Andrew Bird delivered another solid album this year and his career continues to move forward - looking for purity, perfection and an intimate communication with his audience. We spoke to him about what is going through his mind.
Andrew Bird's particular universe is full of beautiful landscapes, magical places, familiar to his fans and instantly loved by those who experience them for the first time. “Break It Yourself” - his most recent, live recorded album - is a set of stunningly beautiful moments and sounds, on which the Chicago musician continues to experiment and take risks. He breaks from the classic pop song format, twisting it, and delivering jaw dropping songs like “Hole In the Ocean Floor”: over eight minutes of instrumental refinement, and brief but heart-felt lyrics inspired by the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last year, he worked with inventor Ian Schneller to create Sonic Arboretum, a sonic installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and he wrote the soundtrack to indie film “Norman”. The consistent quality of his work, over more than fifteen years of experience, and his magnificent live shows, make him one of those artists you have to see at least once in your life.
We briefly spoke to our man about his latest album, and the things he's been working on in the past two years.
"I like to exercise making instrumental pieces on each album, and use them as a bridge to the next song"
For this album, your band members were more involved in the writing. What was that like for you?
I felt ready to work with them. I had been making records on my own for eight years, and I felt like going back to the time when I started to play, when I was 19, to that process that is not entirely democratic, but more social.
How long did it take to record?
We did most of it in eight days in August 2010, in my barn. We programmed the sessions at the same spot a year later and we mixed it in the following months, we did it pretty quickly. I had written the songs over the course of three years. Before, the others would come by and record with me, and sometimes I would feel like they kidnapped my songs. No matter what the musicians' intentions are when you work like that, when you least suspect it, you feel your songs are someone else's, too, and this time I didn't feel that.
I don't know why exactly, but I feel the record flows very well. Could it be because there are more instrumental parts than on other albums?
Maybe it's because there isn't too much information, even when the sounds mix in the air, this album isn't over-produced like so many others that pile layer upon layer, sending your brain too much information at the same time. We had our limitations, but at the same time we had the sound of the space where we recorded, the sound of the instruments, and so on. We played at a much higher volume and with a lot more power than other records, because we had to hear ourselves with all the other instruments playing as well.
“Polynation” and “Things Behind The Barn” are a bit what “Ouo” and "Unfolding Fans” were to “Noble Beast” ; instrumental interludes connecting the songs and blending the album. Was that your intention?
They're more like ideas, like clouds.
So do you think they'll become songs for future albums?
Yes, I suppose so. Sometimes they're ideas, I like to exercise making instrumental pieces on each album, and use them as a bridge to the next song.
"I have been making music for a long time now and at this point I feel like I have nothing to prove to anyone, so I do what I want, when I want"
Do you want to make instrumental pieces rather than songs, or do you want to do both and put them together on future albums, like you did on “Noble Beast”, and on this one? I ask because you also wrote the soundtrack to “Norman”, and I was wondering if it was something you always set out to do, or if it was pure coincidence.
Well, on “Noble Beast” and “ Useless Creatures” I separated the songs and the instrumental pieces (except for “Unfolding Fans” and “Ouo”), and this time I wanted to unite them again. In our live shows there's a big part that's instrumental. The truth is, I have been making music for a long time now and at this point I feel like I have nothing to prove to anyone, so I do what I want, when I want. I think that's important for a solo artist, after three or four songs you need to give your audience a break from your personality. It makes it enjoyable for both: for them and for you as an artist. That's why sometimes when I play live; I play a bit before I start to sing. It's like a 20-minute window where you can do whatever you want, without having to meet anyone's expectations. Once a song starts, the audience start to calibrate their brain, and they start expecting things. Once you open your mouth and start to sing, the people want to hear stories, the human side of your music. So if you can get something out of those first 20 minutes, go for it. I think doing that prevents people from going crazy on the road, not having to do the same show over and over.
I haven't seen “Norman”, the film you did the soundtrack for, but I've been listening to the album a lot. Experiencing it without the images and story is quite an interesting experience. How did the collaboration come about? Did you know the director?
No, I didn't. I saw a bunch of movies that needed a soundtrack, and none of them, except this one, was good. Life is very short, and if you're going to see a movie 50 times because you're making a soundtrack for it, the last thing you want to do is hurt yourself by watching a bad movie. I did it in between tours, in like four days, locking myself inside the studio and improvising over the footage. It's hard work, it's like working behind the scenes, you're in a room creating moods and atmospheres. I like it, but it's not as gratifying as playing in front of 2000 people every day.
Would you like to go further down that road and make more soundtracks?
Yes, also because it's something you can do without having to leave home.
Any offers yet?
Well, I'm waiting for a good one. You can't do a bad one and lose all credibility. Every time I make music, it's like I'm giving up part of myself, and to do that for something I don't really like, well, it's just not an option.
Speaking of side projects, have you thought about setting up Sonic Arboretum, or something similar, in some other museum or city?
Wow, I would love to, but I'm trying to understand how I fit into that scene. If I make music on my own, what could I do to get collaborators and to work together with institutions? I think I will try to do it where I live. I like the idea of making music like that, in public. Preparing everything in the morning so that people will come and know I'm there. I like the pressure of delivering something to the person who enters a room; it's not the same pressure as playing every night.
Whose idea was the documentary “Fever Year”? Was it your's, the label's, or some director's?
The idea was mine, and I paid for it, but let's say it's not official [laughs].
What does that mean?
I don't know; I don't feel comfortable with the result. It's me and the way I am all the time: sick, because I'm working too much. It shows me as a hard-working and dedicated musician, but I don't know, I don't feel comfortable with it. It did quite well in competitions; it's been playing at several festivals.
How do you feel as a musician after all these years of making music? Do you feel wiser? Is there something you would have done differently? Is it easier now than in the beginning?
It's always a challenge. I never stopped to think I have it all figured out, and that's good; every time I walk onto a stage, I think it's marvellous and impressive. I never relax. But I'm always thinking about my next move, and that it will be closer to something pure, closer to real life. And every time I think about what I'm going to do next, I get excited.