sure. Here's some stuff that's happening: some of the changes that are being made, that are being spurred by the pandemic, we think are changes for the better and some of those look like they might stick. There's a number of places, not all, but there's a few places where they're giving more of the streets over to pedestrians and cyclists as opposed to cars. 

They're rethinking how much traffic we really need, how much pollution we really need, how many deaths do we really need from cars? Can we cut back on that a little bit? And there are cities that are actually doing that. 

A lot of cities are putting in temporary bike lanes and pedestrian paths and closing streets during the pandemic because there's now hardly any traffic, but some cities are saying, "no, we're going to keep it." We think that's kind of a change for the better. That's an area of my personal interest, I'm an avid cyclist.

Hundreds of cities have handed over their streets to pedestrians and cyclists during the pandemic. Some of them plan to keep it that way. (Mikael Colville-Andersen/Flickr)

I think we're all wondering: how is our society going to look after this? You wrote an essay called The World Is Changing — So Can We in which you said, here's an opportunity for us to see things differently, to see that we're all connected. What do you hope comes out of us when we're out of this?

Well, one hopes that good folks will look to various places, whether it's countries, counties, municipalities, whatever it might be, that are doing well and say, "Oh, we should do what they do. We should use that as an example. They've run the test for us." It's not very risky if someone else has already tried and tested it. So my hope is that people will look for these examples around the world, whether it's pandemic-related or not.

David, does optimism come easily to you? 

I guess so. For the most part, I would say I'm an optimistic person. Like anybody, there's times when I wake up in the morning and I go, what am I doing this for? There are tough times, but I'm mostly optimistic. 

Cynicism seems to have taken a body blow in this. It feels like cynicism got knocked around a little bit and maybe idealism and sincerity are sort of rising because of this pandemic.

Well, what else can you do? If you're going to give in to anxiety and cynicism, you've admitted defeat. Then it got you. You have to kind of rise above that in order to make it through.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with David Byrne.

Edited by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Vanessa Nigro.

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