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A-List: The undefinable Andrew Bird

Posted by Daniel Boscaljon | Mar 14, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Features

MCF — Andrew Bird with My Brightest Diamond

Hancher Auditorium — Tuesday, April 4 at 8:30 p.m.

Photo by Reuben Cox

Andrew Bird’s discography is a compelling set of intricately arranged songs that have no obvious cognates in the contemporary musical scene. Having studied violin, Bird also plays guitar, sings and whistles his way through a set of songs that make excellent use of loops due to his intricate and impeccable timing. His songs are worth studying in advance of a performance, as each provides a dizzying set of dense, clever lyrics that are occasionally lost in the rapturous soaring of the violin.

This work of familiarization in no way takes away from the performance, however, as the live setting tends to allow Bird to explore new depths and alternatives within the songs he constructs. Ostensibly touring in support of his new album, Are you Serious?, Bird will likely also draw from his extensive back catalog. It is well worth watching Bird’s visceral performance, seeing his body shape songs into existence as he summons them from spaces that most of us will only know through his intricate, deliberate mediations.

His performance at Hancher on Tuesday, April 4 not only kicks off the 2017 Mission Creek Festival but also marks the first time the festival utilizes this new space.

Given the intricacies of instrumentation and the density of your lyrics, what element is the driving force behind the mysterious production of new songs? Do you generally start with an idea that you want to work through and discover the music behind it? Is there a particular instrument that tends to anchor your work more powerfully?

Before you start making a record you can think about what you want to do, but once you start you get lost in the process. It’s fun to think about the kind of record you want to make — a dance record? More textual/ambient? You can think about those concepts, but — when you start, it’s the instrument a few feet away from you.

Do you usually start with albums, or songs?

Some songs take 12 years, some four hours. Mostly they happen within a three to four year period of my life, so they hang together. You find the common threads between three to four songs; you see that you’re dealing with something. This record is fairly autobiographical and even chronological. It makes things hang together pretty well. And you can direct it, loosely — but concept records are perilous endeavor.

So you generally start with songs?

You can’t come in with too much of a concept or you’ll be pinned down by it. You don’t know what’s going to work. “Chemical Switches” had all sorts of ideas for it, but it ended up with me and Blake Mills (guitarist) playing live with nothing else. I whistled the melody to hold its place, tried to replace it with violin so I stuck with the whistle. That’s it.

How do you distinguish what works and what doesn’t?

You just know when it isn’t working or being forced, when you need to back off and let it be what it is, when it is too built up. Sometimes you know that the bones are good, so you throw everything out the window and get back to sitting on the couch with the guitar and think through to the roots of it, the original seed. Sometimes it is a five or six year path that takes you away from it. You can get off track. It’s hard to know: You have to come in very open.

Do you have an example?

I’ve been doing “Capsize” in various forms in 12 years until I figured it out — which was less figuring it out than deciding to put it on this album. I played the polyrhythmic loop that’s the basis of the song, and my drummer Ted played what he thought fit — but it was too New Orleans — it was too idiosyncratic. I wondered: Does the universe need to hear this kind of feel? So I pulled back from it. He came back with a different kind of beat, a 2/4 beat that I always thought was too boring. In this case it worked: the song is efficient, where everything has a part, and it is spare and lean. The first time we played it, it sounded genuinely evil. “Adult” was the word I used at the time — it didn’t sound like kids playing.

So part of how you recognize the truth of songs is hearing it through others playing — the way that you talk about Blake or Ted?

I haven’t done fully solo records. But this record was more collaborative, maybe. I wrote the title track with Dan Wilson and it took about four hours. The record was pretty much written and done, and we decided to put that in. It’s turned into one of my favorite songs to play live, probably because it wasn’t fussed over as much. But it brings out something. Sometimes I wonder about the process of sitting on the couch, night after night, for several years chipping at a song: It leads to songs that are multi-layered, that there’s a lot to dig through. In Are you Serious it’s less so.

That’s an interesting metaphor — you describe it as chipping away at a song, when in fact what you seem to do is add layers. Can you describe that more?

Songs stay in an amorphous shape for awhile — there’s a loop or a bit of a song that I’ll put next to another to see what they have to say to each other. Often they haven’t coagulated yet. There are subconscious themes that are still connecting — just accidentally.

What themes? Are you talking lyrical themes, or thematic elements in the melody? Or rhythms?

The themes are mostly lyrics, but there are also melodic themes. I’m mainly a melody guy. I get the melodies first — they come all the time and they’re strong and don’t want to yield. Then the lyrics enter and fight with the melody and impose vowels sounds and rhythms. It becomes a battle. But I’ve started changing how I write, and what that process is. In this album, “Chemical Switches” is the old way of writing with years on the couch, and “Valleys of the Young” is different — it was more shaped by an urgency to tell something.

