Behind the Barn: An Interview with Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird
Break It Yourself
Mom + Pop

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.

Bird has crafted a live experience that bears the intimacy of a chamber music recital…

On top of his accomplishments in the studio, Andrew has crafted a live experience that on first impression, bears the intimacy of a chamber music recital, creating the modern equivalent to the turn of the last century experience of putting on a phonograph in one’s drawing room. Typically, he walks onto the stage alone, starting out simply by tuning his chief instrument, the violin. Through a series of pedal loops, the individual string passages meld into a multi-layered sequence of pizzicato violin phrases, forming the backbone for the band’s performance. Before long, the audience is taken along for a trip into his creative process, an inside-out look of songs as they unfold, a marked contrast to the verse, chorus, anthem, solo, and encore conventions of most pop or rock shows. While drawing upon common elements with his classical music heritage, he turns the convention of the stuffy recital on its head, breaking down the stuffy barrier that often exists between orchestra and audience by showing an ease with audience through informal banter.

This time out, fans may see more of an ensemble performance. “There are still a few tracks that I’m going to work out on how they’re going to go down, but since the record was recorded mostly entirely live with live vocals, there’s not much reconstruction going on, as far as figuring out how to pull it off, other than Orpheo Looks Back, which we’re still figuring out how to do, since I recorded that myself. Everything else was a band effort.”

Andrew’s attention to the detail in the studio is mirrored by the painstaking amount of thought that goes into his live show, right down to the choice of venues, which seem to accentuate, and challenge Andrew and his band as musicians. In the past, Andrew has played at a wide range of venues, from traditional theatres and festival crowds, to unique venues such as churches, synagogues, and small spaces. Through collaborations such as his partnership with fellow Chicagoan and inventor Ian Schneller, who designs the speakers used by Andrew in studio and on tour, Andrew seems to be pushing the outer frontiers of sound, and is always on the lookout for unique venues.

“The venue inspires you to have to adapt and make different music,” Bird notes, “which is just something else that keeps things fresh. I never just force the big rock show on the wrong space. The show we’re doing now runs the gamut from the fully wired, with a lot going on between musicians to everyone unplugged playing into one microphone. And the songs from this record kind of run the gamut from the different modes of playing. There are a lot of dynamics, from ‘Hole in the Ocean Floor’ to ‘Eyeoneye’ to ‘Near Death Experience’. I try to make sure that all the ways I know of how music is supposed to feel get represented in one show.”

Artists willing to push the envelope naturally run the risk of testing their own limits, and the discovering, say during sound check or even during the performance, that they have a challenge on their hands. While Andrew has been peerless in adapting his sound to the space, there are always those days. One of the more endearing tracks on the new album, “Give It Away”, which on first listen seems to reflect the one-sidedness of a relationship as it reaches its dysfunctional end, was in fact inspired by Andrew’s reaction to a European audience that just saw there, a cold reaction, frustrating to Andrew, who felt emotionally spent after he and his band had seemingly given their all.

“The Guggenheim thing I did a year or so ago, that was super challenging. We only had a day to do the installation. They just expected us to do a show, but we tried to bring in all these horns. It was a long, long day. So where we really kind of nailed that was at the MCA recently.” He refers nonchalantly to the Sonic Arboretum, a performance that accompanied an exhibition of sound equipment curated by the aforementioned Ian Schneller. One gets the sense that while this the sort of once in a lifetime experience that might be a creative pinnacle for some, for Andrew, this is just another in a series of fascinating projects.

“The performances were just something to kind of to mark the installation, some kind of ceremonious thing. The whole point of the installation was that it was not me on stage performing, but I was off in the balcony. Visitors to the gallery would kind of look up at me and be like … ‘Oh I see what he’s doing.’ It wasn’t this intense focus on me, which is kind of liberating … so I composed about three hours of music over three days, which would loop and stream for the whole month.”

Andrew’s comfort with sublimating himself has manifested itself in other projects, such as his soundtrack work to the indie film, Norman, as well as the experimentation that found its creative outlet on the instrumental album Useless Creatures. Andrew relishes the prospect of working on so many types of projects.

“Yeah it’s been kind of cool. I’ve been doing little solo tours here and there in the last two years. And doing more of the instrumental stuff, I would not have thought that my audience would have the patience for it, and they definitely do. They seem to really like when I just play the violin, and it’s nice to know that I can always indulge myself in that. That was the point of Noble Beast vs. Useless Creatures. One is perceived as an indulgence, while the other is full of restraint.”

Andrew seems to appreciate the balance between indulging one’s own creative pursuits and letting oneself go, versus his role as band leader, and showing consideration for how his band mates fit in. And also, that Andrew is starting to come full circle in his own fascinating career arc.

“Yeah, now I think with this record, it’s going to be more than ever like four musicians listening to each other and responding to each other. It’s good to get back to that after eight or nine years of this more isolated solo thing. It’s a big reason why I started this whole process, why I joined a rock band when I was 19, making music for social reasons.” And for Andrew, who has found a comfort zone working with a steady group of musicians over the last few tours and albums, it’s an opportunity to trot out some of his earliest material. In the past, Andrew has revisited material, re-recording two tracks from his first album, Weather Systems. So can we expect to hear fresh interpretations of classic songs from his catalog?

