Chicago troubadour Andrew Bird takes the sounds of jazz, folk, rock and a little bit of gypsy to form an ecclectic brand of music that Pitchfork has dubbed "Music for the ages that demands to be heard" and The Los Angeles Times hailed "Bird's introspective and witty wordplay drifts over mellow tunes that are spacious and detailed, full of texture and intricate melodies, yet also beautifully simple, rooted in his innate skill for crafting a damn good song."
With such praise surrounding the 32 year old poet - fame and fortune is sure to follow. Or is it? In Bird's own words "That used to be what I wanted, but now..."
Livewire's Phil Bonyata sat down recently with the enigmatic Bird to talk about eggs, iPods and the clarinet...
Livewire: Your latest album has made many 2005 Top 10 lists. Are you surprised?
Bird: I was kind of unprepared for the whole Top 10 thing, at first I was surprised and then I was like - as they started showing up I was like - why is it not showing up on all of the Top 10 lists? (laughs)
Livewire: How did you come up with the title The Mysterious Production of Eggs?
Andrew: Well, it came from an old magic catalog. It's been in my head for years and kind of took on multiple meanings when I lived, for a few years, out in my barn. I had 26 chickens and I would go get their eggs for omelets in the morning and make coffee - I would write these songs. It's pretty amazing to hold this egg that just came out of the body of this animal and then go about cooking it and eating it. People just aren't used to having that direct connection.
Livewire. You use unconventional instruments in your music like the glockenspiel - is there any instrument that you're afraid to tackle?
Andrew: I guess there are certain instruments that I don't like - like the clarinet. I like it just in jazz, especially early jazz. But the answer is no I don't fear any instrument.
Livewire: You seem to be a musical natural (like a Brian Jones) who enjoys pushing the boundaries of music. Tell me what got you started in music?
Andrew: My musical influences started out gradual. By the time I was eight I could play pretty well and the time I was 15 I got better. Before I really formed my identity I was already pretty darn good at the violin. Then I just threw myself into it - but it was a big struggle to see what I was going to do. I think I've figured it out - my educational phases are over with - I don't need to figure out music - writing just has become like living and breathing. Whereas up until about I was 25 - I was still discovering. Now it's no longer like a discipline - it's just what happens when I wake up.
Livewire: How about some key early musical influences?
Andrew: I was mostly surrounded by classical music, but whenever I'd hear something outside of classical music like Irish tunes or bluegrass - I would make up tunes that sounded very similar when I was 7 or 8 years old. I guess the most intense phase for me was the early jazz thing - when I was like 19 to 24. I couldn't imagine music being much better than Johnny Hodges or a lot of the tenor players of that era which were big influences on me. This is mostly prewar jazz, not bebop, pretty much when the goal was to create a melody. I go up through the '50s with Lester Young and a lot of the Verve recordings of the '50s as well.
Livewire: Do you feel that today's music - with the success of the indie scene - is taking more risks than anytime in your life?
Andrew: I don't know. I think there were a lot of indie bands in the '80s that were pretty eccentric. I don't know if today's indie bands have gotten more savvy or radio stations or more scared. I get played now on a lot of radio stations that wouldn't consider playing my songs awhile ago.
Livewire: Well isn't that because you are more popular now?
Andrew: I guess, I don't know what comes first, you know. I was told by some commercial radio managers that they're kind of freaked about satellite radio or whatever. Their listenership is down so they are now taking more risks. And that is definitely a good thing! I'm finding that there are more outlets and options out there. With me - I'm not sure if it's the results of more things opening up or just having slogged away for eight or nine years on the road or if I made a better record...I don't know.
Livewire. You seem to be quite happy on Ani DiFranco's label Righteous Babe. How active is she in the creation of your music?
Andrew: Not at all. It's more like they license it. I more or less make the record - pay for the record and I have no communication with them at all until I hand them the master product. No one's ever bothered to tell me what to do or suggest anything for that matter.
Livewire. Might that change as you become more successful?
Andrew: I think the pitfalls to that path have been shown so many times with bands that try to play it safe. You know, do it like they did it last time and it falls flat. I can't imagine anyone convincing me to go with "x" producer because he's got this big name. That kind of sucks you know.
Livewire:. You've been playing with innovative musician Martin Dosh lately - how has he pushed your musical boundaries?
Andrew: We've only just started touring together and we're really starting to challenge each other to mix it up every night and try new things. Right now it's at a very cool stage of collaboration. He does similar things to what I do like looping where he makes his own drums and kind of mixes himself onstage and does a sort of collage.
Livewire: What can you give me in your live show that I can't get on one of your records?
Andrew: The live show has kind of a loose, stumbling sort going for it, especially vocally. I sing completely different live than I do on record. I've found that they are two completely different things. Whatever worked live would probably be annoying to listen to a hundred times on record. Everyone understands it live - it makes sense at that moment. So there's more adrenaline and occasional freakout live. The records are more controlled, but hopefully not too controlled. The records are kind of carved and sculpted and there's still has to be a spontaneity in there.
Livewire: With the recent domination of iPods and .99 cent singles as well as illegal downloading - do you predict the death of the CD anytime soon?
Andrew: Or the concept of the album? I don't get into making mixed CDs, but I'm sure it's quite big. Anytime someone can make a really solid record form beginning to end that's really special. Not many people are really doing that. One of my favorite things to do is when working with an artist is to collaborate on the whole package, including the artwork - which is incredibly important to me.
Livewire: What do you tell a talented artist that wants to make a living in the music business today?
Andrew: I guess the question is a bit broad. I wouldn't be too cautionary. I mean over the years my expectations have adjusted and changed. I haven't had a day job since I was 19 and that's not a typical story for someone doing independent music. I almost burned myself out at 22 from pushing myself so hard. I guess I'm reaching another breaking point at 32 where I'm not sure if it's really sustainable.
Livewire: You could be called a "buzz" artist right now.
Andrew: I guess I've been doing it so long that it doesn't have much weight anymore. The only difference now is that people are coming to shows.
Livewire: And selling more CDs, I would imagine.
Andrew: I really don't pay much attention to that. I'm more concerned about what I see and put my hands on which is the live show.
Livewire: Where do you see Andrew Bird in five years?
Andrew: The future is the tour bus and playing in front of people and having more demands. That used to be what I wanted, but now... I really, really love performing and I love being on stage, but I can see that being a big part of the next 10 years. Even something exciting like playing in a different town every night can get old. I'd like to see more collaborations with visuals and maybe do something more in theater or film or what have you.
More Andrew Bird
Concert review - Miwaukee, WI Feb. 2, 2006
Concert review - Miwaukee, WI Mar. 12, 2005
CD review - The Mysterious Production of Eggs