Has having a family changed how you approach music? Yes — that’s probably why I’m so into this now — the four or five years of sitting on a couch with one song causes me to be a little frustrated with myself, as opposed to urgently expelled ideas that are ephemeral, that you capture and then move on. Having a family and child has made me more in the moment, more visceral, more urgent about getting ideas out.

How long does the process of discovering the truth of a song take? Do you have an example?

“Bellevue” is a good example. I thought I had it figured out once it was done, but I recorded it again, on tour. And I’ll probably go back and take it apart again — it’s one of those songs that is either a trap of a song that will take up time, or it will be worth it at some point. But there’s something in that song that I haven’t been able to pull out. It was written in so many phases — I peel back parts, keep parts that I like, make something square with another idea. And I get such good lines and I can’t let go of them. There’s a line: “We’ll be playing bridge in the psych ward with Barbara Jean and Sue,” and I ask: what does it have to do with what I’m talking about? So I take it out. But I can’t let it go — so I’ll put it in again.

How does playing songs in different spaces as you tour change your relationship to the song? Does it ever disclose different dimensions of the song than you’d known before?

Lately, I try to play to the room and ask what it wants to hear. I don’t want to force something on it. Twenty years of daily sound checks helps. You decide based on how the sound bounces off the room, echolocating the room, deciding what to play that night. I’m very committed to that idea — not forcing your 12 songs. Especially these days — who promotes records anymore? You need to do what feels good that day. Otherwise you end up with dissonances.

But how do new rooms teach you how to play songs in different ways?

In some ways it is physical. Low-ceiling rooms lead to singing in head voice and a lack of optimism, and high ceiling rooms lead to singing more uplifting, full bodied singing. With my echolocations project — I’ll go into spaces and not have any motif or themes. I get feedback from the space: If I were blind, what would tell me most about the space? I build the song on the tonal centers that resonate the most. It even extends to the collaborative performances in the Great Room. I like reactive, responsive situations. I don’t like long studio projects that never seem to end.

Can you describe how your new album relates to its title, Are You Serious?

The title has multiple meanings — it’s been kicking around for 20 years, when I first came out of music school and tried to comprehend the indie scene of Chicago in the ’90s and was intrigued by the local level — going to the Empty Bottle, and seeing singer-songwriters performing. It made me wonder how you can put pain out that way without self-awareness or humor. It seemed foreign. That was the early years of emo, perhaps. In my songs, there’s a darkness — but I have to make fun of myself when I get too dark.

Twenty years later, here I am writing and singing songs about personal hard times which I never thought I’d find myself doing, and I am doing it in a matter of fact way (which is also not my style). So the title points out the irony of that — poking fun of myself.

Also, since being in LA, I’ve performed more with comedians. It’s interesting — comedy can be confessional and revealing of a certain darkness as well, but it’s comedy — irreverent, so the audience is calibrated to laugh even at the worst, lowest depths of misery. But when I follow a comedian on stage, people don’t recognize the humor in my songs and seem to think there’s an unwritten rule that singer-songwriters have to be earnest and confessional.

How do you think the title relates to the political scene of 2017, when many people have asked that question — are you serious?

There’s a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction aspect of things now. With what’s been going on, I’m rethinking everything. It’s completely, drastically changing the way I write. For my last records I was on a trajectory away from introspection and navel gazing toward really communicating. That should serve me well. It does not seem like a time for indulgences.

More broadly speaking, how do you think the political culture is shaping your music? Or how do you feel your music responds to it?

It is yet to be seen. I’m trying to address things, but in a way that feels useful, not preachy. There’s an important history of protest songs — with Woody Guthrie or the Staples singers. I used to say that things were too convoluted in our era, but it feels more black and white today. But I’m trying to do it in my own way. I used to bristle when musicians talk about their duty as artists. I don’t have a duty to anything beyond what I care about or feel.

But the way that you talk about music, though, seems to have an incredibly strong ethical sense to it. Can you talk more about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics?

I’ve been talking lyrically for years about how humans behave in groups and alone, but I’ve tried to generalize it. And everything is different now, and I feel fully activated. But I still write what I care about. And I’m paying attention to the world, and I know that will come out in the songs I am working on now.

Daniel Boscaljon spends most of his time reading, writing, thinking and occasionally lecturing. If you’re having trouble sleeping (or a slow day), you can hear more of his cultural reflections on his podcast at thesacredprofane.com and in lectures at humanistinquiries.org. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 217.

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