“I dig them up first, to make sure I’m feeling it. Then I have the band listen to what I’m doing, and then have the band find their place in it still. But I have been doing that. I have been looking at the new songs, thinking about what songs from the back catalogue compliment them. So I’ve been unearthing songs like the “Naming of Things” from The Mysterious Production of Eggs. I never really played that much and doing that with the band. But there’s even stuff I like to do that’s not on any record. There’s something I stumbled upon when I was touring with Dosh, using an Alpha Consumer song called ‘The Crown Salesman’, and then improvising the music and just kind of laying lyrics off the cuff, and it yielded a pretty great song that I think we’re going to do, even though it’s not on a record.”

A hallmark of Andrew’s work has been his ability to mesh beautiful, sunny soundscapes and melodies with lyrics that often reflect a dark or sardonic view of the world that touch upon political themes, such as the attack on the futility of war in Scythian Empires. But a distinctive characteristic of the new album are the songs which focus on interpersonal as opposed to political issues At first glance, one doesn’t hear the biting social commentary, the sardonic word play that characterized earlier efforts such as his 2007 release, Armchair Apocrypha, despite the fact that the world, and the prevailing social and political environment, with the ongoing uncertainty driven by economic turmoil, grass-roots activities of occupiers and the teabag phenomena might lend itself to some perspective.

“There are some political themes on this record. They are rarely ever matter of fact, but more under the surface. I think what’s different about this record is I’m dealing with more directly with human concerns, and that’s been a newer thing for me. Whereas before I would have been content to let the metaphor hang, and not try to ground it, this record is a little more tethered to things. The first track, ‘Desperation Breeds’, is a little bit more in the old vein of looking at how we try to impose order on nature. Nature doesn’t like it. ‘Hole in the Ocean Floor’ and ‘Belles’ are kind of looking more at current events of sorts, from collapsing depopulations, these environmental disasters like an explosion. They drag on for weeks and weeks and the anxiety that produces. But the heart of the record is more personal.”

Perhaps what differentiates Andrew from other pop or indie artists, in all phases, everything from his degree of preparation, his studio process, and to even live performances, is his classical music upbringing. “I still draw upon the music. I never felt comfortable with the culture of classical music or the social atmosphere of it, but I stuck with it long enough that I have all of the technique that I could ever want to be able to realize all of the music that is in my head. I grew up listening to classical music, so it’s going to come out and manifest itself somehow. I have nothing to do with the mechanics of classical or orchestra music and that’s fine. That has to have its own hierarchy to function but I’m just not a part of it.”

Andrew appreciates the benefits, but also recognizes the pitfalls of such a life. To this day, a hallmark of his work seems to be the free-flow of ideas, but also the discipline and focus that guides him as he goes off to his farm in Western Illinois to reflect, or to prepare for an upcoming show. “Yes, the commitment I made to being on stage and touring, it can become single-minded like ‘Keep your head down and, keep working.’ I saw a lot of my fellow students get so, get the blinders on so much that they couldn’t move left or right. I feel lucky that I wasn’t completely indoctrinated.” Yet aside from his aversion to that lifestyle, he also sees real benefits from his formal classical training, which aside from the technical side from his years of lessons and time as a student at Northwestern University, that continue to serve him to this day. “It’s something about being in music school, just being totally immersed in something for four years. I suppose it’s kind of a devotional, almost monastic or masochistic kind of quality to being in music school and focused on an instrument. I still have that, it’s just not so focused on the violin.”

For Andrew, a new tour with touring partners opens the door for fresh collaboration possibilities, which was always an opportunity when Andrew would tour solo, or with his close collaborator, Martin Dosh. One of his more celebrated tours and performances was his co-headlining performance with St. Vincent, another highly creative and virtuosic live performer, who has toured and collaborated with a relative Who’s Who of heralded indie-rock artists. I remind Andrew of one of the more magical evenings, when he and Annie Clark traded riffs and contributed to each other’s sets at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. On his upcoming spring tour in support of the album, his tour partners include the likes of singer-songwriters Laura Marling, Tiff Merritt, comedian Eugene Mirman, and Canadian roots artist Patrick Watson, who himself orchestrates collaboration through periodic acoustic shows called “Sacred Sunday”, held in a converted church in Montreal. So can we expect to see some innovative pairings on the upcoming tour?

“Yeah for sure. I always like to do something with the band we’re on tour with. I think it’s cool for us and the audience to throws things. We try to get everyone together on something. I’ve already had five different women artists sing “Lusitania”, it’s kind of cool to get different voices on that. “Andrew sounds intrigued when he hears about Patrick Watson’s penchant for collaboration in his native Montreal, similar to the collaborative culture that resonates in Chicago at a popular Andrew Bird hideout, the Hideout. “I always like touring with Canadian artists. They’re more fun! Patrick and his band are great. I asked him because we had so much fun when we were in Australia doing a couple of shows together. My band is from Minneapolis. I don’t know what it is … something about the Canadians and the Minnesotans, something clicks there.”