Behind the Barn: An Interview with Andrew Bird

Dennis Shin
Photo: Cameron Wittig

He whistled his way through The Muppets, soundtracked the film Norman, and has now selfishly recorded his own new effort Break It Yourself on a farm in Western Illinois. Welcome to the wonderful world of Andrew Bird, who gives PopMatters a guided tour through it.

Ever since making his commercial debut in 1996, Andrew Bird has been a musical pioneer, bringing fans, peers and collaborators along for a serendipitous journey. Personifying the creativity and ambition of the DIY renaissance in indie music, the classically trained musician has drawn acclaim for musical virtuosity going all the way back to his collaboration with roots revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers, and a series of releases with his band, Bowl of Fire, including 1999's Oh! The Grandeur, a remarkable cross-section of 20th century American music referencing styles as disparate as jazz, swing, country, folk, gypsy and blues.

While such an ambitious undertaking might represent a career milestone for many, Andrew forged a new direction with the release of Weather Systems in 2003, the first of four albums that saw Andrew operating largely as a solo artist, creating works unique to the relatively narrow confines of indie rock or folk. His musical range showcases a hotpot of influences through a deft touch that often defies categorization, to the splendid exasperation of music scribes accustomed to toiling with the gravitas of an etymologist or stamp collector, in placing their artists into a neat box.

His innate understanding of musicology allows him to assume many roles, effectively wearing the hats of writer, arranger, producer, soloist, scholar, bandleader, and entertainer. While many other contemporary artists take comfort in finding, and tapping into a distinct niche, Andrew is seemingly content to follow his own muse, charting an independent path that reveals a fresh stylistic departure with each release, much to the delight of his fans, free of direct linear connections or adherence to a strictly defined career arc to which many artists become captive. Yet, there is much that remains common: abrupt and sudden shifts in tone and tempo, songwriting comprising both social commentary and explorations of the boundaries of lyrical and vocal phrasing, and the incorporation of signature elements of his live show, including the progressive layering of string instrumental passages and his trademark whistling.

It should come as no surprise that his much anticipated latest album, Break It Yourself, is another departure from the more conscious deliberation that went into his 2009 breakthrough, Noble Beast.

Break It Yourself is another eclectic collection of tracks, which should both win over his long time fans, while continuing to broaden his appeal to an expanding fan base. After tacking in a different direction with each of the previous releases, particularly his movement to a wide range of instruments on Armchair Apocrypha, followed by a focus on his virtuosity on the violin with Noble Beast, it would stand to reason that he would come full circle with his latest. But whereas Noble Beast seemed almost whimsical in its drift, the new songs seem grounded, returning Bird to more of a full band sound prevalent on Armchair, including long time collaborators Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar and Mike Lewis on bass and Nora O'Connor on vocals.

"It was a vastly different recording process than Noble Beast, which was comparably controlled and done in segments. As I mentioned back then, Noble Beast was sculpted, consisting of carefully considered pieces. I was treating each piece like it was different from the larger creation. I would describe Break It Yourself as bringing [companion album] Useless Creatures and Noble Beast back together in terms of the experimentation. Improvisation is more prevalent on this one. It's a little wilder and more in the moment. It's inspired. I recorded songs very early on in the creative process. A lot of the ideas are first instinct, not mulled over endlessly. Whatever our first instinct was, that is what is on the record."

Break It Yourself features a wide variety that includes some of his most straightforward pop songs, including "Eyeoneye" and "Give It Away", to the irresistible, Afro-Caribbean rhythms of "Danse Caribe", to the existential angst of "Desperation Breeds". "Eyeoneye", and "Give It Away" feature a more traditional pop structure, continuing down a path introduce on Noble Beast, which while not so novel to those new to Andrew's body of work, will likely come across as a revelation to longtime fans. Not only are Andrew's vocals more distinctive: Andrew actually appears to croon!

