Singer-Songwriter Andrew Bird Talks About How Much He Loves the Spontaneity of Live Performance

click to enlarge Singer-Songwriter Andrew Bird Talks About How Much He Loves the Spontaneity of Live Performance
Tanner Morris
Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird originally learned to play the violin by ear. While in high school, he spent hours practicing and refining his ability to play the instrument. He can still remember how much time he devoted to practicing.

“That’s a tough time for most people, and some of it’s driven by social awkwardness and escapism,” he recalls via phone. He performs at 8 p.m. on July 25 at Cain Park with jazz singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. “You go into the practice room, and you know you can work. I got into this mentality of just putting in more hours. I had this mentality that you could control your life more if you do that. It’s dramatic and exciting to pursue that virtuosity. I did get to the point where I wondered who I was trying to impress. Was it just to demonstrate skill or really say something? I pursued that intensity through my teenage years and then hit a wall where I did it to the exclusion of almost anything else and that was not good. That’s when I started writing songs.”

His 1996 solo debut, Music of Hair, an album that commences with a gentle waltz, keeps things on the traditional side of the folk-y spectrum.

He would then formed the indie rock band Bowl of Fire and had a great run with the group, but in 2003, he disbanded the band and forged ahead with a solo career that’s been going strong ever since.

“The first show I did solo was totally accidental,” he says. “It was only because I couldn’t get the band together, and I didn’t want to give up the gig. It was with the [indie rock act] Hanson Family. I had messed around at my farm with the looping. I thought no one would buy it. Something about that high wire act and trying to do that on stage turned it into a different performance experience. Having to pull out of nosedives on stage and talk your way out of it was risking more. Bowl of Fire was a good run, but I could see it wasn’t really going anywhere. A couple of years into the solo thing, people were showing up more than I ever expected. There was an initial insecurity, but after that I enjoyed packing up my Honda Element with amps and doing it all myself.”

His first solo effort, 2003's Weather Systems, caught the attention of folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who reissued the album on her Righteous Babe Records and took Bird on tour with her. That tour included a Lakewood Civic Auditorium date. At the show, DiFranco’s audience clearly didn’t know Bird’s work but quickly warmed up to Bird. He says he enjoyed the process of winning her fans over.

“She was the first artist to champion what I was doing,” says Bird when asked about DiFranco. “I was in need of something like that. In Chicago, I was an auxiliary part of different scenes. I needed someone to help lift me up. I must have opened 100 shows for her. No one knew who I was. It was a great period of time as an underdog trying to win people over. That was a turning point.”

Bird recently launched a Facebook Live series, “Live from the Great Room,” a show featuring weekly performances with some of his friends and collaborators that he streams live from his home. Recent guests have included Zach Galifinakis, Fiona Apple, Matt Berninger of the National, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Lucius, The Lumineers, Spalding, Jackson Browne and many more.

“I wanted to bring the album campaign for [last year's] Are You Serious back to music,” he says. “It had gotten off the rails into some personal territory that I was having a hard time talking about. I wanted to take control of the whole narrative and dialogue. That was my way of doing it. It was kind of on a whim. We use Facebook Live as a broadcast signal. People come over an hour before we go live. We just get to see what happens. Some of them have taken a tremendous amount of work and preparation, especially if someone doesn’t play an instrument and I’m trying to support them. Usually, as a violinist, I can walk in and put the icing on the top. It’s a chance to ask questions of my guests and sometimes they ask questions of me that are outside the journalistic format. It hits all the marks for me about what I like about live performance without leaving the house. I like not knowing what is going to happen, which is what I like about being on stage.”

The opening notes of “Capsized,” the first single from Are You Serious, with its propulsive bass riff and a steady drumbeat, sounds something like a Talking Heads tune. It suggests the sonic density at the album's core. Bird has said he didn’t intend to make the songs on Are You Serious so autobiographical, and he thinks his next album, which he's already begun to write, will not be so intensely personal.

"I’ve already written more than half of it, though it won’t be out for a while, I’m sure," he says of the next album. "It’s shaping up to be perhaps less autobiographical and more political and social commentary. It’s a complicated time of trying to both get down and get your hands dirty and be above the fray. I’m walking that line [with the new songs]. I have some songs I’m excited to play, and I usually can’t resist trying them out on tour.”