If life’s a race, it’s certainly the hurdles.
An experienced racer, Andrew BirdÂ´s been going around the track since the mid-’90s, when he ran with acts like the “Hell”-ish Squirrel Nut Zippers and Bowl of Fire. He struck out on his own in the early aughts and has developed a devoted following and loads of critical acclaim for his exquisitely crafted, violin-driven indie pop.
But on one of those trips around the track, Bird’s foot caught a hurdle. It happened in Belgium, where faced with a “pensive” audience, Bird hit bottom.
“I was going through absolute burnout,” Bird recalls. “It sucks because you hurt yourself when you have that kind of impassive audience that’s not giving back. You will physically hurt yourself to reach and scrape the bottom of the barrel to get it out rather than just phone it in. And then it gets scary.”
It’s out of this moment that Bird derived the “no man is an island” theme for much of his latest album, Break It Yourself. It runs from the swirling calliope of jangling guitars on “Eyeoneeye,” which provides inspiration for the album’s title (”Made yourself invulnerable / No one can break your heart / So you break it yourself”), to the infectious vaguely jazzy folk ditty “Give It Away,” where Bird ponders the virtue of being a benevolent dictator over a small stretch of land no one else can inhabit.
On the latter track, Bird cannily tries to nail down the value of love, echoing the question of how much should you give: “Did you give it away for free? / What would you have us pay? / I didn’t know that your love was a commodity. / What about appreciation? / That depends on your depth and density. / What about inflation? / Charts and graphs don’t mean a thing to me.”
“There is a certain clarity that comes with being empty. I was thinking ‘OK, it is a finite resource.’ Or is it? I’m still wondering that. Like, ‘Where is this coming from? And is it the same thing that I was giving to my family?’” he says, relating it back to the sacrifices he’s made for his career. “In our culture we see being self-sufficient as a virtue, and I get to the point … of this impulse to isolate, and then it’s such a constant job that you’re suddenly, ‘Wait, where is everybody?’”
Break It Yourself represents a ground zero moment for Bird in another way as well. For years he’d been making albums from the assumption that the live and studio experiences were necessarily different beasts.
“Any attempts to make a record sound like a live experience never works,” explains Bird. “But when you say things like ‘never works’ — you’re just being dogmatic about your ideas. And you’re, ‘OK, it’s time to prove that not true.’”
So Bird took his band to a West Illinois barn, where the plan was to learn the songs and bang them out in a very impromptu way live to 8-track (a truly quaint idea in our gazillion-track Pro Tools world). Not that Break It Yourself is spare. Bird and his band utilize triggers and loops in concert to recreate his albums’ bevy of sounds. They brought that same approach to the recording process. Bird in particular notes that because of this, he sings much differently on Break It Yourself than other studio-oriented albums.
“The drum is six feet away from me,” he says. “So I have to sing as loud as possible. I have to project, and I just pulled the songs out of me — out of the maybe introverted space you wrote them in — and projected them out to the world.”
The result is an album decked out in a rich array of tones, yet boasting a very homey, organic vibe. He and the band have been recording a new album on the fly during off-days at stops along the way. Bird describes it as “old-timey” because it leans on old standards like “Railroad Bill” and an old-fashioned single-mike ethos.
“It’s become a staple part of the set. We do ‘Give It Away’ unplugged into one microphone,” Bird says of the album, which will mix covers and originals and is expected out in October. “It’s a similar kind of space [as Break It Yourself], very live. The tempos fluctuate. The same kind of uneasiness … I feel like people aren’t buying that many records anyway. You might as well just put out as much music as you want.”
Don’t expect any complaints from this corner.