"I'm just singing my ass off," Andrew chuckles. "I have to ... the drums are a few feet away. I need to hear myself so I'm just projecting, which is what I do on stage. You have that audience there, and you gotta project ... you're singing to the back row. It's hard to harness that in the studio, especially a small room."

In relative terms to his ornate, complex arrangements, 2009's Noble Beast was a relaxed, looser effort, sampling natural sounds and engaging in lyrical phrasing that were exercises in vocal experimentation. The new material extends the looser approach to songwriting even further. If fans detect a more natural unforced quality to the album, one can chalk this up to the approach. While Noble Beast was recorded in a variety of controlled environments, including a studio in Nashville and Wilco's Loft studio in Chicago, Break It Yourself was the result of sessions recorded in Andrew's retreat, his family barn in Western Illinois.

"What's interesting is that this was not supposed to be a recording session. It was just supposed to be a jam session. I just talked to the guys in the band. We had never given ourselves a chance to jam together. I mean we do when we play our set on stage and we mess around with the arrangements night to night. But in the past it was kind of like 'Let's jump on stage and see what happens.' This time I thought, it might be good for us to get together and just play. By now, I know well enough that sometimes those first moments are hard to recapture, so I made sure they were recorded. And in the process, I realized we were getting the record. When I started off, I didn't think I was going to get the record."

The ease and grace by which Andrew Bird integrates musical influences into his sound are so natural and unforced, that it's hard to believe that at times, Andrew has labored with the process. There is a fine balance for any artist, the desire to inject spontaneity into any performance, and coming to the table prepared with ideas fleshed out, tendency to do the former, but then labor over finished product, some case later reworking or revisiting songs such as "I" and "Skin" off Weather Systems, or in case of album, scrapping and going through several drafts of The Mysterious Production of Eggs.

"It was a pretty easygoing session," Bird continues, "Very humble. We just all lived in the barn. Mike Lewis brought Wendy down to cook for us. We used our front of the house engineer to record the whole record, with really un-fancy gear at all."

Andrew maintains a fairly intense road schedule, on the road as much as 200 dates a year. Given the free-form feel of the sets, one would expect that the band has had the opportunity to play around with ideas, throwing them out in a live setting, and using that to shape what comes out in the studio. Tracks such as "Lusitania", "Hole in the Ocean", and "Orfeo Looks Back" have been featured on shows in the last year. Andrew seems to be in his element as a live performer, tending to be very open, with an easy, almost confessional banter with the audience in concert. The set list, composed of spare arrangements, builds incrementally through pedal loops, creates an indelible impression on the audience, as if they were let in on a rehearsal or studio recording session. Not surprisingly, this intimacy tends to evoke a wide range of reaction, with people speaking about shows on very personal terms.

"I hadn't really captured that free-flowing off the cuff feeling on a record until now. Usually I would improvise, and whittle my ideas down to these distilled, distinct ideas. And there still is that on this record. There are succinct themes like "Eyeoneye". [The free-flowing nature] is usually captured more on the improvisations that lead to these ideas, as opposed to the final product. So I really wanted to nail that. Also, I don't feel like I've nailed the way I really sing to my satisfaction on a record until now. I think there's the benefit of doing it so quickly, and so intensively, and then keeping it, much like a live performance. It keeps you from forgetting who you are and what you sound like. Sometimes recording sounds like you're listening to your own outgoing message on your voicemail -- when it's like 'is that me?'"

It's comforting to hear Andrew talk about the camaraderie of being in the studio, and playing live. In a candid look at his own recording process that he wrote for the New York Times, Andrew reflected on the finer details of what can be a labor-intensive process. That's why it's even surprising to hear that the shifts in tone and tempo on "Give it Away", which despite its pop sound has distinct sections, including an instrumental segue featuring looped violin passages, the main melody, and a separate guitar solo, were not the product of much noodling. "That was one linear performance; there was no editing on that song", Andrew adds helpfully.

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