Andrew Bird and the Weight of Are You Serious

Music Features Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird and the Weight of Are You Serious

Ten years ago, it would have been hilarious to imagine Andrew Bird—a classically trained violinist, whistling aficionado and eccentric singer/songwriter who once penned the lyric “My dewy-eyed Disney bride, what has tried / Swapping your blood with formaldehyde?”—on daytime television. But people, like times, change. In mid-March, the most studious of modern indie-rockers appeared on Ellen, performing “Left Handed Kisses,” a folky love song duet with Fiona Apple that analyzes Bird’s own deficiencies at writing a love song.

In footage of the performance, you can see Apple glance awkwardly at Bird afterward as if to say, “What the fuck are we doing here?” They both smile and hug a most-pleased Ellen DeGeneres, who cuts to commercial. “I’ve never done daytime TV before,” Bird, 42, says hours later. “Kind of a trip.” It’s a fitting acknowledgement, as he’s working hard lately to escape his comfort zone: Are You Serious, his 13th LP, was consciously crafted to be anti-Bird. He’s scaled back with words-per-minute rate, allowing more space for groove and atmosphere. Instead of wrapping 500 sophisticated themes into one song, he’s (mostly) focused on one at a time. And, most crucially, he’s allowed himself to be vulnerable—to peer through the enigmatic veil that’s always cloaked his work.

“The kind of songwriters I really appreciate—like Townes Van Zandt or John Prine—they say as much with as little as possible,” he says. “That’s always the goal.”

One important inspiration was Van Zandt’s “For the Sake of the Song,” an intimate acoustic rumination that finds the narrator analyzing the end of a relationship, using plainspoken language to conjure colossal heartbreak. Van Zandt quivers the words (“Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song / Who do I think that I am to decide that she’s wrong”) over soft fingerpicking and barely-there percussion—a sparse framework that bears a resemblance to several Serious tunes.

“I listened to [that song] the way I usually listen to it: the melody, the pathos of the singer, but usually the last thing I listen to is the words,” Bird continues. “It kind of goes in one ear and out the other. I listen for textures—just my natural way of listening. It’s a very long-winding song, so I thought, ‘What’s he talking about here?’ I can count on one hand how many times this has happened, but it was like, ‘This guy is singing about my life.’ It kind of knocked me out. I relate this song to my life…That’s what I want to do.”

Bird learned music through a hodgepodge of techniques. Around age four, he began absorbing the basics of violin by practicing the Suzuki method with his mom. (“While kids are malleable and learning language, teach them the language of music through repetition and molding,” he wrote in a piece for The New York Times. “This is the way melodies got into my bones. I would chew my cereal to melodies.”) He later refined his cultural grab-bag technique—which incorporates elements of folk, jazz, and blues—at Northwestern University, graduating in 1996 with a degree in violin performance. But he learned his most crucial lessons on his own.

When Bird was 12, he and his parents moved to a 400-acre farm in Western Illinois. The freedom of that space never escaped him as an adult, beckoning him to return and carve out his musical identity without the distractions of his native Chicago.

‘’When I was 29, when all my friends were either considering moving to New York or L.A., I moved out to the barn and fixed it up into a living working space, sanding all the raccoon turds off the rafters. I was really committed to this idea, and I was mostly living out there or on the road from 2001 to 2005 during this very isolated period. I didn’t intend to be isolated, but getting everybody out of the room finally allowed me to figure out my own thing.”

The farm still offers him solace—and it took even a deeper importance over the past few years, after a turbulent period living in New York City, during which his wife, Tsina, battled an unspecified medical issue. The couple and their now four-year-old son eventually relocated to their current home in Los Angeles, but a respite at the farm helped them find a new start, while clearing Bird’s head to finish work on a crop of recent material.

“My life was so incredibly tough in the last four or five years, [which affected] my normal pace of working on stuff,” he says. “It actually came in more of a flood once we got out of New York and headed west. We stopped at the family farm, where I wrote my first song on the front porch of the farm house. It was more of that cliché of someone holing up for a week and writing a novel. I’d say 80 percent of the lyric material came out in that flood.”

Working a 9-2 schedule for during a concentrated blast of five or six days, Bird relished the “whiplash” of quiet and allowed himself to process repressed memories from recent years that “came flooding back.”

