“Shouldn’t I have mutated from doing this to myself by now?” asks songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird. “What are the side effects of hurling through space?”
He’s talking about flying in airplanes, and specifically the aspect of being able to wake up in one place and end up halfway around the world by the end of the same day. Bird appreciates, he says, that we are living in the only age in which this has been possible, and wonders what the cumulative effect has been on the perspective of humanity as a whole.
On many levels, air travel—and the long stretches of waiting that come with it—has become a primary muse for Bird, who released his new album, Armchair Apocrypha, earlier this year.
“I’ve done so much of it in the last couple of years,” he offers. “If you write about what you know, then that’s what I’ve known. It comes up a lot in the new record. I’ve gone to other continents because my career keeps growing. You start to wonder how you can sustain it. There’s also the idea that you’re traveling so fast that your soul can’t quite catch up with you. Parts of you, of your mind or your soul, are left scattered around the planet. It takes days and weeks, or longer, for them to catch up to you. And then seeing so many human faces in one day. And so many economies. And wondering how it all holds together.”
Though he exemplifies the rare example of the musician who claims to write primarily when he’s in a happy mood, Bird explains that his writing process remains extremely sensitive to his surrounding environment. He says that the level of human contact he now experiences on a regular basis overwhelms him because it’s in his nature to stop and reflect on what strangers’ lives are like when he encounters them, even in an impersonal setting like an airport.
“If you go out there and you’re open and compassionate, it can wear you down,” he says. “If you’re thinking about the whole globe being connected, it can be very tenuous and frightening.”
It’s a somber thought. Nonetheless, his songs contain strong undercurrents of humor.
“The writing-while-I’m-happy part is just important for me to have the energy to create something,” he clarifies. “It has nothing to do with the content. Some songs, like ‘Scythian Empire,’ can be construed as being apocalyptic, but they’re not really. There’s always a hint of optimism or humor or making fun of myself by almost making it so over-the-top pessimistic that it’s like me having a conversation with myself as I’m writing it. That makes its way into the songs.”
That “conversation with myself” also forms the primary basis for Bird’s approach to his live performances. The Apocrypha tour marks his return to playing live with other musicians after years of solo shows following the 2003 breakup of his band Bowl Of Fire. (Interestingly, Bowl Of Fire emerged from Bird’s working relationship with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, whom Bird first got a hankering to play with after seeing them perform at a festival in Asheville.)
As with his sense of humor, Bird maintains a peculiar stylistic balance as well. Though he’s heavily influenced by classical music and preoccupies himself with “stretching out” and letting his music breathe, he still gladly works within the confines of the three-and-a-half-minute pop structure. Often, one can clearly hear him straddling the tension between the two in his work. (Bird indulges his more experimental side via his Fingerlings live recordings series.)
Then again, he insists that because he never liked to read music, he hears classical no differently than he hears rock music: His ear processes them both the same—as a series of hooks.
Which doesn’t mean that Bird doesn’t think conceptually. He says he’s been trying to “strip away” style lately, and is prone to doing things like, say, write songs based on playing the same two chords over and over. The trick, he says, is to make creative decisions without over-thinking them.
“I know by now whether something’s working or not,” he says. “It needs a little time to settle for me to let my original intentions pass. But if I just wait a few months, I know whether something gets under my own skin.”
[Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance music writer based in Rochester, N.Y.]
Andrew Bird performs at The Orange Peel on Tuesday, Sept. 11. 9 p.m. Augie March opens. $20. www.TheOrangePeel.net or 225-5851.