By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Andrew Bird has a freewheeling performance style that has earned him the sobriquet “a one-man orchestra of the imagination.” He plays literate indie-pop—his latest album, Inside Problems, is rife with thoughtful references to the late writer Joan Didion and author Joyce Carol Oates. These musical meditations are colored by the happy melancholy that has become his trademark.
He’s been a New Yorker Festival guest and an op-ed contributor to the New York Times. His 2010 Ted Talk (the first of three), streaming on YouTube, finds the 48-year-old Illinois native singing and performing solo with an acoustic violin, looping station, and glockenspiel. He is a tall, lanky middle-aged man, scruffy and bearded, his long, narrow face framed by unruly brown locks. Clad in faded jeans, a checkered shirt, and a rumpled tan corduroy sports coat that could have been pulled from a rack at a local thrift store, he looks like an eccentric college professor, nervous and a bit awkward. He croons an unfinished song that gets into “crazy realms,” he says, and ponders the philosophical nature of communication and the metaphorical feedback loops generated by interpersonal relationships. He sings. He whistles. He bows, plucks, and strums the violin as he layers electronically processed sound. The audience is entranced. The video has garnered 1.4 million views.
A Renaissance Man
You may have heard—or seen—Bird without even knowing it. This singer, songwriter, violinist, multi-instrumentalist, virtuoso whistler, composer, and actor gets around of late. His film and TV work ranges from the 2015 vaudeville documentary short Best Days Ahead and Apple TV’s Dickinson to the Will Forte action spoof MacGruber and The Muppets movie (“The Whistling Caruso”). His indie-pop album My Finest Work Yet picked up a Grammy nomination and such coveted nods as AllMusic.com’s AllMusic Best of 2019, as well as a spot on the authoritative review site’s Favorite Folk and Americana Album list. In 2020, he released Hark!—a collection of wistful Christmas songs, both originals and covers—and joined the cast of the popular and critically acclaimed FX network adaptation of Fargo, portraying the proto-beatnik funeral home director Thurman Smutny. In 2021, he reunited with singer-songwriter and guitarist Jimbo Mathus, his former partner in the swing-jazz revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers, for the country and folk-music album These 13. That same year, he started an almost daily series of virtual lockdown concerts. His score to Judd Apatow’s quirky new lockdown comedy The Bubble is featured on Netflix.
“When I was in music school, I didn’t like to be pinned down into one scene for very long,” Bird says of his far-ranging career. He is calling from his home in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife, Katherine Tsina, a classically trained dancer and fashion designer, and their son, Sam. The couple’s white-walled Mediterranean-style home and garden have been featured in Sunset and other lifestyle publications. “Even when I was playing Irish folk music, whenever it started to feel too clique-ish and over-important, I would get a restless feeling and it was time to move onto something else. I was pretty omnivorous and into something different every two weeks. I think I just have that kind of restlessness in my nature.”
And then there’s the theatricality. “When I started making my first albums, I wasn’t content for it to be a purely musical statement—I realized there was a whole multimedia thing going on here,” he adds. “You could use the artwork to make connections to the songs and expand the universe into a movie or a novel. I was always interested into expanding into other mediums. So whenever an opportunity comes up, I ask myself, ‘Am I going to learn something from this?’ If it’s going to push me out of my comfort zone, then I’ll do it.”
On Inside Problems, Bird contemplates the internal and external, the spiritual and the corporeal, the emotional responses to the wide world and our inner lives—what he calls outside problems and inside problems. The song “Underlands” has Bird zooming out and zooming in, taking a bird’s eye view of the wonders of the world, but also assessing the ways in which people mess up their lives. He’s like Freud with a fiddle. “I was thinking about the known universe and the Greek myth of Icarus trying to scrape the sky, and then Orpheus going to the underworld and the human ambition to do the impossible,” he says. “But I was also thinking about the unknowable: What’s beneath the surface of the water? What’s beneath the crust of the Earth? What’s beneath our skin? What are those things to which we are not privy and what does that do to our imagination?”
On a trippy promotional video for the album, Bird muses on the emotional armor humans wear and the metaphorical molting that sometimes takes place to create a spiritual rebirth. Many of the ideas came from middle-of-the-night thoughts. “In the midst of writing an album, and before the recording has begun, if I’m having insomnia, I can just pull out that song into a file, and it helps to mitigate the voices that are driving me nuts,” he says. “I can corral them or use them to a better purpose than endless anxiety or neuroses. So, in that way, songwriting is a therapeutic way to organize those demons. But rebirth is a weird phenomenon. Almost every species goes through some sort of molting—why not humans? I was just trying to understand.
