takes the stage on Lady Bird Lake at dusk on the final weekend of SXSW, and a small portion of the 1.5 million bats that emerge every night from the nearby Congress Street Bridge are on patrol, keeping concertgoers on this crisp Austin night relatively bug-free. The Auditorium Shores series, with its huge stage and tons of locals taking advantage of the free admission, feels markedly different from the small club shows playing at every nook, cranny and makeshift parking lot around the city this week—and has Bird feeling nostalgic.
“I drove straight from Chicago to the Yard Dog,” he tells the crowd of his first time playing SXSW. “I had a good time back then. Then I had a lot of bad times here. Now I’m having a good time again. I just wanted to play for the citizens of Austin.”
Talking to the singer/songwriter/whistler/violinist in the lobby of his hotel earlier in the day, that theme of good times and bad, as well as lessons learned along the way, keep coming up. As he prepared to release his 12th solo studio album—My Finest Work Yet is out today on Loma Vista Recordings—he’s feeling good about life and remembering that it wasn’t always so.
“When I was 21, I was so absorbed in mastering the violin to the exclusion of everything else that I got tendonitis, and I was just a mess in the prime of my youth,” he says. “I was just physically a mess, and that’s when I started writing, remembering that I used to read and write and be outside and do those well-rounded things. And then I ran myself into the ground again because I had so many years of being in a conversion van, driving, playing dive bars—10 years slogging it out. And when finally people started coming, I realized I can’t let this slip away. That’s kind of a death-wish approach, like, I would come to Austin and play 16 shows in two days.”
He still tours—he has a handful of April dates before launching a European tour in June—but with a family at home, he’s able to do it a little more on his own terms. And while there are plenty of moments of darkness on the new album, that optimism has a way of finding moments to shine through both lyrically and musically. “I don’t enjoy being away from my family, but I do love being onstage,” he says. “And it’s really easy to get to that good place with these songs, so I’ll be pretty much playing the whole record.”
My Finest Work Yet was recorded in a live room to tape, with instrument mics bleeding into each other, giving the whole enterprise a wide-open sound and preventing any fixes in post-production. To pull that off, Bird gathered a group of veteran musicians: Tyler Chester on piano, Ted Poor on drums, Alan Hampton on bass and vocals, and Madison Cunningham on vocals.
“It’s not the first time I’ve done that,” he says. “We did that with Break It Yourself. But this one was different in the sense that I did a little more research on the front end to figure out how to do it right. In the past I did that, and it had kind of a scrappy quality to it, but this time I wanted it to have a high-fi quality, and that takes a lot of time. You spend your time in pre-production dialing it in as opposed to fixing it in the mix. There’s very little you can do in the mix, which I like because once the performance is over, so is my attention span.”
The reference point for the record is early-’60s jazz, gospel and soul albums. “I was studying the techniques of Rudy Van Gelder in recording with Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Lester Young,” Bird says. “Jazz is a big part of my diet. Whether you would put me in the jazz bin—probably not. It’s a very specific kind of jazz that I’ve been drawn to, but it’s always been a touchstone through my music.”
You can hear that influence on “Bloodless,” which may be Bird’s most political song to date—a reaction to a nation divided and leaders catering to the worst parts of humanity. “They’re profiting from your worry,” he sings, “Selling blanks down at the DMZ / Banking on the sound and fury / Wonder what it’s to do with me / … And it’s an uncivil war / Bloodless for now.”
“That one tries to get to the heart of the matter of what seems to be going on,” he says, “with both sides being played against each other, either by clever people who are profiting from it or just by algorithms. I’ve just had very telling and disturbing exchanges with family members, who I get into a tussle with about what’s going on. And at some point, we’re like fighting about it, and then they say, ‘Wait, where are you getting your information?’ And I say, “Where are you getting your information?’ And it’s pretty clear that we’re each getting our information from very different places, who are both benefiting from that. But it was written between the 2016 election and Charlottesville. And it attempts to try to find analogs in history for what’s happening. Mainly what I’m talking about is the potential lack of unity on the left and the simple message on the right. And how that could potentially not go well.”
But it’s followed by the more ebullient song “Olympians,” kicked off by Bird’s familiar violin plucking and wordplay. The song describes a relationship on the rocks because of substance abuse—“The competition rage / This nocturnal dance / The misery’s contagious”—but the chorus turns optimistic: “We are Olympians / Oh we’re gonna turn it around / We’re gonna turn it around.”
“I’ve always had optimism, and I have a certain faith in humanity and what we’re capable of,” he says. “And whether you have a lot of reasons to believe otherwise, in this case, it’s worth kidding ourselves if it’s not true. It’s a pretty uplifting record. I follow my musical impulses, melody, texture and tone, and then I fell on my writing impulses, which is usually, ‘let’s talk about some important stuff.’ And whether the lyrics are underscored by the appropriate tone on the scale of rage or sadness to happiness has never been that important to me. Not that they’re two different things, but usually sad on sad, or dark on dark, or rage on rage is just redundant and simplistic. I’ve always been in that idea of melancholy is a component of music’s appeal. So even though I’m talking about some pretty, pretty heavy things, the delivery system is uplifting. And with a song like ‘Olympians,’ it gets really dark. It’s kind of talking about how throughout the day one tends to lose hope as darkness falls, and you kind of spiral and as the day comes to a close, how much can you just will yourself to keep going?”
Paste writer Geoffrey Himes recently wrote an essay on how difficult it’s been for anyone to write a good song about the environment, but Bird has just written a great one in “Manifest.” Over a sweeping So-Cal folk-ballad background, he sings, “I’m coming to the brink of a great disaster / end just has to be near / The Earth spins faster / whistles right past you / whispers death in your ear / Don’t pretend you can’t hear / 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 we save her? / Now she’s in the air / Radical and free / Not a goddamn care / She’s obliged to no one.”
“I remember I was driving behind a guy in a bright yellow Humvee,” Bird says, “and he had a vanity plate that said ‘FSSLFLS’ with no vowels. He was very proud of how much gas he was consuming and decided to advertise that—part of our identity politics. But I was thinking about that phrase, ‘fossil fuels.’ It’s an interesting word, and it’s very telling—like, ‘Oh yeah, this is decomposed organic matter from living things that still contains in the energy of the formerly living thing, plant or animal. And you strike it out of the ground, put it into a combustion engine, and in that final stage of life, energy is released into the atmosphere. And I just thought that’s kind of a frightening but poetic thing.”
While the title of the album is a little tongue-in-cheek, Bird says he always feels like an album is his finest work yet after recording. And while he’s got some masterful albums under his belt, these 10 songs at least make it an open argument. There’s an old idea that great art can only come from a place of suffering. Bird has thankfully proven that to be an insidious lie.
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Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.