Smile Politely

Getting serious with Andrew Bird

Indie and folk rock musician Andrew Bird has done a lot of growing recently. The 43 year old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is very measured and meticulous with his artistic process, and he’s spent his entire career scrutinizing his craft closely, up until a few years ago. Within just a handful of years, Bird got married, had a child, and endured his wife’s battle with cancer. The worst is over and his wife and family are doing well now, but that handful of years changed everything, like it would for anyone. On his latest release, Are You Serious, Bird reflects on his experiences over that time and finds himself opening up as an artist and as a person in ways that he hasn’t before.

Bird’s ornate, lush instrumentation has always been the backbone of his music. His gift for the violin flourished before he even started grade school. Originally from the Chicago area, Bird attended Northwestern University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in violin performance. He is also skilled with other instruments, including the guitar and various other strings, and of course his signature whistling. Bird’s full musical catalog also includes several instrumental albums. His tendency is to start a song with the composing, and then add layers to it. But he tried something different here. Some of the time on Are You Serious, the lyrics lead. 

When we talk, Bird is soft-spoken and reserved. His speech is thoughtful. When it comes to words, he has always been gifted. His lyrics are traditionally wry and literary. They’re implicit and sometimes double-edged, with each word carefully selected to adhere fast around his instrumentation and fit like a glove. Indeed, Bird’s lyrics read and sound like they were written by an introvert. On Are You Serious, Bird confronts his reservations. He speaks plainly and becomes vulnerable, whether through “Puma,” which talks directly about his wife’s chemotherapy, or through “Valleys of the Young,” which addresses his ambivalence towards having children, and how he reconciles it and embraces life as a parent.

Bird also decided to create a more “produced” album than he typically does. The tight harmonies and pedal effects of this album make for a polished sheen as a whole, but without losing any warmth. For Are You Serious, Andrew Bird lays it all out on the line, but doesn’t compromise or lose touch with his artistic nature. Instead, he augments it.

Here, Bird detailed some of what went into making the album.

Smile Politely: Your writing process is usually very meticulous. This time it seemed like it kind of just flowed out. Was it a bit easier this time?

Andrew Bird: It’s never easy. I mean some songs, like the title track I wrote with Dan Wilson, it was the “sit in a room and don’t come out until you’ve written something” method, and I’ve never done that sort of thing before. But that was easy – it took like three hours. It was like, “Okay, here’s all the songs on the record, so let’s write the title track.” And it just came out like that, when other songs take years and years of just mulling over. For that song, everything came out in a torrent. That happened for a handful of songs, which was unusual. But it wasn’t easy; it just happened quite quickly. Some of the songs are different – “Left Handed Kisses” had a long history to it, and “Capsized” has a twelve year history and evolution to it.

SP: Regarding the lead track “Capsized,” for your EP Are We Not Burning: The Devolution of Capsized, you chronicled the growth of this song. What made you decide that after all this time, “Capsized” had reached its final form, and was “done” enough to be on Are You Serious?

Bird: Well, It really just seemed like enough already. Like it’s going to keep occupying this space in my musical brain unless I get it out. What worked is that it wasn’t an amalgam of all the different versions. Instead, it was a different approach to it. It clicked with this group of musicians, and I broke the evolutionary tree and it did work. The reason the song has been around so long is that it’s only two chords. Its very simple, it’s malleable. And so it changes according to how I’m feeling at any given moment. And those are the kind of songs that last on stage night after night, better than the songs that are kind of more scripted and tightly written, like “Roma Fade” or “Puma.” Those ones are great to play, but the songs that really have the staying power kind of breathe and change. But you know, we all feel different every fifteen minutes of the day, so how do you really expect to play the same songs every night?

Are You Serious version of “Capsized.”

SP: You went through a lot in your life over the course of recording this album. Would you say it’s an autobiographical effort?

Bird: I would say that’s pretty accurate. It’s accidentally chronological and autobiographical, starting with “Capsized” and ending with “Bellvue,” and “Valleys of The Young” at the end there too. I didn’t design it that way. It just kind of ended up there. I usually design a song based on key or mood or atmosphere, or just what feels right tempo-wise. Usually musical decisions direct things, not content, or narrative decisions. But it just happened to work out that way. It’s as close to confessional as I’ll ever get. I would tell you that I’m an impressionist songwriter, and not a matter of fact songwriter. Yet as I get older, I’m appreciating sort of getting to the heart of the matter.

SP: Kind of cutting to the quick?

Bird: Yeah, there’s always a struggle between my impulses to go off and expand with sound and language and music, and my desire to just communicate in a direct sort of way. The hardest thing to do is the latter.

