Like many young violinists, Andrew Bird’s first violin was made out of a Cracker Jack box, tape and a ruler. His first musical memory, however, was of his father holding a real violin above him as he leapt to grab it. But before he could actually hold one, he had to get acquainted with the instrument. At age 4 he received his first violin, and from there started soaking up classical repertoire completely by ear.
Trained in the Suzuki method of learning music—which applies the basic principles of language acquisition to the learning of music—Bird, over the course of his two-decades long career, has crafted music that has shifted and changed with the years, spanning jazz, blues and folk among various other genres, and experimenting with new technologies using loop pedals to layer voice, whistling and violin.
His initial success and commercial exposure came with the band Squirrel Nut Zippers and his group Bowl of Fire in the mid to late ’90s. Then in the early 2000s, he went on to radically reinvent himself as a solo artist, adopting a utilitarian indie-folk sound that has been given life through pristine arrangements, wordplay and observations. To date, he has released 13 albums total and remains one of the foremost singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists out there.
Bird’s latest album, Are You Serious, released last April, is the musician’s most personal to date, and features a chronological thread with more of a focus on lyrics than tone. Last year, he also started Live from the Great Room, an online music series where he invites fellow musicians to his living room for an intimate live performance. During a recent phone interview with Bird, he answered a few questions and described the nature of those living room shows as “beautifully simple.”
See Andrew Bird perform on Tue, June 27 at Pepsi Amphitheater, Exit 337 off I-17 south of Flagstaff at FortTuthillCountyPark. Up-and-coming singer-songwriter Margaret Glaspy will kick off the night. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the music starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $22–$39. To purchase tickets, call (866) 977-6849 or visit www.pepsiamphitheater.com. To learn more about Andrew Bird and his music, check out www.andrewbird.net.
Andrew Wisniewski: I’ve always viewed the life of a musician to be sort of like one great conversation. With that in mind, and the amount of time you’ve been making music, what’s the conversation you’re having with yourself at this point in your career?
Andrew Bird: At this point there’s always been this push and pull between: Is it time to experiment? Is it time to stretch out? Or is it time to buckle down and write? You know, precise, melodic songs. And the question of: Do I combine the experimentation within the song or do I carve out a separate space for that sort of thing? And I’ve done both over the years.
It’s been a year since Are You Serious came out and I just started writing a lot now, so I’m back in that frame of mind and I’m trying to decide how I’m going to approach this next batch of songs. And there’s still that feeling when I get up in the morning, when I go to write, that maybe today I’ll write that song—the one that resonates with the most people in the most intense way. That’s mostly what’s going on.
You’ve experimented with a lot of different music styles and technologies. Is there one you like best or go back to? Or has it all just kind of snowballed together and become part of where you are now, musically?
For the last 12 to 15 years it’s been kind of none of the above and everything at the same time. It’s not in any specific genre, though in the last five or six years I went into a sort of scrappy, live, old-timey, roots-y phase, and just whatever itches I haven’t scratched for a while I like to get back to. I just want to make sure one aspect of my musicality isn’t withering as I delve into something else. That being said, you don’t always hear it stylistically, but there’s always a jazz spirit in my music. That’s still my favorite music to go back to.
Now that it’s been a little more than a year and you’ve had time to reflect on it, how do you see your latest record, Are You Serious, fitting into the evolution of your music?
Are You Serious was a real push for sonic quality—I just wanted to take it to the extreme of sound quality and performance. Like I said, the previous couple records were very fill and go, and rough and realistic. And this one has some of that, but it got very detailed with sounds and there’s a very specific—what I consider the ideal sonic palate.
As far as the subject matter and the content, that was a different story. I learned a lot about the perils of chronicling your personal travails in your songs. It’s a funny dichotomy that things happen in your life that are very intense, and you’re a songwriter, so you process what happens to you through your songs. And the stuff that happened was so intense in dealing with possible mortality and family and that kind of stuff, to do it justice, it had to be dealt with in a very open way—but then by doing that, you also expose you and your family to scrutiny in a journalistic realm. Not in the performance realm, that all is fine. But it definitely got really hairy when the record came out and journalists and publicists were scrambling for the personal interest story. It got really unpleasant.
With life being fuller and maybe more urgent, I imagine that doesn’t necessarily mean the music is rushed. Has your creative process changed as you’ve grown and now that you’re a husband and father?
I don’t really hold office hours, I never have. You just never know when the good stuff starts prying in your head and you have to pay attention … You’re just grabbing at it when you can. Though, I guess it used to be more so like that, and now I really have to carve out some quiet space. Basically, what I’ve discovered over the years is vacations are good for business, and my business is daydreaming and writing songs. Just getting away from your daily routine seems to do the trick.
Musically you learned how to play through the Suzuki method, which you’ve said is like learning a language. Does that language take different forms over time or is it more of a constant conversation?
I think it forms these neural pathways very early that are linked to the language part of the brain, and that opens into music, so your ear is just open from an early age to everything. And so the ear just keeps getting bigger and bigger as you grow older. And just with all other sensory things, things can get huge and other things can atrophy. I think the Suzuki method—I would describe as a prefab world tradition. It made jumping out of classical music not as big a deal as it is for those who are trained traditionally. Also, folk traditions and world traditions made a lot of sense to me—more sense really than classical. And socially it made more sense to me than the orchestra environment.
It’s interesting because a lot of people may not know that based on the orchestral, compositional nature of your music. That you don’t read music, it just flows through you.
It’s on some spectrum between totally free improvisation and very constructed, written music. It’s like a very fast—or lightly slowed down—composition. But I don’t like to call myself a composer. I just like to think as I did from an early age, I make up songs. It sounds so rigid when I say composer …
You feel different every 15 minutes of the day, and the music you play needs to be malleable to that. And songs will transform throughout the day depending on your energy flow and how you feel—and certainly over the days and months and years. The most successful songs I’ve written are just blueprints and seem to be fertile for ideas. Chord progressions are just patterns that every time I play them, they burst with new melodies.
Is making music still as fun and romantic as when you began?
Parts of it are. The writing process—just not knowing what is going to come out of you, and not being able to ever pin it down is really what keeps me engaged. The mysteriousness of that.
It sure would be a shame if you hit a point where you felt like you did it.
Well, every time I make a record I’m like, this time. This time I’m gonna get it. But then I’m afraid of what would happen if I did actually nail it, or whatever that is. I’m always like, I don’t know if I sing as well on the records as I do live. But then there’s that trick of you try to do a live record in the studio and it doesn’t measure up. It’s a constant elusive thing that gets you up in the morning to keep trying.
Do you have a sense of what the next progression might be for your music?
I just really enjoy this moment when I don’t know what’s gonna happen yet ... I had a revelation when I was touring with the Lumineers and we’d play and cover “Naive Melody” by the Talking Heads, and I was singing it to 15,000 people and I was like, Man, I’ve got to write a song like this—just because it felt so good. And I was like, why do I keep writing songs that are hard for me to sing and to resonate? So, I’ve made 13 records and I’m still struggling, and maybe that’s how it should be. But it sure would be nice to write that song where everything comes together … I’ve been saying this for years, but maybe today I’ll write the song that gets America singing the same song together in our totally fractured society. You get these delusions of grandeur like that, but let’s call it optimism.