Andrew Bird has long been a fixture of playful seriousness in the indie scene. His music is fun, experimental and contains a studied lyrical ambiguity that keeps the listener coming back to his songs time after time. On his latest release Are You Serious, Bird has turned his eye toward the domestic and in the process produced his most personal record yet. I spoke with Bird about his songwriting practice and the role that a writer’s private life holds in his public persona. This album came together very quickly for Bird in way that contrasted with his usual process.
“Usually my songs take years of hemming and hawing and kind of catching, just sort of grabbing things out of the ether over a period of time and then sort of patching them together. I would say everything I've written has been personal, it's just a matter of how clear and apparent is that to the average listener. In this case, with a handful of songs, it should be fairly clear what I'm talking about. When I was younger there was more time to sort of get caught up in machinations and wordplay and an internal world. I think I set out a challenge to myself to speak more poignantly. Now that doesn't mean that the art of coming up with just the right phrase is not there anymore. It's even more so there. It's just like, some writers I'll point out, songwriters like John Prine or Townes Van Zandt who seem to be able to really distill an intense feeling into just a few words with some humor. That's the ultimate goal I think.”
Taken as a whole these tracks seem to capture a particular moment in Bird’s life, but that moment is still filtered through his usual lens of commentary and meta-referential understanding of music in general. I was very interested in the nature of his confessional writing and how he developed himself as a character in his songs versus a straightforward autobiographical representation. Bird talked to me about this contrast.
“Is my writing autobiographical? I'd say yes, but it's not always the case. I've had conversations with novelists about the personal – before I put this record out, because I didn't know how to navigate this yet – and I was talking to a friend of mine who writes fiction, but she was completely expecting journalist to relate the characters to her personal life, and it didn't happen. I said, 'That's probably because there's so much fiction in you, you've invented these characters, and they wouldn't presume to say this is you here.' For songwriters I think there is more of an expectation that it is more autobiographical, that you have been through what you're talking about. That's very apparent when I do shows with comedians. I'm talking about smart comedians that they come out and they're talking about their lives but there's this sort of inherent irreverence to it and everyone's laughing, even if what they're talking about is sad. I would come out after them and they're like, 'Oh, here comes the songwriter with his thoughts and feelings.' The assumption is that it's utterly sincere. I've always tried to avoid that expectation, whether it is sincere or not, I still kind of feel like a comedian up there, like a shrug of the shoulders, 'I don't know, folks. This is just how I see it.' That's what I'm playing with, with title of the record, is that expectation of total sincerity.”
Bird plays with these expectations throughout the record. I am particularly taken with the track “Left Handed Kisses,” which features Fiona Apple in a duet with Bird’s struggling songwriter. In Bird’s words, “That’s one song that I've been working on for five or six years, and it was originally just my original point of view of a guy who's trying to write a love song. He starts to struggle with doubting whether that he's getting too much in his head, and then that inner voice that says that is totally disingenuous or just not quite up to it. It's kind of the argument between the skeptic and the romantic, and the skeptic trying to reason through it.” Apple’s inclusion on the track is perfect. The balance between romance and skepticism is striking and is indicative of the larger moments of ambiguity that make Bird’s work so interesting.
Andrew Bird will be at The Civic on Monday night with the outstanding Sinkane as his opening act. Don’t miss this show. Check out the video for “Left Handed Kisses” below.
To Do This Week
Tonight check out the Lost Bayou Ramblers at Gasa Gasa. This weekend is the Bear Creek Bayou Music Fest at Mardi Gras World. The inaugural festival will feature George Clinton, Flow Tribe, The Flaming Lips and more. Saturday night at the Howling Wolf there is a tribute to Bernie Worrell as part of the festival which features Ivan Neville, Nigel Hall and more. Sunday check out Denzel Curry at the House of Blues. Monday Andrew Bird and Sinkane are at the Civic. Wednesday Young the Giant will be at the House of Blues with Ra Ra Riot.
To Listen This Week
- New solo track from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James via CoS
- Check out the new video from LVL UP via Youtube