Known for his looping violin and powerful whistling ability, singer-songwriter Andrew Bird has been wowing fans for years with his americana-tinged, indie folk music, and after a bit of a break in proper releases, is back in 2016 with new album Are You Serious.
Ahead of the release of the new LP this Friday, which features latest single Left Handed Kisses alongside Fiona Apple, we caught up with the American artist to talk his lengthy career, and if he ever feels limited by expectation.
Music Feeds:How did the pairing with Fiona Apple come about?
Andrew Bird: Every record has an argument song. Two competing points of view, but since it’s all in my head it takes some serious coaxing to externalize it so the “casting” as Tony [Berg, album producer] calls it was more crucial than ever. It couldn’t be just a pleasant voice. Fiona was our first choice and we have a lot of mutual friends so I thank the lord she said yes.
MF: Did you find your styles and approaches gelled straight away or was there a period of trial and error and experimentation?
AB: Well she took time to find her own phrasing which is different than when I sing her part for sure. She doesn’t come in on the downbeat but waits a beat and then bursts in in a way that startles you. I kept having to remind myself not to meet her passion as that’s the point. My character is mild and considered (according to her) to a fault.
MF: You’ve been making important and gorgeous albums for a long time now. How do you compare and contrast the records you’ve made throughout your career? And how would you say this one stacks up in comparison to previous records?
AB: One is a reaction to what preceded it. They seem to alternate between dreamy and expansive and visceral and rocking. This being the latter. I haven’t made a record this rigorous and frankly expensive before. Everything was top shelf.
MF: Earlier in your career, your ability to play a diverse range of instruments was what set you apart. Your violin, your guitar, your voice and your whistling. Now that you’re in this stage of your career, do you ever feel limited by the expectations of your audience to see you endorse and utilise those instruments? And are you ever tempted to branch out with new instruments?
AB: The virtuosity of the violin has been balanced by my boneheaded guitar playing. I’m phasing out the looping somewhat, though I haven’t grown tired of it. Less victrola whirligigs on stage. Gotta keep moving even if it’s a hit with the audience.
MF: There’s always been a controlled level of passion to your music that I’ve felt sets you apart from other singers and songwriters. Would you agree that it’s been your ability to control the way you emote through your music, particularly with your voice, that has been one of the defining elements of your music throughout the years?
AB: I don’t like filigree and affect but I find the performances get more eccentric on stage. In the studio those hills and valleys can be distracting.
MF: It’s a shit and clichéd question, but you are a master whistler. Is it something that you still find yourself doing everyday or compelled to do, or does it just come naturally?
AB: Sometimes I say “enough with the whistling” but I do it constantly so why would I stop when I’m on stage?
MF; From what you’ve said about the wrecking crew as an inspiration for this album, it seems like you were really challenging yourself as a musician on this album. What drove you to that place, and what was the most challenging piece of music on the record for you as a player?
AB: Randy Newman stopped by the studio as I was mixing Break It Yourself to listen to a few songs. He wasn’t overtly critical but I found I was eager for some real concrete advice. It’s hard to quantify “better” but I wanted to make a better record. As far as the playing goes it was more about what not to play and honing the bass lines. Not accepting anything as passable. The guitar playing is probably the most difficult stuff on here. ‘Chemical Switches’ and ‘Saints Preservus’.
MF: You worked with Tony Roma on producing the album, who you haven’t worked with since the Mysterious Production of Eggs over a decade ago. What rekindled that creative relationship?
AB: Tony Berg actually. He only facilitated MPOE after I had scrapped it twice before. He is the first hands on producer I’ve worked with. Some serious vetting of the songs.
MF: I’ve always felt there’s a level of intellectualism to your music. You make gorgeous pop melodies and harmonies and compositions as a whole, but listening to your music always makes me feel smarter for some reason, or that I’m smarter for being a fan. Do you deliberately incorporate a level of complexity into your music as a challenge for yourself but also your fans?
AB: There’s that quote by P.T. Barnum “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” or something to that effect. I’m not a believer in that philosophy. There’s room for it in film and novels. Why not songs?
MF: You’ve always been a captivating live performer. Do you still drive yourself to innovate and reinterpret your live performances? Is it important for you to continue to make sure you are fresh and new live for new audiences?
AB: I never walk on stage thinking “ Oh I got this”. I’ve always relied on a sort of plea with the audience. I think they appreciate the humanness of it. Between shoegaze indifference and “love me” rock god moves there’s some room for nuance. When a song comes off without a hitch I’m always a little disappointed.
‘Are You Serious’ is out April 1st, grab a copy here.