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Interview: Musician Andrew Bird Is Taking More Time to Laugh at Himself



If you’ve ever seen multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird perform live, you know that his violin loop tricks, swoony vocals and signature whistling lift his vibrant prose to the heights of theater. This is much to the delight of throngs of fans who hang on every thoughtful word. Fancy, eh?

Those same folks will tell you that his studio recordings never capture the Suzuki-method-trained artist’s full range of talent. Bird agrees, acknowledging, “I wanted to change that.”

For his 12th album, “Are You Serious,” which omits a question mark on purpose, Bird approaches things much differently. On previous records, he was into what he calls a “live, scrappy approach.” People came together in a room to simply play music.

“With this record, I upped the fidelity and the pre-production was intense,” he says. “Every song was vetted and worked over.”

The result might surprise some, with Bird venturing into new sonic territory while leaving signature chirps and whirligig nuggets around for old times’ sake. For a guy who leaned more into Claude Debussy and Béla Bartók in his youth and found rock music boring, he’s certainly come around.

Things as varied as guitar-forward jams, funk-fueled tracks and a folksy duet with Fiona Apple, “Left Handed Kisses,” are pulled off successfully. For the latter, Bird says he needed someone who couldn’t help but be “deep, passionate and fierce.” Mutual friends introduced him to Apple, known for her wild performance style. “That’s certainly what I got,” he says.

While this batch of songs is Bird’s most accessible, he hasn’t gone pop on us. His erudite song craft remains at the forefront. He says he wasn’t seeking lyrical perfection on these songs as much as for them to be “wrong in just the right way.” Bird also says that getting married and having a child changed his creative outlook.

“I have less patience for my own internal entertainments,” he says. “Now I feel more urgency to tell of universal human struggles.”

The Illinois native cites a broad range of recent influences such as Bob Dorough of “Schoolhouse Rock” fame, the Handsome Family, John Prine and short-story writer George Saunders. “He writes the way people really think with all the detritus and neurosis,” Bird says. “He’s hilarious, but empathetic.”

When it comes to his own writing habits, the artist says he writes nothing down to ensure that the ideas stay fluid and strange.

“I also avoid picking up an instrument as long as I can because the physical memory of an instrument can have a normalizing effect,” he says. Bird also takes great pleasure in dismantling myths, something that’s evident on this record and his overall presentation.

“The myth of genius doesn’t do us any good,” he says. “It’s an excuse for most of us to be content with mediocrity. The rock ’n’ roll, self-destructive, or devil-may-care thing is also useless and boring. I suppose it helps sell tickets to a spectacle, but I don’t have time for it.”

So, is Bird serious and cerebral all the time? The self-proclaimed “outdoorsy, mountain-biking hippie” says that’s one of the points of the album title.

“Songwriters are not expected to have a sense of humor,” he says. “We’re supposed to be laughably sincere. I can’t deliver all this heavy stuff without laughing at myself a bit.” S

Andrew Bird plays the National on Oct. 6. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the show is at 7:30. Tickets cost from $30.50-$33.


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