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Description

For the last 20 years, talent has allowed Andrew Bird to mostly write his own ticket. Now, he’s coming up with some of his finest work yet.

Transcript

In this full length conversation and concert with Andrew Bird, we’ll hear new music, and get his personal insights into his life so far. That’s all ahead on this Articulate.

Andrew Bird is a loner who rarely feels lonely. He knows how to dive into solitude without drowning in it, and he understands that music can make for excellent company. That’s why most of the time Andrew Bird is whistling. 

Andrew Bird: It’s a very unconscious thing that I do all day long. It’s just like an escape valve for ideas, and if I’m not talking or sleeping or eating I’m pretty much whistling. 

Music has been Bird’s constant companion for as long as he can remember. He took up the violin at age four, then studied the instrument right through college at Northwestern. Now, more than two decades and 15 albums in, Bird is a highly acclaimed songsmith and performer.  

(Andrew Bird singing “Roma Fade”)  

See her light, how it reigns 

So hard on your high plains 

So, you take such pains 

That she won’t notice you 

And your x-rays 

Of your Paleo man 

All gaze 

How they rest, and play 

Slowly corrupting you 

I wonder what the chance is you wanted to 

A thousand vacant stares won’t make it true 

Make it true  

You need a witness just to know you’re there 

From the tips of your fingers, every strand of hair 

You know someone’s watching you watching me watching you 

And all that we look upon 

You may not know me but you feel my stare  

And if she sees you, it changes you 

Rearranges your molecules 

And if you see her, it changes her 

She’s a danger now, after school 

And if she sees you, it changes you 

Rearranges your molecules 

And if you see her, it changes her 

She’ll be seeing you after school 

Here’s where the gentlemen avert their eyes 

Maybe she’s a gentleman in disguise 

In disguise 

You need a witness just to know you’re there 

From the tips of your fingers every strand of hair 

You know someone’s watching you 

Watching me watching you and all that we look upon 

You may not know me but you feel my 

Stare  

And if I see you, how it changes me 

And if you see me, how it changes you 

Changes you 

And if I see you, how it changes me 

And if you see me, how it changes you 

Changes you 

In 2002, Andrew Bird decided to leave Chicago and move back to his family’s remote farm in western Illinois. He hoped the isolation would be revelatory. It was. 

Bird: I definitely had to confront my demons and whatever. There was not that noise to keep away my thoughts. I really would have no visitors for like two weeks straight. I didn’t bring any records with me, from my record collection. It was all in storage. It turned out, accidentally, maybe subconsciously I wanted this to happen, but it was this putting myself in a vacuum. It was just me and the countryside making music all day long and experimenting. And I would watch a storm come through the valley and that’s when I started thinking about, wow, it’s like my temporal sense of music is changing because of this environment. I could see a storm come through the valley, pass overhead, rain on me, and then move on. And that sense of time, you know, I think started to affect the music I was making. That’s what the song “Weather Systems” was trying to capture that in song form.  

(Andrew Bird singing “Weather Systems”) 

Quiet 

Quiet down she said 

Speaking to the back of his head 

On the edge of her bed 

I can see your blood flow 

Your cells grow  

Hold still a while 

Don’t spill the wine 

‘cause I can see it all from here 

I can see all 

I can see 

Weather systems of the world 

Of the world 

Weather systems of the world  

And every time you turn the soil 

Another cloud begins to boil  

Even after he left the farm, the spirit of solitude stayed with Bird. He toured alone using a looping pedal to create something of a one-man orchestra. Today, Andrew Bird is known for his compositional complexity and philosophical density, but he also admits that both he and his sound have done a lot of growing. 

Bird: In my first couple records, I would throw everything and the kitchen sink into a song just ’cause I didn’t know. I had a restless ear, and I was just like, here, just for the heck of it I’m gonna play a little improvisation on like a Bach partita in the middle of a song. I don’t have those impulses anymore. 

AJC: Is that to do with you have security and the idea that you’re probably capable of being original now? 

Bird: Probably. It just doesn’t thrill me like it used to. What thrills me is just finding that sweet spot from an emotional moment in a song. 

AJC: You’ve now allowed yourself to be more personal in the last five years? 

Bird: Yeah. 

AJC: What happened? When did you have to give yourself permission or did you just see it wasn’t dangerous anymore or did you feel that it was a safe space, a song was a safe space in which to reveal yourself? 

Bird: I think I could probably say that it has to do with finding my family, you know? Finding my wife and having a kid and the people in the room with me when I’m working on a song, I like, I completely trust. 

Bird married his partner, the dancer and fashion designer Katherine Tsina in 2010. Their son Sam came a year later. This newfound contentment regularly surfaces in Bird’s work, as in “Cracking Codes”, a rare love song that flowed from his finger in just one afternoon.  

