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Monday, April 15, 2024

Andrew Bird to perform at Mondavi

Andrew Bird, critically acclaimed singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who is well-known for his incorporation of violin and fiddle to his indie rock and folk tunes, will be performing at the Mondavi Center on Nov. 14.

Bird first began recording albums in 1996 with the band Bowl of Fire, and soon broke off to create his solo career in 2003. In addition to his six full-length albums and multiple EPs, Bird also made the film score for the film Norman (2010) and The Muppets (2011) and has worked in visual arts, creating installations in the New York Guggenheim and Chicago Museum of Modern Art.

Starting in Davis, Bird kicks off his solo tour around California with opening acts by indie-folk band The Handsome Family. In a phone interview, MUSE spoke with Bird about his creative process, musical development and the process of creating his two most recent albums, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory.

MUSE: How would you describe your musical development over the years, and what have been your musical inspirations?

AB: I began working on music when I was four, before I was a really conscious being. It was just something I did everyday since I can remember. I think the most formative thing I did early on was that I learned by ear. The idea was that music is like language. This idea is the most important thing for the musician I’ve turned into. People say music is like math, and I cringe when I hear that. Its not like math, it’s anything but math because it’s not about coming up with the right answer in music.

I was just ravenous for everything but classical music — the more obscure the music was, the more interested I was. From ages 16 to 26 I was jumping from one thing to another. I was influenced by early jazz, country blues and early 20th century music. I was really interested in what happened to music before music was recorded. That’s stuff I still play, the hymns, Carter Family stuff. I was influenced by stuff that existed before World War II. I also sing gospel music — it really opens up your singing.

Can you describe your creative process?

It’s not very premeditated most of the time. For the most part I just pay attention to what’s going on around me. I work in the morning, but I don’t have a strict schedule or a desk where I sit at to get all my work done,  unless something comes up and I am asked to do an assignment — then that’s a different process. Mostly, I just wait for things to materialize out of disparate observations. I’ll observe my surroundings and, for example, I’ll see someone sitting on a plane, and then I connect that to something in a book I was reading, and over the years I’ll connect a bunch of different things. There’ll be a common thread and I’ll pull that together in a song. The best way to describe it is: something falls into a stream, like a branch, and then it starts snagging other things around it over time and damns up a river — that’s when you have a song.

How do you think your musical education and training influenced who you are as an artist?

It’s not that I had a teacher that taught me something that stuck with me in particular. I was largely self-taught, and I was not always a model student in school. I give my musical education credit in the sense that I had four years of college to immerse myself in it and not worry about any other distractions. I got better through sheer exposure and osmosis, not so much through book lessons or a particular syllabus. There’s no other time in your life to have that kind of opportunity to focus, so you have to think of it more as an atmosphere where you’re just soaking up as much as you can. All that preparation for the job market makes me cringe. I don’t think that’s the point of higher education.

Describe the tour you’re on right now and the “Gezelligheid” tour coming up right after.

This is my solo songwriting tour. The “Gezelligheid” shows will be played in churches and synagogues around the country. Those shows are more ambient and instrumental and more suited to that kind of reverberant space. In a performing arts center, you can engage with the audience more directly. The church shows are more ambient, with more of a mood and a texture, whereas the tour where I perform in Davis and around California is more about stories, more about words. I’m touring with a favorite songwriting band called The Handsome Family who are opening for me. I cover a lot of their songs, and they’re a huge inspiration.

Your most recent albums are Hands of Glory (Oct. 2012) and Break It Yourself (Mar. 2012), which you recorded in your barn in Illinois. What was the process like for recording these albums?

We just stood up at the barn and recorded around one microphone. These days, I’m kind of into a certain kind of realism when recording. Most of my records are really carefully produced and layered in the studio the way a lot of other records are made, and I got kind of tired of that process. It felt like that process was somewhat less honest than just the band in a room playing with a single microphone live, which is how we made Break it Yourself and Hands of Glory. Pre-World War II stuff has always been there since the beginning of my musical inspiration and I wanted to capture that with the band. We started doing this thing on stage where we just played around one microphone, and it just makes you sing and play better, stripping the production down to its basic elements. The audience responded well to that, and so Hands of Glory is the record that captures that.

Since you recorded both albums in the same year, how would you describe them as companion albums?

Every time I make a record, by the time I get in the studio I’ve imagined each song done in six dramatically different ways. I wonder why I choose to do it this one way on the record versus the other ways to do it. Break it Yourself has a kind of taut, rhythmic, driving version of the songs, so I took Hands of Glory as a chance to show those songs in a totally different emotional backdrop. It makes you look at the lyrics in different way and makes you see the music in different way. Songs on records are never done. They’re always evolving and feel different every moment of the day. In the morning I want to do it one way and in the evening I want to do it in another way. I think that’s worth capturing and it keeps things from getting stale.

Why are you on tour right now?

The prevailing philosophy in the music industry is to hold back all your material and then have a massive publicity push for like twelve songs. I think if you’re going to have any sort of push whatsoever you should get it out there when the machine is going. That’s just what feels right to me. I don’t think I’m at risk of diluting anything. Being onstage is really important to the process for me, so the idea of disappearing entirely and then coming out in five years with a new record is just not good for the music.

Is there something particularly different you try to do to your songs in live shows?

I come from a background of always improvising and exploring. I like to do that on stage. If I didn’t, I’d go crazy. I see other bands who are performing to promote their records. For me, to perform live, I think it’s kind of liberating not to do it to promote new records. I ask myself ‘why are you on stage? Are you trying to create something new and exciting, or are you just recreating your records that you worked on for three years in a studio with producers, etc.?’ That’s not how I do it . It’s never been like that for me, not even close — I started doing records so I could justify playing on stage, that’s really the ultimate experience to perform live. I feel duty to myself that if something new didn’t happen on stage, I could have performed every note perfectly and I’d be disappointed. Every night I need to perform differently from the next in order to feel satisfied.

What’s your relationship with other art forms, like film and visual arts, and where do they fit in with your creative vision?

From the beginning, I didn’t think it’s just enough to be a good violinist. When I made my first records, I got very particular about the artwork and the way everything was presented, even how the stage looked. I wanted to do film scores when I was younger, but suddenly I started writing these full albums with common threads and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this is my movie. The stage is 35 mm film, and how everything looks and how everything comes together is the movie. This is the thing I understand how to have control over, and I’m going to make this my whole package.’ But that brought me into collaborating with other artists. My mother’s an artist and I’ve always enjoyed working with people who aren’t musicians. Lately, with things like [my project, Sonic Arboretum, in the New York Guggenheim Museum] the “Gezelligheid” tour, they’re explorations of different ways of presenting and performing besides things like a rock n’ roll show, and working with different experience with audience. For that, I need to work with other artists.


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