Andrew Bird thrives with calculated spontaneity

 By Michael Venutolo-Mantovani

June 26, 2017

Andrew Bird has been at this a long time. With a record-making career spanning more than twenty years, Bird has released over a dozen albums dating back to 1996. Add in live albums, EPs, guest appearances and collaborations and you have a discography reading well over 50 entries.

How then, so deep into a career, does an artist keep things fresh?

For Bird it is a matter of how he approaches each album. Whether from an experimental point of view, as he did on 2010’s Useless Creatures, or from more of a straightforward rock and roll angle like on 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha and its follow-up, 2009’s Noble Beast, each album comes with an overarching mindset. Often though the two sensibilities of slim, concise pop and expansive experimentation will coalesce for the Illinois-bred musician, as he’ll find himself balancing the ever-elusive search for the perfect three and a half minute song with the urge to stretch out, ignore pop convention and lose himself in abstraction.

Andrew Bird. Photo credit: Addie Juel

On his most recent effort, last year’s excellent Are You Serious, Bird avowed to take his time, to add more vetting to the process than he normally would, to seek significant outside opinions and, as he puts it, to make a very expensive record.

“And I don’t mean financially. I mean ‘expensive’ in what it would require of us making the record,” he told me from his family’s farm in rural Illinois.

Bird also considered the idea of the song as paramount as he created Are You Serious, adding, “While we were recording I would think to myself things like, ‘I could rip a violin solo here but what does that do? What do I have? How does that serve the song?’”

He spent a mere seven days in the studio with his band, which included bedrock players like Blake Mills, Ted Poor and Alan Hampton. It also features cameos from Fiona Apple and Tony Berg, but it was the follow-up that took a toll on him as he spent the next nine months continually working on the album.

“I approached each day wondering, ‘How am I going to not screw up this record today?’” he said, expounding on the idea that every record-making process exists in a continual state of crisis. He noted that after having created so many records he still hasn’t written a song that is perfect for his voice, “and that keeps me excited to keep trying.”

Eventually Bird finished Are You Serious, which saw release by Loma Vista last April. It has been lauded as one of his most personal and straightforward albums, as it arguably employs Bird’s least oblique set of lyrics ever.

Finding himself newly a family man around the creation of Are You Serious, Bird began approaching language on more concrete terms, eschewing his method of crafting lyrics around the phonetics of syllables and the habit of singing in tongues first to create melodies only to add words later for a more candid approach to language.

He concluded, “Every album is personal. But when life gets real and heavy you feel like the language you have to use to process has to be plain and straightforward, otherwise you’re not quite doing it justice.”

Bird has a strong Midwestern sensibility, his responses to my inquiries are measured and focused, and it would seem that he takes the time to say exactly what he intends to say. It’s an approach that stands in stark contrast to his opinion of the live setting where he revels in spontaneity, admitting that he’d never be happy recreating a song note for note on stage.

“When I see bands that try to replicate their record note for note, I can tell right away. I find it tedious. I don’t see much risk taking and I don’t ever want to become that,” he said. “I’ve always had a jazz sensibility and still that’s one of my favorite outlooks. The people I play with have that spirit. We’re never going to be happy to play the song the same way twice.”

Andrew Bird returns to Charlotte with Erika Wennerstrom of the Heartless Bastards on April 19 to Knight Theater. Check out the 2020 tour dates.

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