There are shows and then there are David Byrne’s American Utopia. Imagine a bright mosaic of dance and music from dazzling musicians and dancers as Byrne shares his thoughts on humanity, hope, and staying (relatively) sane in a chaotic world. “The show has something to say about who we are right now and the possibilities of who we might be in the future,” Byrne shares of this hybrid play / concert.
While the stage can be sparse with barefoot musicians and dancers in identically tailored gray suits, the production is a decadent feast for all the senses. “It’s something unexpected, very different visually, very minimalist in this beautiful open space, which is very different for Broadway.” says longtime Annie-B collaborator Parson Byrne who directed and choreographed American Utopia, currently performing at the St. James Theater. In fact, the musicians are completely detached from the electrical cords, so they are free to move and dance around the stage.
One of these musicians is guitarist Angie Swan. This Berklee College of Music graduate has performed with Macy Gray, Will.i.am, Cee Lo Green, Adam Lambert, Billy Porter, Fifth Harmony and toured with Cirque du Soleil. Amaluna. For Swan, who first toured with American Utopia before you get to Broadway, there’s a lot of joy in doing the show.
“Joy is powerful. The power of music flows through languages, ”she says. “I have always considered music as the universal language. The beat begins in our hearts and souls, which we all have. He is the one who is able to bring people together. It doesn’t matter where they come from. It doesn’t matter what their religious or political beliefs are.
Jeryl Brunner: Can you tell me when you found out you would be working with David Byrne?
Angie Swan: When I auditioned for David Byrne in August 2017, I was living in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A professor from Berklee College of Music, where I attended university, contacted me via Facebook Messenger. She informed me that an “artist” was looking for a guitarist who can also sing and dance. I don’t consider myself to be a good dancer. But as a musician, I thought I had enough rhythm. The musician must have been located in New York, which I was not at the time.
I got more information and was told it was for David Byrne. I was a Talking Heads fan long before. I quickly sent letters of recommendation and cassettes from former employers, such as Cirque de Soliel and various other artists. The craziest thing is, I haven’t heard from the audition in weeks. I randomly checked my junk / spam mailbox to find a personal email from David himself. He asked me if I was interested in being a part of the project because he really liked my audition tapes. I jumped at the chance and moved to New York in February 2018 to start rehearsals for the world tour “
Brunner: What could surprise people about David Byrne?
Swan: I got to know David so well that nothing really surprises me anymore. We have built a great friendship over the past few years and it is truly amazing to have developed such a wonderful relationship with someone that I have admired for decades. We are candid with each other and we hold each other accountable. He is open to change and responsible. What surprises me about me is that I haven’t asked her to sing on my next EP yet. Be ready.
Brunner: I read that you had seen concerts at the 23,000-seat Marcus Amphitheater and wanted to perform on a stage of this size. What made you fall in love with these concerts?
Swan: I worked as a usher at the Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee during high school just to be close to the arts and entertainment. I had such an adrenaline rush overall: the lighting, the sound and the reactions of the spectators. I loved the feeling of being together. It was pure magic and very cathartic. I loved watching people sing together and coming together was such a heartwarming experience. I knew I wanted to invoke this in others.
Brunner: When did you know you had to be a musician?
Swan: Well, I wanted to play guitar first to try to get boys to like me. But the irony is, I don’t even seek the attention of the boys. [She chuckles.] I grew up in a very musical household. My mother is a fan of many styles of music. My father also plays guitar and bass. He had orchestral rehearsals in our family’s basement when I was growing up. When I saw the Michael Jackson music video Dirty Diana and watched Jennifer Batten play guitar, I knew I wanted to play guitar. Again, I thought it would give me the boys I never wanted. [Swan sips tequila].
In addition to music, I am interested in the culinary arts, golf, and falling asleep watching bad movies. I’m also a fan of math and numbers which easily translated into my interest in the stock market and cryptocurrency etc. I have learned over time that diversification is the key not only financially, but also in the way I live my life. And diversity, musically speaking, has broadened my musical career and allowed me access to a variety of employment opportunities. I try not to take myself too seriously. Which helped me keep my stress levels low.
Brunner: Why do you like being on the show?
Swan: To be completely honest, I love and am super grateful to have a job again. As we know, the live entertainment industry, along with others, has been hit hard over the past year and a half.
What I love most about American Utopia is being able to have a platform and stage to carry the message of unity, fairness and equality to an audience often, sometimes unconsciously, privileged. I perform in the hope that they get something out of the show that makes them want to be better within their communities and beyond. Many topics on the show that I deal with on a daily basis as a black person living in the United States. As Dwayne Reed said, “White supremacy will not die until white people see it as a white problem they must solve rather than a black problem they must empathize with.
Brunner: Can you talk about your first visit to New York when you were twelve?
Swan: In 1993, I arrived in New York. While I saw my first Broadway musical there, Cats. I had only started playing guitar three months before. Still, I found myself asking a guitarist in a Chilean restaurant if I could sit down and play “Mary had a little lamb”. I was dared by a classmate. I never had the idea that I would perform on stage on Broadway. I always thought I would be a touring / TV musician rather than a Broadway artist. I am truly grateful that I was able to do it all.