The Mysterious Production of Songs: An Interview with Andrew Bird
The songwriter gets into the songwriting process, the bigger crowds, and the need to suffer.
Between the release of his new album The Mysterious Production of Eggs and his time on the road, Andrew Bird's had a full start to the year. During a well-deserved mini-break between legs of his prominent and successful tour with Ani Difranco, and a few spates of headlining performances, Andrew Bird spoke to me about writing, touring, and recording.
PopMatters: Did you just get back in town?
Andrew Bird: Yeah, I ... where was I? I just finished up a five-week tour.
PM: Looking at your tour schedule, you must be ready to head right back out again.
AB: Yep, going to Minneapolis and Milwaukee this weekend, then I'm going continuously for another five or six weeks.
PM: How've the shows been going with Ani Difranco?
AB: It was cool. It's really nice to play for 2500 enthusiastic people a night. They bought lots of records. There was definitely as sense of getting somewhere. I'm not used to touring at that level of comfort.
PM: On a bus?
AB: Yeah, you don't really have to face the monotony of driving eight hours a day. You just kind of get on the bus after a show and fall asleep and wake up in the next town.
PM: Do you have more time than you normally do on this tour to sightsee, or write more?
AB: Yeah I guess so, a little bit. It's very strange. The last couple of dates I did the way I usually tour, which is driving myself and all my stuff, the shows were very different. The last two shows in Minneapolis and Cleveland, were kind of back to my old routine. I was really happy to get back to that actually. Some sort of idea that I have to suffer more. On those long drives by myself, the need to keep one's self entertained becomes a matter of life and death, and I kind of miss that.
PM: Are there a lot of people on this tour [with Ani]? I'd imagine if your playing venues for 2500 people...
AB: There's a huge crew for just two people on stage. It's a big production. She's playing with an upright bass player. There's some twelve or thirteen people in the crew.
PM: Playing for that number of people, at that level. Has that made your shows any different for you? Have you sensed any difference in what your sets might consist of?
AB: No. I mean playing in a place that big, it feels more like you're communicating with one organism -- the collective audience will behave like one person. But it's also totally different from when I'm headlining because I'm just playing a half-hour set, so there's a little more pressure to make everything count. So towards the end when I was just exhausted and didn't really give a shit (laughs), I started to, even in just that half hour, do more experimentation. So that was the only drag, that for the first half of the tour I didn't have the usual luxury of being able to really go out on a limb with the audience.
PM: And this was a pretty new audience. Have they been receptive?
AB: Yeah, I've never had to fight anything. People were really quiet and definitely gave me a lot of feedback. I never had to deal with indifference or like, "Hurry up and get of the stage."
PM: When I first heard about the tour, I thought about what kinds of connections would make seeing the two of you together compatible. I have my own ideas, but for you, what do feel the connections are between you?
AB: Well, certainly we have very different songwriting models. I think where we actually have something in common is more in our attitude toward live performance. Where making records is just sort of an excuse to tour, and the real emphasis is on the live show, making it different and fresh constantly.
PM: One connection I thought about with the songs themselves, although they're so different, is that they share a love of wordplay, of playing with textures, rhymes, and sounds of words as much as telling a linear narrative or story.
AB: I was also thinking the other day, because I was just working on a new song and it's like "here I am again." I like to think about something I don't fully understand, almost in the hopes that it might be misunderstood, that the song remains mysterious even after I've written. I just don't like the way songs come out when you...
PM: Know what they're about?
AB: Yeah, and you have an agenda.
PM: I'm constantly trying to assure my students that you don't have to know the message of the song at the outset.
AB: Mostly on the fact of the songs making sense, they make more sense then they ought to. You just count on your subconscious making some sense. And I find after I've made a record that there's connections between songs I didn't even realize, from living with the songs for so long. That's definitely the case with this last record.
PM: I'm also curious about "First Song" [on Weather Systems, adapted from a Galway Kinnell poem], because that's a very different type of song. Did you know his work a long time before you wrote the song?
AB: I think I read that poem when I was 18. I have always used it as a reminder, or a certain standard for how words should sound, just vowels and syllables. It's just sort of a standard for me to come back to, to remind myself what real lyricism is. So I internalized that poem a long time ago, way before I recorded it. It probably went through forty or fifty different versions. The song only has two chords but there's so many ways you can phrase it and it took a long time to get it just so.
PM: I was also drawn to that because you grew up in Illinois, and the song is about music and growing up in Illinois. And I'm kind of obsessed with where artists come from and how that comes across in their work, or how environment plays on people's music. I'd read that Weather Systems has a very pastoral feel in part because it was recorded in a rural environment at a barn in Illinois. Do you feel that there's a similar sense of environment that crept into the new album in some way, based on the various places it was recorded?
AB: It doesn't so much matter where I record; it's more where I write. When I record I just need to find talented engineers and people to help me. But yeah, definitely what happened was I wrote most of the material for The Mysterious Production of Eggs a long time ago, before I moved out to the country. And I went out and fixed up this old barn and spent a whole winter putting in windows and dry-walling, and during all that kind of repetitive labor I wrote a lot of Weather Systems. And once I got out there and the place was done, and I was experimenting, the environment had an effect on me. But I was still carrying these songs that I wrote mostly in the city that were more dense. So I tried to make, almost four years ago now, Mysterious Production of Eggs, and I scrapped almost the whole thing, and went and made Weather Systems, which was more what I was hearing out there. So it took a long time to reconcile this new environment and all the sounds I was discovering from this major lifestyle change, it took a while for that to make sense with the songs I'd written like "Banking on a Myth" which has "weather systems" in it, "Skin, Is My", "Opposite Day". Those go way back.
PM: From when you were in the city.
AB: Yeah. And the whole process took me three tries to get this version of Eggs to make sense to my new changing sensibilities because they were changing so rapidly the songs could hardly keep up.
PM: Are you still living out in the country now, when you're not touring?
AB: I've always spent a little bit of my time between there and Chicago, but now I'm actually more symbolically back in Chicago. But mainly I'm on the road.
PM: What types of ideas in your writing, what are some things you find yourself exploring right now?
AB: It seems like I'm writing a lot of songs that are really wide open and pastoral, a little bit to the Weather Systems thing but taking it further. Very very spare, and trying to take some of the density out of the wordplay, and stretching things out. I'm really enjoying that.