“It’s a mysterious pall that comes over me sometimes,” he continues when pressed about the songwriting process. “When I’m writing a song, I usually have a melody going, a melody that keeps coming back that’s triggered by some sort of sensory thing. I take that melody and point it at the things I’ve been thinking about. That’s the best way I can describe the process—it’s aiming a melody at whatever has been haunting me the most and waiting for that idea to spit out the words that fit the melody.
“It takes forever,” he adds with a laugh.
Several songs on the new album, including “Lone Didion” and “Atomized,” allude to literary giant Joan Didion, known for her perceptive and personal essays. “I was reading a lot of Joan Didion over the past couple of years,” he says. “I like the essay form—Annie Dillard is another one. I like writers who are able to zoom out and look at the big picture and then zoom in and capture the contrast between those two things. I feel like I do that a lot in my own work. During the past few years, I’ve been in this intense reading phase—I read for two hours every night before I go to bed. If you’re writing for a record, it’s hard for that stuff not to seep in there.”
He wishes at times that he could filter his ideas. “Sometimes, I wish there were some of the rigor that a writer has with an editor or fellow writers who can critique their work,” he says, “but there’s not a whole lot of that in the world that I work in. So there are a lot of internal conversations. Songwriting is the act of trying to organize these messy thoughts into song form.”
Finding His Voice
Bird was born in 1973 in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, Illinois, in a home that nurtured the arts. He started playing violin at age four and studied the Suzuki method (his mother loved classical music; his father was fond of country artist Merle Haggard). As he grew, Bird immersed himself in classical music, especially Bach and Dvořák. His love of violin “kicked in” at around age 14. “I could already play violin well by then, so I thought I should throw myself into this completely, and it became more part of my identity,” he once told Chicago radio station WFMT. “That’s when I started practicing hours and hours a day. Once I started playing some of the big violin concertos, it became a very dramatic struggle to try to master these pieces, which matched and helped me deal with the feelings of being young and in high school.”
He worked the gate at the Ravinia Festival, attended the Interlochen Arts Camp, and performed in the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras. Eventually, he enrolled in the music program at Northwestern University. During college, he worked as a landscaper, performed at a Renaissance fair “playing Irish music that passed for medieval music,” and gigged as a pit musician at an opera festival in Arkansas. “It was like a training ground where they bussed in little old ladies to watch opera,” he recalls. “I got paid $500 for two months’ work.”
In 1996, he earned a degree in violin performance from Northwestern. He began teaching at an old-time music school, performed in various roots music and jazz bands, and released his solo debut, the self-produced album of neo-trad folk music titled Music of Hair, with such tracks as “Ambivalence Waltz” and the eerie violin/bass/drum folk-jazz dirge “Oh So Sad.”
“I’ve always been able to barely get by,” he says of his professional work history.
Between 1996 and 1998, he recorded three albums with the Squirrel Nut Zippers and performed with a number of other band projects. He has 19 albums to his credit and has collaborated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, indie-pop singer Fiona Apple, and the Handsome Family, among others. Stylistically, Bird has gone back and forth between folk, country, jazz, film scores, and indie-pop. In his review of the 2001 breakthrough indie-pop album The Swimming Hour, released under Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire moniker, music critic Jon Azpiri noted: “The song ‘Why’ feels like a jazz song from a 1950s film-noir soundtrack.” On Inside Problems, he sometimes jumps genres within a single song. “It’s not a conscious thing at all,” he says of his eclectic tastes. “I just gravitate toward the things I like and that I’m curious about. I don’t like a song ever to feel like it’s a genre exercise.”
Ultimately, his openness to a stylistic potpourri has led Bird to find his own voice. “When I was about 26, I decided I had soaked up as much as I could from various genres,” he says. “That’s when I turned toward contemplating, ‘What is it that I have to say?’ That’s when I became more serious about songwriting.”
His violin playing has changed as well—his lyrical style is more jazz tenor sax legend Lester Young and less Itzhak Perlman. “At some point between my 20s and the present, my way of playing an instrument evolved, because I did leave the classical world pretty much completely,” he says. “I had put in my time for the technique and all of that. But my way of phrasing and bowing has evolved over the years. I encourage younger violinists to look beyond their instrument sometimes. The way I play has evolved into something more like a tenor saxophone player, which has a whole different physiology to it. It’s more fluid than the violin, but it can be done—the path I’ve taken as a player has gone way beyond what was expected on the instrument.”