Album cover of Are You Serious.

SP: At this point, the subject matter on the album is a few years old. Did it take a little time to open yourself up to addressing these topics via your music?

Bird: I had major hesitations, for good reasons, about addressing them. But It definitely didn’t feel right to dance around these subject matters. It’s more of a tribute to what we went through to address it directly.

SP: A tribute?

Bird: Yeah, like either I’m going to come out and say it, or I’m just not going to do it at all, and i just had to do it. It was tough. It’s a complicated issue that I’ve never really had to deal with before. You have your people and you want to protect them, but you’re an artist and you write about the things you care about. So what do you do about your privacy? And that’s kind of what the title of the record is about. As a singer-songwriter, am I “under contract” to divulge all these things that most people wouldn’t? It’s a funny position to be in.

SP: Like where do your loyalties lie.

Bird: I didn’t know how to deal with it at first and I wasn’t prepared to talk about it. It’s okay in a concert hall because you’re under contract with the audience and they’ve got your back. But in journalistic realms, it’s not the case. It feels exploitive, like the next thing that comes out of your mouth is going to be some sort of betrayal. And that’s no fun. So that was the beginning of the record cycle, and then I sort of regrouped and did the Live From the Great Room thing, to kind of get back to the cool side of things.

SP: Are You Serious is up for a grammy for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical), alongside albums by the late greats Bowie and Prince. How do you feel about that?

Bird: Well, though I didn’t engineer the record myself, one of the most important things to me is tone and texture. I’ve always had a visceral reaction to the sound of things – a certain type of snare drum can make me nauseous, and stuff like that. You can geek out on that stuff, but it really does have a subconscious effect on your emotions that you can’t really put your finger on. So it’s more than just twiddling knobs, there’s really a serious art to it. I feel really good about getting nominated for that aspect of things, and the company is pretty good too. [Are You Serious] is probably the most “produced” sounding album since The Mysterious Production of Eggs. The couple of records I made before it were very anti-production, very scrappy, kind of live. It was to capture something real, sort of by design. But for this one, I wanted to do a really “expansive” record. Jut really vet everything; look it over and do everything top-shelf according to what I consider best. The best analog, the best musicians, you know – that sort of thing.

“A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” from 2005 album The Mysterious Production Eggs.

SP: That’s interesting that you draw the parallel to The Mysterious Production of Eggs there. Is it just the production values then that you think are similar?

Bird: It’s more than production values. I just kind of wanted to run my songs through a more rigorous, regimented process than I previously had. Back when I was working on Break It Yourself, when I was mixing it, Randy Newman came by the studio just to say hello and listen to some stuff. And, I wasn’t having the best day. I was almost done with the record, but I was in the lowest point of self-doubt with it, and he was cool and had some really nice things to say about it. He listened to one song, “Lazy Projector,” and he said, ‘Hey, that’s cool, it sounds like two different songs.’ And I’m basically like yeah, Randy Newman, it is two different songs. (Laughs.) I kind of put them next to each other to see if they had anything to say to each other. But it’s like, I could’ve used that little bit of feedback on it before I started recording it. I was really on to something with the verses, but with the chorus I just kind of dropped the ball a little bit, to be honest. And I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to have a peer group of people like Randy Newman? Maybe have like a book club and just play each other’s songs and give helpful criticism?

SP: When you do your living room collaborations, Live From the Great Room, do the guests offer any sort of feedback there, or do you just sort of go into it?

Bird: You know that hasn’t happened yet, but I welcome that. Sometimes I’ll get that sort of feedback from the audience. I love doing songs when they’re half-written – it could go this way, it could go that way, your guess is as good as mine. Not that I really want to have a message board up at the theater, but it’s such an internal, solitary process, writing – just sitting on a couch for months, going over and over these songs by yourself. There are people that write together, and that’s a little bit like going into a room and staring at each other, and you sort of scratch your head and make each other uncomfortable until you write something. But that’s different. Tony Berg is the first time I’ve really used a producer like this. We just spent months going over the songs and trying to make them better.

SP: What’s in the future for you for 2017?

Bird: Well I’m going to be doing another season of Live From the Great Room, so I’m lining up guests for that. I’m doing a couple film scores, and I’m doing the other Echolocations records. So each location has a record. So I’m wondering how I’m going to do all that. That’ll come out in the fall, and then, just… a lot of shows.

SP: You’ve got a pretty full plate.

Bird: Yeah, there’s a lot to look forward to. Can’t wait.

Andrew Bird is playing at Canopy Club on Monday, Jan. 30th, at 8 p.m., with Ryley Walker opening. Tickets are $31 in advance/$36 at the door. 

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