Listening to Andrew Bird’s music, one is struck by its tender grace.
Bird’s eclectic instrumentation helps infuse the songs with baroque beauty abetted by sunny, hook-laden pop warmth. Running through it all are Bird’s quirky, adventurous musical sensibilities, feeling out a balance between hook-laden directness and fanciful flights of music flair.
We catch up to Bird on a family farm three hours outside of his native Chicago, where he often goes to clear his head and compose songs. In this case, he’s there to record the follow-up to 2009’s Noble Beast and 2010’s corollary Useless Creatures, which featured instrumentals from the Noble Beast recording sessions.
Those two albums represent bifurcated versions of his competing impulses, something he’s been trying to unite on the new album.
“It’s really hard to pull off. I’ve tried different ways,” Bird says, describing Noble Beast as the “concise pop album” to Useless Creatures’ “indulgent instrumental album.”
“I think I went a little too far in the last couple records as far as saying I’m going to write these very concise pop songs and put my impulse to improvise on the back burner,” he continues. “This record is bringing them back together again. There’s a new song called ‘Give It Away’ which goes from wild instrumental to the most unpretentious, straightforward, direct kind of song without feeling disjointed.”
Bird and his three bandmates — drummer Martin Dosh, guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker and bassist Mike Lewis — came out to Bird’s farm three months ago, where they recorded the new album in less than a week. The songs were recorded live to tape, with no opportunity for instrumental overdubs. Nor was there a lot of practice beforehand. They were basically learning the songs on the run.
“It has a very loose, fresh, improvisational feel. It doesn’t sound like any other record I’ve made,” he says. “It’s got more exuberance than other records, where you do it more multi-tracked. This was an anti-production production, but it sounds very rich and saturated. And there’s a lot more improvisation, a lot more wild playing on it than other records, too. I’m kind of proud of that. You don’t hear very many good solos anymore in pop songs, and this one has some really wild, weird solos in it.”
But then, Bird’s always been one to go his own way. He first began making up songs when he was 6 years old, and he confesses surprise that he lasted until college on the button-down path of a classical music violinist. Eventually he realized that world wasn’t for him.
“I wasn’t happy with any world that was too institutionalized,” he admits. “When I started playing Irish music in a band when I was 19, it was fun until people around me took it too seriously.”
It was this idea of playful, lighthearted enthusiasm that drew him to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He played on their album Hot, which, almost miraculously,
produced an enormous hit, “Hell,” almost a year after its release, propelling them to meteoric success and an equally steep decline. The whole experience was educational for the 23-year-old Bird, who, though he played with the band on the album and tour, never officially joined.
For one thing, he learned that despite the apparent out-of-nowhere vibe of their popularity, it was cultivated by endless promotional events and a small army of PR flacks. But there was something even more important that he discovered.
“I learned to put on a show,” says Bird. “I was more familiar with the classical world view, where there’s a bit of contempt for the audience. And here’s this band from the South that’s less a part of the swing revival than that tradition of freaky bands from the South, and they just put on a really energetic show. It wasn’t particularly good jazz at all, but it was good pop music and a good show.
“They were also on a different trajectory than me. I was coming from a more schooled thing turned on by the more direct pop thing, and they were going in the other direction. They thought, well, maybe we should get more pros to play with us, and [it] started to lose its scrappy heart. So it was a funny lesson.”
A lack of scrappiness is not an accusation you’d level at Bird or his bands.
Their live shows always possess a wild-eyed glee aided by their improvisational, ever-tinkering approach. You can hardly expect any of their songs to sound like they do on the album.
And it’s not over-production. Bird’s always tried to adhere to an ethos that only records what can be recreated live. (“There can be no whistling at the same time I’m singing. That’s untruthful,” he says.) It’s more about continually changing things up and toying with the songs lest they become rote and suck the freshness out of the performance.
“Playing every night of the week, invariably what happens is you get into muscle memory, and next thing you feel like you’re phoning it in. Unless you put some wild cards in there you’re going to burn out,” he says.
Another thing Bird does to keep it fresh is play live solo shows, particularly during the recording of a new album, when it’s easier to get out for a couple one-offs on his own. These solo performances are really a sight to behold as Bird uses sequencers to loop a variety of instruments into a full-bodied song from the ground up, much like watching a baker craft a magnificent wedding cake.
“There’s no bigger thrill than trying something new in front of an audience,” Bird says. “That flush of embarrassment when you’re like, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work.’ The solo shows are like a cooking show with the haphazard cook. Forgetting to throw something in and throwing it in a little too late, but it’s fun.”
Bird’s a wonderful multi-instrumentalist, and it’s a wonder to hear him live, but the pleasure goes beyond his skillful playing. It’s the spirited vitality he brings to it, which probably goes back to the fact that music’s been woven into the deepest part of his soul for as long as he can remember. It certainly contributes to his appreciation of subtlety and nuance in his arrangements.
“I’ve always been very into tone and resonance as much as melody,” he says. “Growing up, the sound of a pedal steel guitar would always make me carsick, and I have visceral reactions to many musical textures.”
Perhaps you don’t need a constitution as sensitive to the pluck and pull of music to make something that resonates on a deeper level. Yet you can’t help but feel the intensity — even if sometimes whimsical — and wholeheartedness with which Bird pursues his muse in the supple craftsmanship and captivating quirkiness. It makes him an equally arresting artist from the stage to your audio player.
[ On the Bill: Andrew Bird plays the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities on Tuesday, Aug. 9, and Chautauqua Auditorium on Wednesday, Aug. 10. The Arvada show starts at 7:30 p.m., and the Chautauqua show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets for both shows start at $30. 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, 720-898-7200. 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-440-7666. ]