(Andrew Bird singing “Cracking Codes”) 

You just have to look into my eyes 

You don’t need a secret code 

No need to play at being spies 

And though I may speak to you in tongues 

We don’t need Rosetta Stone 

To know how this song is sung 

And that what I say is true 

Yeah, it’s true 

True, oh, yeah 

And I know that what I say just sounds absurd 

But you can read between the lines 

And you can savor every word 

There’ll be times when you are stammering through tears 

So long they’re not from crocodiles 

It will be music to my ears 

To your ears, to my ears 

‘Cause what you say is true 

Yeah, it’s true.   

‘Cause what I say is 

“Cracking Codes” offers relief from the heavier subject matter that makes up the bulk of Bird’s 2019 album, boldly titled My Finest Work Yet

Bird: My wife was worried there’d be some backlash, like, who does he think he is saying that? I’ve had this feeling 12 or 13 other times, it’s just I decided to say it this time. 

The record may in truth be some of Bird’s finest work yet. It’s sophisticated pairing of bleak cultural commentary and stark vulnerability has struck a nerve with critics and fans alike. Yet his gift for the melancholy doesn’t mean he wallows. 

Bird: Every time I start to get really dark, I feel a need to flip it, to twist it around and either make fun of myself for having that inclination or just play with the lyrics versus the music. Like, I’ll underscore something very dark with something very uplifting. That always ends up being more compelling and interesting than dark on dark or light on light.  

(Andrew Bird singing “Manifest”)  

Well I’m coming to the edge of the widest canyon 

My companions dear 

I’m starting to question my manifest destiny 

My claim to this frontier  

I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster 

End just has to be near 

The earth spins faster, whistles right past ya 

Whispers death in your ear 

Don’t pretend you can’t hear 

Oh, don’t pretend you can’t  

I can hear your tendrils still digging 

For everything that’s walked this earth once living 

Then to be exhumed and burned to vapor 

Can you save her 

Now she’s in the air 

Radical and free 

Neither here nor there 

She’s obliged to no one 

Obliged to no one 

Yeah, yeah, yeah  

Well I’m coming to the edge of a rising ocean 

Such commotion and fear 

We’re keeping all our eyes on what’s on the horizon 

And all that we hold dear  

I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster 

End just has to be near 

The earth spins faster, whistles right past ya 

Whispers death in your ear 

Don’t pretend you can’t hear 

Don’t pretend you can’t  

I can hear your tendrils still digging 

For everything that’s walked this earth once living 

Then to be exhumed and burned to vapor 

Can you save her 

Now she’s in the air 

Radical and free 

Neither here nor there 

She’s obliged to no one 

She’s obliged to no one 

Yeah, don’t pretend you can’t hear 

Don’t pretend you can’t hear 

Andrew Bird’s Finest Work Yet closes with a very fine song. “Bellevue Bridge Club” took years to craft, and in the final version, only a single line from the first draft survives. 

Bird: “We’ll be playing bridge in the psych ward with Barbara, Gene, and Sue,” which I thought was the only part of that song worth keeping. I thought that’s something I can build something around. It sounds like not a healthy relationship. “I will hold you hostage, make you part of my conspiracy. I’m gonna shake you.” Then there’s this other voice that says “I’m gonna shake you ‘till it wakes you.” Kind of to wake someone up to make them come out of their apathetic haze by any means necessary. 

AJC: It sounds like almost a stalky, it’s certainly a very possessive lover to the point of almost stalkery. It sounds to me like the inner critic that many of us have who’s really rude and you would never be friends with that person. And they are a little bit crazy. I just wondered, maybe now that I know it is an internal conversation, is that the guy who’s talking to you a lot of the time? 

Bird: Yeah, that internal voice can be pretty harsh. 

AJC: Are you training it? Are you trying to fix it? Or is it a good thing, do you think? 

Bird: No. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. No, keeps things interesting.  

(Andrew Bird singing “Bellevue Bridge Club”) 

And I will hold you hostage 

Make you part of my conspiracy 

You will be witness to carnage 

You know there’s no you without me  

I’m gonna shake you 

‘Til it wakes you 

From your waking dreams 

Show you affecting scenes 

Of life beyond your front door 

I will exploit you 

And conscript you 

For my narrative schemes 

Show you distressing scenes  

I’m gonna drag you from your bed onto your floor 

By any means necessary 

By any means necessary 

By any means necessary 

I’m gonna dig up what you buried, yeah 

By any means necessary  

There you go again 

Finding brilliant ways to make things harder 

Are we smarter alone or in this endless Stockholm syndrome 

Here’s what is known 

We’re gonna break this two-way mirror  

I’m gonna shake you, break you 

By any means necessary 

By any means necessary 

By any means (‘Til some day) 

Yeah some sweet 

some sweet day  

We will be playing bridge on the psych ward 

With Barbara, Gene, and Sue 

We will be playing bridge 

On the psych ward 

With Arthur, Jane, and Lou 

And if you ever start to get bored 

You know there’s no one to blame but you 

And I will hold you hostage 

Make you part of my conspiracy 

You will bear witness to carnage 

You know there’s no you without me