“I never thought I was the kind of writer who processes what life throws at you and turns it into some cathartic thing,” he says. “That’s generally not been the kind of writer I thought I was, but that’s what happened.”

Having a child also affected Bird’s writing process—both in a practical sense (“I did rack up a healthy amount of voice memos. You’re kinda obliterated most of the time, so just catch what you can.”) and a thematic one. “It’s more an impatience you develop with your former self that maybe had way too much time to ponder things,” he says. “And now life is more real, so that sort of led to some of the more visceral things because I was annoyed with my former navel-gazing.”

Some songs had been lingering around for years—including “Left Handed Kisses,” which Bird struggled to complete, documenting his process in a piece for The New York Times; but most of the “more brutal stuff” was born during that fertile week on the farm. With the tracklist settled, Bird once again challenged himself by recruiting a producer—a change-of-pace for a musician who’s always created his most provocative work in private. (Check out Bird’s 2007 Daytrotter session for a good example of his earlier, self-produced work.)

“I’m glad I produced my own records for so many years,” Bird says. “I think it led to some interesting stuff. But it’s hard not to look back and say in hindsight, ‘Man, that had all the elements of a hit song! But for whatever reason, it was a bit scrappy or [whatever]. Maybe if I’d just tuned that a little more, it’d been this or that.’ And getting to record number 13, I figured this is a pretty well-worn, codified way of making records if you have a producer.

“With [2005’s] The Mysterious Production of Eggs, [Tony Berg] set me up in a studio after I’d thrown that record in the garbage twice, and just kind of hooked up with people and helped me get it done finally. He’d just pop his head in every couple of days and say, ‘That sounds great’ and then leave. This was way more hands-on. This was the first really hands-on producer I’ve ever worked with. And that was totally what I was looking for. I wanted a little more rigor to the process. I just needed help externalizing something that had been stewing inside me for years.”

For roughly three months, Berg periodically dropped by Bird’s house and helped dissect the songs, adding “nuts and bolts” comments like, ”’This song doesn’t quite have a chorus yet’ or ‘How about this voice leading?’” Bird says he relished Berg’s concrete ideas and music theory knowledge, after years of working with “scrappy” musicians, “I don’t want this to sound weird, but I’ve generally been the best musician in the room,” he admits. “I’ve always played with interesting, self-taught players who aren’t about technique or anything like that. But I thought, ‘I’m interested in someone raising the bar.’”

He rounded out the sessions with his ace live band, which he’d assembled through auditioning players across three months of shows at the Largo in L.A. The pieces gradually fell into place: Bird brought in longtime bassist Alan Hampton, and in-demand guitarist Blake Mills tagged along with Berg, his longtime collaborator. (”[They’re] almost like father and son,” Bird says.) Rounding out the arty Wrecking Crew was percussionist Ted Poor, whose playing struck Bird during a jazz gig in New York.

“I said ‘Note to self: make sure I play with him someday,’” he recalls. “Even though what he was playing in New York was very free and noisy. It just felt like a real voice. Over the years, who I team up with on drums has the most effect—more than producers or anything—on the music I make: the way my vocal phrasing is, the way my playing is. I’ve always sought out interesting drummers, and it was time for a new sound.”

The increase in chops made sense: With Bird not relying so much on this thesaurus, his arrangements found more room for spacious, soulful textures. “It was little bit of healthy, [friendly] competition,” he says of the studio vibe. “Like, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta be on here.’ And it’s the same with everybody. There was no ‘let’s fix it in the mix.’ It was very old-school.”

Bird listens to a lot of music built on polyrhythms, namely Brazilian and African artists, but he’s never exactly been known to get funky himself. Two seconds into Are You Serious opener/lead single “Capsized,” the track is already anchored by Poor’s hi-hat-heavy groove—it’s clear he’s turned a corner. The tune, which borrows lyrics from traditional spirituals “Dyin’ Bedmaker” and “Trimmed and Burning,” has remained a staple of Bird’s live repertoire for years—its vibe morphing each night depending on his mood. He may churn out a bluegrass fiddle solo; he might hang back and belt like Bill Withers. Its malleability is its magic. But Poor’s “big, wide beat” helped him discover a new approach.

