"I guess when things get real in your life, there’s just not time for poetics."
Andrew Bird weighs his words carefully, speaking with the clarity and pace of someone who’s made a life of timing things just right: plucking a violin with his fingertips, click of the loop pedal, pulling the bow across the strings, click, mallet meeting glockenspiel key, click, pouring a whistle that songbirds would envy into the mic, click.
The Illinois native and former Squirrel Nut Zippers member, trained in the Suzuki method starting at age four, is a crafter of exquisitely elaborate music that pulls from Eastern European folk, classical, jazz, and South American tradition; it’s been called chamber-pop and indie-folk, but the end result is a genre that’s entirely Bird’s own. Throughout his catalog, through winsome violin and playful guitar and that unparalleled whistle, Bird’s also an architect of beautiful, gilded cages of language.
His words are often written off as “cryptic”—in Bird’s helter-skelter narrative world, the end of times is here, Earth has been reborn as a utopia where Haliburton briefcases hold no power, where survivors barter with butterfly knives and Adderall, Kewpie doll parades fill the streets, and there are snacks aplenty. There are portmanteau words, there’s natural imagery, but, in the eyes and ears of many, there isn’t much of the man himself in the singer-songwriter’s compositions.
“In the past, people would joke that you need a dictionary to follow my songs, that they can be encrypted and lyrically obtuse,” Bird says over the phone.
Arguably, the distance a self-described “private person” who’s “not a big sharer” creates through sensational imagery speaks volumes in itself, but Bird has recently decided to push himself out of his realm of comfort: his forthcoming LP, Are You Serious, is his most personal record yet, both in lyric and composition.
The title’s intentionally tongue-in-cheek; as if its self-mocking tone wasn’t enough, it’s to be released on April Fools’ Day. He’s still a little scared of falling into cliché, but this new Bird is anything but.
“I rarely listen to music in the way where the singer-songwriter is singing about my life right now,” he shares. “I’ve always listened more for melodies and musical moments that they create. And not too long ago, I heard a song by Townes Van Zandt. At first, it did that thing—in one ear, out the other, appreciating for tones and melody, but then: ‘I get what he’s talking about—he’s singing about my life.’ And I know that’s the way a lot of people do listen to music, and I wanted to do that.”
A multi-instrumentalist such as Bird often uses words as a textural tool. The way certain vowels scrape against each other, the use of internal rhyme and frequent wordplay fits perfectly right between guitar strums and bow scrapes. Take new song “Chemical Switches,” which is rooted in melody: while writing, Bird sang in a stream of consciousness as he played, searching for vowels and syllables that best carried the tune.
“I trust the things that bubble up from speaking in tongues,” he says. “Eventually they do make sense; they’re not completely random. They’re coming from me. That’s been my MO in the past.”
Writing for Are You Serious “was a little scary,” he discloses.
“I was actually talking about some very difficult personal things that had been going on with me and my family in the past five years. It became a little more of what we understand as cliché, of someone using music to process their pain or whatever, which is generally not my thing,” Bird says.
“What the title is poking fun at is, ‘Have I become that confessional songwriter I might have mocked when I was younger?’” he says. “But no, it’s a slightly different process...some of it was very blunt and autobiographical, and I want it to be more plainspoken.”
Bird has teased fans with three fresh singles. The first, “Capsized,” was an unusual surprise, with near-gritty violin searing like an electric guitar and a melody kicking like tiny waves against a ship.
“It’s definitely...going for the jugular,” he says of the song’s intensity. “It’s got a—I don’t know about rock—it’s got a groovy thing going on. A lot of my musical diet in the last ten years has been either early jazz or dance music from Brazil or Africa or old 45s, so it makes sense. I’ve never been a big fan of the rock ‘n’ roll backbeat, I like more humid, groovy stuff.”
The directness of Are You Serious lies not only in lyric.
“It’s getting to the point,” Bird describes. “There’s a little less tangential playing and arrangements. It’s designed to be pretty efficient. It’s the most consideration I’ve gone into how the songs are put together.”
Indie fans were ecstatic with Bird’s latest Serious teaser, “Left-Handed Kisses.” A beautiful duet with Fiona Apple confessing a reluctance for writing cliché love songs, the song is a perfect introduction to Bird’s new vulnerability.
“The point your song here misses/Is that if you really loved me/You’d risk more than a few fifty-cent/ words in your backhanded love song,” Apple snaps as Bird fights the urge: “You got me writing love songs/with a common refrain like this one here, baby.”
Its accompanying video is just as intense as the song itself, featuring the two songwriters (both excellent actors) facing off in wooden chairs.
“That’s coming from a real place,” Bird says of the song’s fervor. “It’s very dramatic. The song plays out more like a short play than a pop song.”
Originally, it was a duet between Bird and his own neuroses. Once he decided to bring in a guest vocalist, Apple was at the top of his list.
“I started to critique my own song in my head...I started to criticize the character singing from my point of view,” he says. “Then it started becoming Fiona’s part. I knew it had to be a duet when my neuroses came in and became a whole different voice in the song. Sometimes neuroses come in, but I always put in the song, because it’s an honest point of view.”
His Savannah Music Festival debut also marks the beginning of an extensive international tour promoting the new record. Bird has a brand-new band backing him that he’s excited to introduce.
“I’d characterize this new band as pretty tight and funky part of the time,” he says. “I’m doing less looping, and really, my drummer has a huge effect on what direction I go—the way I sing, phrasing, everything.”
Bird’s eclectic sound is sure to be a new favorite of longtime Music Festival attendees. Perhaps what makes him a banner act, even a cornerstone of genre for the festival, is the fact that he doesn’t consider what he does to be “crossover music”—in fact, he has a real disdain for the stuff.
“I like the idea of taking classical music but playing it with a raw, folky charm,” he explains of his method. “It changes the context.”
He’s also constantly challenging the “sacredness” that surrounds classical and traditional music.
“I can’t remember what they called it in music school, where you boil down a whole symphony to its basic elements, which is basically a hook,” he says.
“The epitome is Beethoven’s Fifth symphony [Hums] ‘Dun, dun dun, DUN’—that’s it. There’s a whole three-movement symphony out of it, and that’s a major part of the art is variations on that to remind yourself as a musician that a hook can be just a slight gesture, can be one little grace note, can be this thing that makes things special. Everything else in that happens in three to four minutes. I don’t think, in essence, any type of music is that foreign from the other.”
Bird hasn’t played classical music in around 20 years, but he’ll find himself immersed in the world once again next summer when he embarks on his first symphonic tour.
“That’s going to be really interesting, culturally, going back to that world,” he says. “I’ve got some major apprehensions about it: How are my song going to sound in the hands of other violinists? Will it sound schmaltzy? I’ve got so many stipulations of what it shouldn’t do, or what I don’t want it to do. I have a very particular way of playing now that I’ve come up with on my own. Is ‘Weather Systems’ with an orchestra going to sound like a score to Gone with the Wind?”
As he offers up possible circumstances, I can’t help but smile for witnessing a conversation with Bird and his neuroses, the careful management of an artistic vision that perhaps only he truly grasps.
Maybe a return to tradition and to his roots, however eschewed they’ve become, is the perfect way to cap off a new album tour. Maybe Bird, through all his playfulness, is serious after all.