Singer-songwriter Andrew Bird learned to play the violin at a very young age while growing up in Chicago. Initially, his 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, Are You Serious, come off as his most sonically dense to date.
"My mom had this notion of her kids playing classical music," says Bird via phone from his Los Angeles home. "She actually learned violin with me, so I owe her a lot. I wasn't a prodigy, but I took to it pretty well. I learned by ear and had a good ear, and my mom kept it from getting too high pressure."
Early on, he also learned to whistle. While that might not sound like a remarkable skill set, you haven't heard whistling until you've heard Bird whistle. One YouTube video dubbed him the "whistling wonder." Bird even wrote "The Whistling Caruso" for The Muppets.
That talent has ties to his family as well.
"I saw my grandmother whistling, and she showed me as best she could how it worked," he says. "I whistle all the time. If you were to hang out with me, it would drive you crazy."Bird says Music of Hair, which he started to record and write while still in college, shows the studious manner by which he initially approached recording."I came from this trained background, and I saw how a bunch of friends from art school who had more talent for design, but could create this whole persona that worked better than some musicians," he says. "I watched that phenomena. It's more like film directors. I liked the idea of going beyond the music, which I was almost unhealthily focused on while playing this difficult instrument. It helped broaden everything to think about the artwork and the lyrics and how things are presented and your stage persona, everything. That really turned me on." In 2003, his career took a turn as he unofficially disbanded his backing band, the Bowl of Fire."I didn't mean to disband Bowl of Fire," he explains. "I just moved out to the middle of nowhere and no one had cars. Out of necessity I was living in this barn, and having nobody in the room with me led me to experiment more and see what I had going on inside of me. I started working on [what would become 2005's] The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and I kept failing at that, so I did [2003's] Weather Systems, which didn't sound like much else I had done."
Weather Systems caught the attention of folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who reissued the album on her Righteous Babe Records and took Bird on tour with her. DiFranco's audience clearly didn't know Bird's work but quickly warmed up to him. "That was a period when no one was championing what I was doing," says Bird. "I released Weather Systems independently, and she liked it and put it out. I toured with her, and she introduced me to her audiences. I never had anyone give me a leg up like that. I always like that phase when I do a lot of opening slots. I like the surprise attack. No one knows who you are, and I like that challenge, sometimes more than headlining. I like doing the hard things."When Bird started writing the songs for his latest album, Are You Serious, he didn't intend to make them about his own life. But the tunes poured out of him, and the album took that form. "It's probably the most obviously autobiographical record I've done," says Bird, who recently married and had a child with his wife. "I never considered myself a confessional variety of songwriter. That's sort of what happened. Life got intense and kind of scary for a period of time. I guess I fell into that cliché."
Are You Serious saw another major change for Bird as well, in terms of professional help in the studio."I had never worked with a producer, and I wanted a serious get-in-my business producer," Bird says. "Songwriters can get away with murder in this medium, and I've gotten away with murder sometimes. That's why I wanted to do a really tight record."
The new approach comes across right from the opening notes of "Capsized," a song that, with its propulsive bass riff and a steady drumbeat, sounds something like a Talking Heads tune. "I've always been obsessed with the sound of a rhythm section," Bird explains. "I still wasn't prepared for the first song we turned out. I wasn't expecting it to sound so tight. It just sounded evil."
Another highlight, "Left Handed Kisses," pairs Bird with singer Fiona Apple, who brings a real intensity to the song with her woozy vocals. "It was indeed intense," Bird says. "We went through a bunch of options of who we could get. I knew the voice had to have a real weight to it. Unless we're going to somehow get PJ Harvey, it had to be Fiona. She completely threw herself into it. She brought a weight and heaviness and drama and performance."
At a time when record labels don't have huge budgets, Bird has made an album that sounds like a big-budget endeavor — without the support of a label. "I wanted to do everything top-tier. I haven't done that yet," he explains. "I wanted to see what it sounded like, and one of the results is that it's gotten really competitive — in a good way. Maybe like it was in the '60s when bands were checking out what other bands were doing. I started noticing Alabama Shakes and Spoon. They're making outstanding records. I thought, 'Maybe I should do an epic process of a record,' which it was. I didn't want anything to fall through the cracks."