Andrew Bird has his own reality TV show. Which seems uncharacteristic for the singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist known for his whimsical lyrics and perfectly pitched whistling. But nevertheless it’s true, at least in a certain sense.
“It’s your world, I’m just living in it,” says recent guest Jim James from My Morning Jacket, appearing barefoot and wearing sunglasses next to an equally shoeless Bird. The two are standing in front of microphones, guitar and violin in hand. They spend the next 30 unscripted minutes or so casually chatting in between what Bird calls a setlist of “protest songs.”
It’s another episode of “Live from the Great Room,” a web series of acoustic duets filmed with smartphones and GoPro cameras from Bird’s Los Angeles living room and posted using Facebook Live.
“It’s very scrappy,” Bird says. “Because it’s kind of off the cuff and relies on musicianship, I can get with it.”
Taking a break both from the festival circuit this summer and touring with his ninth solo album Are You Serious released earlier this year, Bird has spent the summer recording “Live from the Great Room” with a different musician each week, including appearances by Chris Thile, John C. Reilly and others.
“It kinda keeps me on my toes musically, and I’m learning a lot from it,” Bird says. “I’m enjoying forcing myself to play with other people. The night before they come over I’m always staying up thinking about what I want to ask them. It brings the focus towards musicianship.”
Which hasn’t so much been his focus the last little while, as Bird has been writing, recording and promoting the new album. “With this record I’ve been getting into personal territory and that was driving me nuts so [“Live from the Great Room”] helps bring it back to the music,” he says.
Before getting into the more intimate background of the new songs, I have to ask him what inspired the name of the new album, wondering if it’s intended as a rhetorical question, some sort of social or perhaps even spiritual commentary. Personally, I tell him, the phrase feels like a reoccurring and versatile reaction of mine these days.
Bird explains it has actually been the working title he’s given every previous record; an inside joke with his managers for years — “This is what you spent the last two years on?” Bird says. “Really?”
But this time around, “are you serious” fit with the completed project as well.
“This one seemed apropos because when I started out making records I never saw myself as the kind of songwriter that was bearing their soul in a very matter of fact way or their personal travails via song,” he says. “My personal things are in every song but there’s an art to encoding or masking it. But now all of that stuff is close to the surface, less encoded.”
Are You Serious is Bird’s most personal record yet, mostly written at his family’s Illinois farm in about the course of a week during his recent relocation from New York to Los Angeles. The album chronicles previous break-ups, Bird’s marriage to a fashion designer, the birth of their son and his wife’s battle with cancer.
“I’ve never had any problem talking about what my songs are about ever. … There are a lot of lyrics in my songs and I don’t feel like I’m ever going to demystify them for you by talking about them,” Bird says, comparing that to many artists who decline to talk about the personal stories behind their work. “But now I get it because when you do write a song that is very close to the bone or is actually about something that happened that was rough, then when you talk about it, it’s tricky. It’s kind of a minefield.”
While Bird admits he’s perfectly comfortable singing the new songs, talking about them is a different story. “There’s a sacred pact between you and the audience. The concert hall is a safe place, the people will have your back,” he says. “But then you step out of the concert hall and you start talking about it in journalistic forms and that’s a different game.”
And so our conversation skirts around specifics, perhaps out of some obligation I feel to respect the aforementioned pact. Instead, I ask him if he thinks he’ll keep writing personal songs or go back to the more abstract lyrics of previous albums.
“I like to go in whatever direction feels like I’m learning something or challenging myself,” he says. “The real frontier for me over the years is distilling things and writing things that are more simple without being boring.”
And then we fall into an easier rhythm of conversation, talking about politics and the never-ending news cycle of gun violence. It’s a more comfortable place — important, but not too intimate.
And that brings us back to the protest songs from the “Live from the Great Room” episode with James.
“I bristle a little bit when it’s suggested that songwriters or artists have a duty,” Bird says. “The only duty we really have is to our art and ourselves ultimately. So I always say I’m observing and looking at how people behave in my songs and therefore they can be political. But I rarely tackle it head on. It’s really hard to write a populist protest song in this day and age.”
But Bird doesn’t exactly shy away from writing his political beliefs into lyrics altogether. On the recording with James, he sings a new version of his song “Sic of Elephants,” which he updated particularly for this year’s Republican National Convention.
The original song reflects Bird’s disbelief the day after George W. Bush was re-elected, his attempt to try and understand how it could have happened. “And it seems almost more apropos at this moment with everything that’s going on,” Bird says in the episode, before launching in: “You were right, now we got good reason to worry…Can’t you see how dangerous the one that you chose is?”
“I have some other songs I’ve started doing again because it brings up the warrior culture we’re in,” Bird tells me. But there’s also, “really great material that’s already been written that really fits the moment.”
Like some old Woody Guthrie lyrics that James recently put to melody as part of the tribute album New Multitudes that he sings with Bird during the live episode.
“Change the pen and change the ink/ change the way you talk and think/ change the tubes and change the tires/ change the things your heart desires/ change your make up and change your curls/ change the ways of this changing world.”
As Bird’s world has changed, perhaps it is something akin to this mentality that has allowed his music to change along with it.