“I started working with Ted on the song. I was playing the loop that I’ve been making for years, which is more West African and more active,” he says. “He drew out of that more of a New Orleans thing, and I was like, ‘That’s not right. There’s a clunkiness. It’s too specific.’ We eventually just went with this spare beat, the kind I would never think to do. It was the first song we tracked, and when we finished it, I was kinda knocked out. It sounds evil, not much innocence in there.”

“Capsized” is a behemoth, capturing Bird at his most primal. As listeners, we’re voyeurs on a painfully lonely scene—the narrator “spoon[ing] dirty laundry”—and the band underscoring that tension with a stark ambiance: quiet violin plucks, dusty bass tones, and the random pitter-patter of Poor tapping on marimba blocks.

“Until the end, it was still kind of an outlier,” Bird says of the track. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to fit with the other because it has such a history to it. It highlights the struggle I’ve had between live and recorded music. A song like that is two chords, some lyrics, and I sing the vocal melody different almost every time. It’s not really melody-driven; it’s just these two chords that keep bursting ideas. There’s no instruction.”

But, as Bird notes, “the whole range of [his] writing styles are on this record”—from the classic-Bird fingerpicking-and-whistling ballad “Chemical Switches” to the adult-contemporary pulses of “Truth Lies Low” to breezy classical-folk piece “Saints Preservus” (which he originally wrote for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained then unsuccessfully pitched to the Zach Galifianakis comedy Baskets, a show he currently scores). What binds these songs is a newfound sense of honesty. The pounding, triumphant “Roma Fade” mediates on the fine line between creepiness and romance, recounting the first time he saw his future wife and “how comically cinematic it all was.”

“There were no words spoken for a long time,” he remembers. “It was just me regarding her across the room, with the spotlight on her, gazing off into the distance. It was like, ‘Really?’ We never had that ‘locking eyes’ thing. It was always me seeing something else. It happened two nights in a row in Manhattan in totally different places from the same distance. It was a bit odd, the coincidence of that. I made sure [the song] remained more in the realm of romance than some of the places I would have gone in the past.”

Bird also explores his marriage—though from a different angle—on the wistful yet hard-hitting “Puma.”

“Don’t try to tell her she’s less feline than human / For it gives rise to the rumor she’s a girl not a puma,” he sings, alluding to Tsina. “And that light that shines is not a pearl / It’s just a tumor / When she was radioactive for seven days / How I wanted to be holding her anyway / But the doctors, they told me to stay away / Due to flying neutrinos and gamma rays.”

“I had thoughts about whether the chorus was too blunt,” Bird admits. “But it was all true. It’s an extremely condensed autobiographical narrative of a period of time in recent history. It’s just based on something my wife said to me early on in our relationship and also when some scary things were happening with her health. We were walking across Central Park, about to get some test results, and she said, ‘I’m afraid they’re going to tell me I’m a girl and not a puma.’ It’s a very personal thing where you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. She’s got kind of a feline fixation; she’s kind of half-cat. She said that, and I thought that was an awesome thing to say in the face of something so scary. That stuck with me, and I wanted to write this song about what she went through and how she dealt with it with such courage.”

The most brutal moment is the slow-climbing “Valleys of the Young,” on which Bird ponders if having a child is an act of selfishness or bravery. “Do you need a reason we / Should be making our two become three / And be leaving this holy valley / Land of brunch and misery?” he sings, reflecting on the divide between parents and non-parents.

Then the perspective shifts, and he uses concrete language to deliver a fucking gut-punch. “Now you’re going on 64, driving down 65 / To the hospital to see if your adult son will survive or not / After taking those pills in the parking lot / You know the one behind the Marriott / This is a dream you won’t be waking / Still our hearts are constantly breaking / From their cradle to our grave / Is it selfish, is it brave?”

“The first couple verses are talking about some of the more superficial aspects of the divide between those who have kids and those who don’t, and the kind of animosity that naturally develops,” he says. “But the final verse takes it much further into much more painful territory, and I knew exactly what I was doing with that. If I didn’t, it’d just be another ‘Andrew Bird Grows Up’ kinda song. That’s a tired story. And I just wanted to say, ‘No, don’t look away. Look what really happens here. It’s not complacency. It’s the opposite. It’s total heartbreak.’ The mundane is the most honest. When I manage to write a song that can speak in plain language and be understood at face value, I need to embrace that.”

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