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Ornithology: An Interview with Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird Takes Off.

    Andrew Bird is evolving. He still whistles mellifluously, and his violin continues to be his alter ego, the magic cloak that dissolves his shyness. His lyrics are just as grandiloquent as ever, and his loops are still wrapping around audiences, pulling them into his onstage multi-instrumental—violin, guitar, mandolin and glockenspiel—spectacle. But Bird, the Chicago-born, -raised and -made artist who has particularly avoided categorization, someone who wishes his music wasn’t labeled “indie rock” but usually is, continues his evolution with “Noble Beast,” his latest record, released last month in conjunction with an instrumental album.   

    Critics have said the 14-song album is Bird’s most approachable, mainstream record to date, with pop-like undertones and even some repetition, tokens the virtuoso has in the past vehemently avoided. Asked what he’d think if he listened to “Noble Beast” at 22, a time when he, perhaps more opinionated, tuned out the contemporary music scene and instead stayed up all night listening to old jazz records, swing, calypso and folk, the now 35-year-old Bird says:   

    “I think I would be—I had very different tastes in some ways back then. I was more impatient. I might have found some things I'm doing now as being boring, whereas now I see it as being patient. I found a lot of indie rock or pop music just repetitive and boring when I was 22. Now I get it a little more. I understand space. Back then I was all jacked up ready to express myself.”    

    Back then Bird would go to the Green Mill at 11 a.m. to listen to the jukebox in solitude. A then-recent graduate of Northwestern University, where he'd studied classical violin, he'd been surrounded by music his entire life (he started studying the violin at four, following the Suzuki method, which emphasizes learning by ear in a nurturing environment). In his early 20s, Bird played anywhere he could—at weddings, funerals, Wisconsin's Renaissance Fair—anxious to prove he could make a living as an artist. He’s never had a job other than music. Looking back, he says it was "kind of stupid” and that he “overdid it.” Bird ended up blowing out his arm and developing tendonitis. “I didn't fix my tendonitis,” he says. “I just got a record deal and went on the road and only played three hours a day instead of eight to 10.”   

    That deal was when he got a surprise record contract from Rykodisc. He formed a band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, and they recorded “Thrills” in New Orleans in 1997. The band went on to release two more albums, laden with folk, jazz and swing influences. This was just the start of what would be almost a decade of struggling as an artist, trying to sell small shows, records and an audience.   

    Sitting at Francesca’s Forno on a December evening with a blizzard forecasted to arrive any moment, Bird’s just come from painting the walls of his Bucktown apartment in bold colors, he says. It's time to relax—both here and at his farm in Elizabeth, Ill.—before his own storm, the release of the album and subsequent tour. It had been just announced that he’d headline the Hideout’s inaugural concert in D.C., a sort of kick-off for his own tour, with a drummer, guitarist and bass player. Bird, a musician who's thrived on being fringe, who still enjoys biking around town putting up his own posters, is poised to become what he’s both sought and fought—incredibly popular. His third and current label, Fat Possum, expects this, his eighth studio album, recorded in Nashville and at the Wilco Loft in Chicago, to be the one to make him an unequivocal star, and they’ve thrown unprecedented promotional support behind it. In September, 13,000 people showed up for his Millennium Park concert, rushing the stage in an after-concert frenzy, and his upcoming April show at the Civic Opera House sold out within a couple of hours (they then added a second show). But Bird watchers aren’t gazing upward only in Chicago. Performing more than 200 concerts a year across the globe, he just played a sold out show at Carnegie Hall. In fact, he’s selling out everywhere.  

    Bird, tall, slim and dressed in jeans and a sweater over a button-down, with a wave of brown hair falling in the middle of his forehead, eyes dark and deep set, is thoughtful and soft-spoken, although as he gets more comfortable, his speaking voice becomes soulful. He’s shy and makes no effort to cover it. “I feel very comfortable onstage and very uncomfortable offstage, mostly,” he says. It’s performing that clearly drives him. His parents tell him that at three and four he’d perform for elevators full of people, singing Christmas carols in July. It’s the same boy who would become painfully shy in public school, but would be able to get up in front of the class and effortlessly give a book report. Bird says he makes records today so he has an excuse to be onstage and play shows.   