A High-Wire Act
Bird’s use of electronics to enhance the acoustic violin is part of his signature sound, but his innovative style came about almost by accident—he is not a big gear head, he says. “I gave up my apartment in Chicago and turned an old barn on my family farm into a studio workspace,” Bird explains. “The idea was to make some records out there. It ended up being incredibly isolating because none of my friends had cars. I was out there for weeks at a time. I had a Line 6 green box, as they called them [a DL4 MKII delay], a modeler of analog tape delays. One of the settings is a 13- or 26-second loop. It doesn’t store anything. You can’t save anything. Each subsequent layer pushes the previous layer aside and it kind of fades out, putting the new idea over the old one. So you can improvise with yourself and it turns what is otherwise a mostly linear instrument into a vertical instrument with all sorts of possibilities. It sounds pretty cool in a lo-fi kind way.
“I spent hours and hours experimenting with that, interpreting some of my songs in a solo format. You have to make some cuts to make it all work. You have time to do either the verse or the chorus. The first tune I did was “Why,” from The Swimming Hour, in a 32-bar jazz ballad form. The bridge is pretty short, and otherwise I’m playing the violin like a guitar, so I’m playing chords and using an octave pedal to get the bass. Since it’s just me and I’m creating the rhythm section, I can play with time in really interesting ways. It’s a loop, and you can go out of time in the loop—I would go so far behind the beat that I would be on the beat before it. Somehow it made musical sense. When I got to the bridge, I would just turn it off and play arco tremolo while singing over that. And then cue it back up when the last A section came in.
“It created a theatrical element, kind of a high-wire act. The audience would sit there and wonder, ‘Oh, wait a minute, how is he going to pull this off?’ That, in turn, fed into the theatrical nature of the lyrics. Messing around with polyrhythmic pizzicato stuff, I ended up coming up with ideas that didn’t really fit the mold of what we had heard before. As soon as I started taking that re-thinking of how I make music out on the road, people started paying attention. It also freed me up from having to defer to other band members and their record collections and what they could bring to the band. I could create the whole picture completely from my internal world.”
The impromptu nature of his music is essential to Bird’s artistry, and it’s fueled by the audience. During the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted that process, as it did for so many musicians—indeed, Bird has sorely missed live performance, despite those frequent virtual lockdown sessions. Now he’s excited about returning to the stage. “I’ve only performed a couple of [live] one-off performances in the past two years,” he says. “I played Ravinia and Chicago in September. It caught me by surprise how emotional it was to get up there again—it was so extraordinary to be onstage. I had hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I need it.
“Somewhere in my 20s, I succumbed to being a performer as a basic need. At the time, I thought, ‘Oh, I guess you make albums in order to make a living, and then you go on the road and play shit.’ At a certain point that paradigm flipped over. Now, I make albums so I can justify going out and playing. At some point I accepted that the animal that I am is one that plays live music. It’s such an extraordinary way to spend the day. To experience that day after day is really challenging, but it’s an extraordinary thing, and I try to never let myself forget that.”
What Andrew Bird Plays
At 16, determined to find “a really serious instrument,” Bird went in search of Zenon Petesz, a violin maker who lived in Norridge, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. Petesz had emigrated from Poland in the 1940s, bringing wood from an ancient Polish forest. He was known for copying instruments by Guarneri del Gesù and Stradivari with beautiful inlays and carvings. He only built about 60 violins in his lifetime. “He made me play for him to prove my worthiness of one of his instruments,” Bird has recalled. “I can remember being in his workroom and playing a Bach partita. He decided I was deserving of the violin, and I have never envied any other instrument. I still play that violin today as my main instrument. It is versatile and has a beautiful tone, but it’s not as specific as your Stradivari or Italian violins of a certain era. I can really do so much with it and pull so many different sounds out of it.”
His 1987 Petesz has Pirastro Evah Pirazzi strings with a Hill unwound E. Bird also plays a 2016 Peter Seman five-string (“It has the tone of a viola, but with a high E”). He uses a Joseph Vigneron bow (he previously used a Lloyd Liu bow). He has a Bam double case for both violins. His electronics include a Barcus Berry 3100 clamp-on bridge piezo pickup; an L.R. Baggs bridge piezo pickup; a 1960s-era Fender Deluxe Reverb guitar amplifier and a Fender Twin Reverb amplifier—he rolls off the treble and cranks the reverb to smooth out the graininess on these tube amps—a Fender Showman 100-watt head; a Fender Bassman; a Line 6 DL4 MKII delay modeler; a Boss OC-2 analog octave pedal; and a Schroeder Amplification Blister Agent distortion pedal. —GC