Andrew Bird Talks About the Literary and Musical Works That Influenced His New Album

Singer-songwriter throws out the first pitch at the Guardians game on April 8 and plays the Agora that same night

click to enlarge Andrew Bird. - Alec Basse
Alec Basse
Andrew Bird.
Initially, singer-songwriter Andrew Bird's formal training had a strong influence on the type of music he played. His 1996 debut, Music of Hair, commences with a gentle waltz and keeps things on the traditional side of the folk-y spectrum. Since then, Bird’s music has evolved; the songs on his new album, Inside Problems, come off as his most nuanced to date. The album includes a variety of references to author Joan Didion, and it even finds Bird adopting a Lou Reed-like vocal delivery on some tracks.

Andrew Bird, who says he'll have to "oil up" his shoulder to throw out the first pitch at the Guardians game prior to his concert at the Agora on Saturday, April 8, recently spoke via phone from Los Angeles about the album and the upcoming U.S. tour, which hadn't yet started at the time of the interview.

Talk about when the songs for your latest album, Inside Problems, began to come together. Was it during or prior to the pandemic?
A lot of it was during the pandemic, and a little of it was before that. I certainly had some time on my hands. A lot of it was written in the middle of night as I was spiraling with anxiety, so it was self-soothing to work on the songs in my head instead of thinking about what was happening.

How did Joan Didion inspire some of the lyrics?
It’s a confluence of things happening at the same time. I was reading her The Year of Magical Thinking, and this friend of mine told me this story about her coming into this restaurant where she would sit with her husband every Saturday night. Then, her husband died, and some weeks passed, and she came in alone and ordered the usual. I heard this story as I was reading it in her book. You can’t hear a story like that and not be affected by it.

Where did you go to record the album and what was that experience like?
We recorded it at United Recording. It’s a classic room from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s where Sinatra and Dean Martin recorded and tons of classic records were done. They’re closing down next month, which is a bummer. It’s a great sounding room. We had the four of us playing live and facing each other. I could hear my voice without headphones, which is big for me.

You worked with producer Mike Viola. How do you guys know each other?
We both had our kids a the same preschool. I had known of him before that. It took us a couple of years to finally get together. He’s all about preproduction instead of post-production. Some people figure out the songs in the studio and write everything in post. It was the opposite. Since the pandemic was going on, we couldn’t even go into the studio, and we just played together for months. It was he and I and then with the band. The session at United was just a performance. There are very little overdubs. It took about ten days, which is pretty fast by most standards. Recording for me is like a two-week bender of performing. It’s like everyday I have to go in and be on.

I can hear strings on the opening number, “Underlands.” Did you play with an entire string section?
It just sounds big and orchestral just because of the room and how it’s played. It’s not that many tracks.

You whistle on that song, which I love. Talk about how you first started.
I started when I was little. I think my grandmother was a whistler. She might’ve showed me. I was playing violin from an early age. It’s directly from the ear to the string or to the whistle. It’s a direct line from the brain. It’s not like playing piano or guitar. I just whistle morning, noon and night. I didn’t think to put it on an album until my fourth album. Who would think that something that casual would be worth listening to. I found when I went solo, I was playing by myself to crowds in bars and loud clubs, and it was an effective way to get people to shut up and listen. I would hold a note as long as long as my lungs would allow. I would have their attention. It’s a very powerful instrument. The association is that it’s whimsical and light-hearted, but it’s a very powerful, operatic sound.

“The Night Before Your Birthday” has a Velvet Underground vibe. Is that conscious?
I have to admit, we were listening to a lot of Lou Reed and John Cale during the pandemic. My son got really into the Velvet Underground. He was playing “Pale Blue Eyes” and was playing the music constantly around the house. I was thinking about Lou Reed’s vocal delivery or any singer who half sings and half speaks. It makes people listen to the lyrics in a different way when it’s not totally melodic. It’s more rhythmic. On some of his tunes, it’s almost like he’s playing drum fills with his voice. I don’t know how conscious but I was listening to that music at the time.

You just released a new music video for “Never Fall Apart.” Talk about the video’s concept.
I just gave that one to my old guitarist, Jeremy Yvisaker, who is a guitar hero in Minneapolis. He is also a comedian and does some film work too. I just handed it to him and said, “Do what you want.” I wasn’t involved with the concept, but I love what he did.

What's the song's history?
Jeremy wrote the melody on an EP he put out. It totally different sounding. It sounded like it was a My Bloody Valentine tune. It had this beautiful melody. It was called “Never Fall Apart.” I heard it and thought I would write the lyrics to it. It was the summer that the George Floyd protests were going on, and I had that on my mind. We collectively kind of forget these intense dramatic things and just move on. That’s the sentiment of it.

“Atomized” is a real highlight. What’s the story behind it?
It’s a pretty upbeat jam. Lyrically, it was another nod to Joan Didion. She has her famous work Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which is a quote from Yeats. It’s like 1919, 1969 and 2019. I was doing this update of this idea of society becoming fractured and falling apart. That’s mostly what it’s about. Add social media and the world we live in now, and it’s super-charged.

There’s a real intricacy to the songs on Inside Problems. How do they translate live?
Since we’ve done them live, it’s not like we have to learn how to play certain parts. Lately, we’ve been paring down to a trio since there is so much going on with violin and guitar. As a result, it’s nice to give it a lot of space. We make a lot of noise for three people. I never think about how we will recreate what we did on the record. Why worry about that? It’s all good music.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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