    “It’s an adventure,” he says. “And it’s real. People are getting out of their houses or apartments and coming into a dark room or space to be involved in this sort of music ritual. It's a pretty special thing. I put much more stake in that than the record as an object or a document of sort.”

    Onstage, as he crisscrosses and bounces with his instruments, often times wearing only his trademark colorful socks, manipulating the pedals of his looping station, he flourishes on keeping his routine slightly different and avoiding formulas, often improvising. “As soon as an idea is fresh, I really want to show it to people,” Bird says. “There's nothing like that feeling of playing a song for the first time for an audience, whether it's finished or not. It’s like it's been your companion for a while, and you get really excited about it. You try to recapture that moment every night, but it’s hard because you don’t always have new songs to share with people.”  

    In the time he says he spends alone and in the themes he brings up repeatedly, it’s evident that Bird is pensively buried in his thoughts, in the often-paradoxical world of the artist. As more of the world listens to his music, he frets about being too loyal to his own ideas and to what he's done, worried about falling into a pattern. Bird mentions “loyalty” a lot in reference to his work, as in avoiding it. He discusses the struggle in making the right things “precious.” Most of his friends (along with his mother) are print artists—Audrey Niffenegger, Chris Ware, Jay Ryan—and he admires their ability to let go, to not be too loyal to each print. He scrapped two recordings of his album “The Mysterious Production of Eggs” before the third was a charm. Lately the meticulous Bird been going back to old songs he wrote and changing lines that bother him. The song “Headsoak” from “The Swimming Hour” has “a couple regrettable lines,” he says. He struggles between taking his time and being fussy about lyrics and working fast and not trying too hard.  

    “Sometimes an idea will just go away for a year and then pop back up,” says Bird, who feels that if you have to write it down, it’s not worth remembering. “I just prefer to keep an idea kind of mysterious. I don’t want to know where it’s coming from and nail it down. I get a lot of ideas, just sounds wafting out of windows. There’s nothing like being in a foreign city and kicking around for a couple of hours with no agenda. It’s incredibly inspiring. I take those ideas back to my barn, and they're all kind of packaged up in my brain. I just take them out and fold them throughout the day. That’s what motivates me, knowing there’s no formula for it, no guarantee of writing a great song. I try to get as far along on a song with just this not-really-trying-too-hard approach.”    

    But Bird's loquacious lyrics, full of words from a science textbook, are anything but a songwriter’s simple happenstance. For this album, he went to Garfield Park Conservatory and the Field Museum for linguistic inspiration. “I figured novelists do that,” he says. “Actors do method acting. Why can’t a songwriter also do that sort of thing? I got some good lines out of it.  Like, ‘The colony of dermestids undressed and digested.’ Usually I don’t force songs that much, but in this case I just wanted to try it out. Also, I just really wanted to finish the song instead of waiting for stuff to pop into my head. It could take another couple of years if taking that passive approach that I usually do.”   

    The natural world reigns as a centerpiece in most of his work, and the melodic whistling and last name serve to tightly anchor that, so much so that one wonders, was he really born a “Bird”? He was. Growing up in Lake Bluff, the second youngest of four children, Bird remembers wandering through ravines with a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass, “throwing myself on a pile of decaying matter, going inside there, pretending that I was microscopic.” While never interested in nature in an academic way, he embraced its passageway into a fantasy world.   

    “I guess the two big themes of the last couple records are childhood and nature, and they’re just areas you can go—they're uncorrupted,” Bird says. “You can’t really argue with nature. You can't argue with childhood imagination. So it kind of makes sense. I think you're just looking for subject matter that's fresh and pure and free from insincerity and pretentiousness.”   

    Still Bird maintains that his lyrics have more to do with how they sound than what they mean. He usually starts constructing a song without lyrics or an instrument—only with melodies. With four or five songs typically swirling in his head, he says he tries to keep the process “non-deliberate.”   

