By Lindsey Lowe Osborne
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’” –Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Musician Andrew Bird has built a solid career just like that—step by step, or as Lamott would say, bird by bird—over the past two decades. Along the way, he says, he’s discovered a lot about who he is as a musician (his primary instrument is violin) and thus, as a person. For Bird, the two cannot be separated. “[When] I was 20 and felt a yearning that I couldn’t find the source of, I went through all the basic human needs before I said, ‘I need to play music,’” he says. “It’s a basic need. I’ve been so deep in it for so long that it seems strange to even call myself a musician. I’m consumed by it. I chew my food to it, grind my teeth to it. If I’m not talking or sleeping, I’m whistling. I was extremely quiet and anxious as a kid, but if I found myself in front of an audience I was totally self-possessed and connected. Other than a brief period when I wanted to be a psychotherapist, music was it.”
Bird began playing violin at age 4, and at 19, he got involved in a rock group before striking out on his own. He is best known for his solo work, which has a quirky, academic quality to it. Bird jokes that his newest album, titled Are You Serious, is poking fun at himself for “becoming the heart-on-sleeve songwriter I swore I’d never come,” but it’s still far from the cheesy, saccharine tunes that description might bring to mind. Instead, it boasts both raw feeling (“Capsized”), dry wit (also “Capsized,” which you’ve probably heard on Birmingham Mountain Radio), and a more accessible sound than much of Bird’s earlier work. “The story with this record is that it’s more unguarded and personal than anything before it, but I’m not so sure anymore,” Bird says. “Everything I’ve written is personal and has lived inside me for a long time.
“The newer stuff is maybe a bit more plainspoken and, at times, brutal. I like to push myself into new territory, but what I’ve learned is that I’m a melodic songwriter. Not so much the sort that comes to band rehearsal with a notebook of poetry to intone over three chords, though I wouldn’t mind trying it. I’m full of melodies, and for the best ones, I write lyrics that fit their shape. It has its challenges, but this is why I think from song to song the listener doesn’t get bored. Each song is distinct and has a long gestation period. They are dense and layered, though the melodies might be as simple as a nursery rhyme.”
Byrd says he wanted Are You Serious to be “an extremely tight record. “After we recorded ‘Capsized,’ I thought, ‘This is not kid music; this is evil,’” he recalls. “It’s accidentally chronological and autobiographical. From the breakup and rock bottom of ‘Capsized’ to the new start of ‘Roma Fad’ to the cognitive dissonance of ‘Left Handed Kisses’ to the brutality of ‘Valleys of the Young.’ ‘Whimsy’ is a bad word in my house.”
Bird says that while he’s intrigued by the possibilities the process of recording offers, it’s performing live that has always propelled him. He’s known for frequently improvising and reworking his songs during live shows. “I’ve always preferred the live performance—the adrenaline, the unexpected. I’m really one of those people who feels more comfortable on stage than almost anywhere else and might confide more to 1,000 strangers than to my own friends,” he explains. “When a show is going well, it’s a feeling of connectedness more than emotion or catharsis, though
that’s part of it. The studio is full of possibilities, and your potential can be illusive. I’ve made 13 records and still think I haven’t nailed what I’m capable of. With technology, bands can make themselves sound better than they really are, but nothing can guarantee something extraordinary. I just prefer scrappy real performance.”
Birminghamians, you can experience Bird yourself at Saturn on Oct. 4. He promises it will be a good time: “My shows are an invitation to my universe of ideas and melodies. If you have a little patience beyond the typical sound bite, I’ll give you a lot to chew on. I like having an open dialogue with an audience where things are always in flux, songs are never finished, and you might actually have some input.”
10/12: Brett Dennan at Iron City.
For fans of Amos Lee and Ray LaMontagne.
10/26: Seratones at Workplay.
For fans of Sunflower Bean and The Bad Years.
10/28: Nothing But Thieves at Saturn.
For fans of Muse and the Arctic Monkeys.