Melodies for days: Q&A with singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird
Bird to perform at Center for the Arts
A glockenspiel, violin, guitar –– Andrew Bird plays them all.
Bird, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter will perform at UB’s Center for the Arts on Saturday as part of his national tour.
The Spectrum spoke with Bird before the concert about his latest album, “Echolocations: River” and his extensive music career that began when he was four-years-old. Bird has over 14 albums, and “Echolocations: River” is his second installment in his “Echolocation” series, where he takes inspiration from various landscapes.
Q: Your latest album “Echolocations: River” has a particularly organic feel compared to your other albums. Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the locations for this album?
A: Yeah, the first song was actually a tip from a musician friend who was just talking about places that have extraordinary acoustic character to them outside. You know, I’ve spent a lot of time playing in concert halls, churches and synagogues. It’s always been in my MO to not force all my songs in a space but decide what to play with what the space wants to hear –– at every concert. And after a while I said, “What if we take this idea outside?” What if I go to a place and send some sound waves out and see what bounces back and what does that environment want to hear? And then I’d start composing. So on a whim, we went to this remote area of southern Utah to this place called Coyote Gulch, which is a very challenging place to get into and I just started playing in there and recording, and it was kind of extraordinary. It was everything I hoped it was. The idea is to create a sonic map of an environment so that when you put the record on, your brain kind of pieces together the picture of where this is. In both [“Echolocation”] albums I’ve done so far, I happen to be standing in water in a river while I’m playing just coincidentally. Actually all four of them have water as an element. But yeah, they’re fun. They set aside a curiosity. They require me to react to my environment, which I’m really into. Every performance, I feel like that’s a thing I do. When I do “The Great Room” series in my living room, it’s like people come to my door and we play music and it’s all reactive. It’s not like these are the 12 songs I’ve been playing for years presented to you perfectly conceived. So it’s all connected.
Q: So you move a lot from different music genres –– from indie-pop to indie-folk to jazz to classical –– over the course of your music career. Can you talk a little bit about how you have evolved as a musician?
A: I kind of divide it up into different phases. Up until age 26, I was still in like a student mode where I go into a record store and think, “What can I learn today? What can I learn from all these records?” Some of the first couple of records, I was still immersed in a world of the early 20th century, small-group jazz and Pimpinelli and Calypso [music] and all this stuff I was really wrapped up in. And then it kind of takes a survey of 20th century American music, going from New Orleans, to Memphis to Detroit, you know? And then there was a certain point after I moved out to the country to put myself in a deprivation chamber of sorts. That’s when [the album] “Weather Systems” came out. That was a kind of “wipe the slate clean” kind of influences to see what I had really going on. And that’s when I rethought how to make music. That began the post-bone-fire era. And now, I feel like I’m on a trajectory toward just really succinct song writing. I mean the simpler the better, sometimes. I have these little projects in between song records that exercise my curiosity and let me stretch out as a player and an improviser.
Q: Has there ever been a time in your life when you stopped writing or producing music?
A: No. I started playing violin when I was four. I got really intensely into it at the age of 15 to age 22. I was just playing all day long. Then I had some tendonitis, so I focused on the violin until it got unhealthy, and that’s when I started writing and kind of thinking about the whole more 360 kind of view as you’d expect.
That’s why I think if tomorrow I couldn’t play the violin, I would design a world where for some reason I couldn’t play, I’d still have a very fulfilling, creative life. And that’s pretty key. But yeah, I don’t really ever stop. When I’m making a record in a way, sometimes I strangely stop making music in a way because I’m still absorbing. I mean I’m making music, so I’m still recording, but I stop singing in the shower for whatever reason. And when I’m making a record, I can’t really turn it off. I don’t sleep, which is the state I’m in right now. I’ve been recording a record for the past couple of weeks and I just do not sleep because I can’t turn it off.
Q: Can you walk me through what your writing process is like?
A: I’ve got melodies for days. They just pop up and I pay attention to the ones that you know will reoccur depending on random stimulus from the world –– like every time I get into a taxi in New York or Chicago, I hear the same melody for years, I think. I’ve got to do something with that. The melody is compelling, but if you really want to do it justice, it should be sung. I need to sing that melody and then I start working on the lyrics. That takes me down all sorts of different paths. I’m just you know, I don’t tend to be sort of a narrative song writer. I’m more of exploring a topic and opening it up to discussion. I find the challenge of writing a three-and-a-half minute song incidentally absorbing and challenging.
Q: In “Echolocations: River,” you have an orchestral focus while many of your other albums are more lyric-based. How did you choose the song titles for your orchestral pieces in this album?
A: I had a bunch of working titles that were terrible. One night I did a bunch of research on rare waterfowl in the LA river. I just picked out cool sounding birds. That’s it. I don’t even remember –– if you asked me what a song title was called, I still call it by their working titles –– their bird names. I thought it would be more evocative to use “Lazuli Bunting” instead of “Echo #2” or something.
Hannah Stein is the editor-in-chief and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.