    “There's a certain rhythm or pace that employs your body so your mind can just—that's the whole ‘whistle while you work’ thing,” he says. “That’s literally what I do. I just stir it around in my head and let the music come out through whistling. If I’m in my apartment in Chicago, I’ll eventually pick up my guitar and start singing sounds and vowels, which then start to sound like words. I only do it if I’m inspired to do it, but I usually am inspired. If I’m out at my barn and melodies pop into my head, I’ll go over to my looping area and just start trying things out. I can get up to six or seven layers. I’ll create the parameters of the melody and do counterpoint. I can keep it running and go off and take a shower or take care of something else, but my barn is just a big open space, so I’m hearing it. And I start singing to it, even though it’s across the room, my little nook there in the sort of tapestry of violins.”     

    About lyrics, he says, “But you do have an audience, and you don't want to take their attention for granted in terms of the content of the songs. I do really care mostly about the melodies, but the voice gives the melodies a human weight and a human presence, and I figure, I've got your attention, let’s talk about something interesting. I’ve got a handful of I guess what you’d call relationship songs, but I feel like that's well covered. [Love songs] have to be so simple and sincere that they stand out. I kind of want to save those emotions for—I wouldn't want to sing 12 love songs night after night after night and have to believe in them every night, you know. I prefer subject matter that’s kind of more of a blueprint—you can read into it what you will. It could be a relationship between two people or some geo-political conflict. ‘Not a Robot, But a Ghost’ from the new album is one that could be seen that way. You could read it as a protest song or it could be a personal protest song, between two people. Some of the songs get quite complicated, and then I just like to switch it up. Then the next song is going to be so basic and so elemental and emotional that it's made precious.”   

    Bird learned how to loop several years ago—when he had more free time—out at his farm. Looping is basically overdubbing live on top of music, building layer upon layer. He says he likes that it’s quick, neither killing the inspiration nor making him self-conscious, and that to make a new idea, he has to erase the old one. He describes the loop as a “sound sculpture,” a “block of sound I can visualize between me and the audience,” adding notes where they’re needed. He usually starts with a pizzicato pattern, with its rhythmic shape.

    “I add some bass or cello with another analog pedal that drops it an octave,” he says, along with maybe some whistles and claps. “I can get seven or eight tracks going. It’s a pretty amazing tool. People think it must be a lot to think about onstage, but it’s actually a very intuitive device. Because the violin is a linear instrument, you really can’t do much counterpoint with it. It's also up against your throat, so it’s hard to sing. So it was really an ideal tool. It creates sort of a symphonic sound, but I don't really use it to replicate a symphony. I use it as a completely different instrument.”

    When Bird’s back home in Chicago, he likes to bike around town, just “running errands,” visiting friends, meeting with local artisans, like Ian Schneller, who makes his Victrola-like speakers. “Some of the more satisfying things I’ve done over 12, 13 years in the city is just riding around on my bike, taking care of business,” he says, smiling after emphasizing the latter part. Some of that business is designing the record covers, which he says is “hugely” important to him. The visual side of his music, from posters to record covers, “saved me and continues to save me from being so focused on music that I lose perspective.” For a limited edition of “Noble Beast,” he worked with Chicago artist Diana Sudyka to create illustrations for each song, something that reminds him of a Shel Silverstein book.   

    “‘Fits and the Dizzy  Spells’ was the most elusive one because I’m talking about volcanoes and tectonic plate shifts, aubergines and nightmares,” Bird says. “Just the general vibe of the song is flail. So I thought how about some animal that's out in the field just freaking out, distracting its predator by just flipping out, confusing him. So Diana did this beautiful drawing of kind of a bird of paradise.”  

    Bird, who says he doesn’t “really have a sense of the music world,” sees somewhat of a leveling of the musical playing field, which he recognizes has helped an artist like him reach a greater audience. He says there’s also an increased demand for content, online extras and bonuses. “You just have to be careful that things aren’t devalued and you’re spread too thin,” he says. It’s the tricky balance between spreading and promoting what one's done and coming up with new concepts, furthering oneself as an artist. “It’s amazing how many ideas you’re really capable of kicking out in one day, as long as you have the life energy to do it. But you just have to not let the gears start to slow down so much and not be too precious about what you've just made.”

Published: February 18, 2009
Issue: February 2009 Design Issue