Best known for his astounding storytelling abilities, Andrew Bird recently released a new album that has propelled him into a new category of American songwriters. Are You Serious is a powerful trip through Bird and his wife’s struggle with a life-threatening illness, their first born child and their beautiful love story.
While he’s known for his intellectual and intriguing lyrical content, Bird challenged himself to put rawer, blunter songs on this album, and it turned out magnificent. With key collaborations from Fiona Apple and Blake Mills, Tony Berg produced the album and had the collaborative intuition that was needed for this album to come out the way it did. In our new interview, Bird spoke to us about challenging himself, fun within struggle, gun violence, the rise of Donald Trump, and more.
The album just came out, that must be exciting.
It is, it’s been a long time coming.
It chronicles the struggles with your wife’s health and makes your unconditional love for her very clear. The album takes us through that journey, but could you share the story of how you fell in love with her? How did you two meet?
The song “Roma Fade” kind of touches on it. There was a lot of me seeing her across the room and not much talking, or no talking at all (laughs) and coincidentally seeing her two different nights in different places in Manhattan with the same lighting, the same distance, the same cinematic production. Then we didn’t speak for another six, seven months, or something like that. It was a fairly swift courtship and I’d been living out of a suitcase. Chicago was arbitrarily my home, but I moved to New York to be with her, to start a family, and that’s that.
This album is different from your others, in the sense that you seemingly challenged yourself with simplicity. What do you think sitting in that sun room from 9-1 every day for five days brought to the album?
Yeah, it usually doesn’t go down like that. Usually it’s… I mean there are songs that took [longer]. One song took 12 years to write, another one took five, but there was a chunk of songs that were done in about a five day period and that’s unusual for me. The lyrics were coming out a little more… it just felt different. I think given what we had been through in New York, we were getting out of there and on our way to start fresh somewhere else. [There was] a lot of stuff [that] I had to repress to get through the time in New York, [it] came out of me in this concentrated period of time. I found myself less patient with my typical machinations and wanting to communicate more directly and create something useful. That’s all qualified by it still being me, but none the less, it just felt different.
The title track, while rather minimalistic, is quite the think piece. Would you say that it speaks somewhat to your disbelief of the situation that was at hand, what’s the story behind that song?
I think of that one as being fairly… I wasn’t sure I wanted to put it on the record. I was wondering if it was a little bit too cheeky or something, but it gives it something. The dynamic on stage with that song is very strong, because I’m addressing the whole issue. I’m up here, you’re down there, here we are, a moment in time. It makes people aware of the now situation we’re in.
The song is joking about “could I with this record, just suddenly walk on stage and be a different person than I usually am?” My stage persona tends to be an amplification of my normal personality and I’m very comfortable with that. I feel more like a comedian up there sometimes. I’m not telling jokes, I’m just shrugging my shoulders like “I don’t know folks, this is just a strange situation. I’m up here on stage and you’re down there,” but I’m imagining what if I came on stage and jumped right into the crowd and did high fives in the front row. What if I just completely… at what point do you make that leap, if you want to?
The title of the record and that song, and [the line] ‘are you serious, every night of your life, you’ll fight for it,’ actually comes from a title of a record of a friend of mine Chris Mills. His first record was called every night, fight for your life and I thought that was a great line. What it meant to me was this extraordinary thing that we do, getting on stage every night and how you handle sincerity.
There’s this expectation that songwriters have lived what they’re singing and that it’s autobiographical and there’s assumed sincerity to it, which can lead to a bit of a ridiculous over-seriousness. I remember back in the 90’s, going to shows in Chicago, and I was not coming from an indie rock world and I was seeing these shows, I was like “wow!” Very raw, can barely play your instrument and singing these very here’s my pain kind of songs and thinking “man, are you serious?” The incredulity of that, I just don’t know if I can totally relate. The songs are raw and dark and the lyrics are raw and dark, I’m like “where’s the levity?” You’ve gotta poke fun at yourself, otherwise how can you back that up night after night? I would call my first drafts of the last five or six records… I would show them to my manager and the working title was always are you serious, it was a running joke. This one, the irony is it’s me sort of doing that, so I decided to call it that.
You put out a video for “Capsized”, in which you explained that you had to maneuver your way out upside down and manage to get out without breaking your neck. While recording the video, you had supports securing you in place, but in life, we never do. Was that intended at all as a metaphor?
No, it was simply “how can I illustrate this song somehow through some sort of visual conceit,” and that was what I came up with. It was bolting a bed to the ceiling and the disorientation post break up of your whole social support system dicintegrating and feeling super vulnerable.
I originally thought this is my idea, bolt a bed to the ceiling and I’ll just tuck the sheets in really tight (laughs). So I can not fall 15 feet to the concrete floor. Luckily the director was like “no, no, that’s not going to work,” but it was tricky because we had a stunt coordinator and it was his job to get rid of gravity and that was the point. I’m not sure it worked as well as I was hoping, but it sort of does. It was a lot of effort to try to illustrate that point.
It looked like it must’ve been quite a bit of fun, going through the process of it.
It was actually pretty damn cool. It’s like wow, it was just a lot of people, I don’t do a lot of videos, so it was fun. It felt pretty badass having this body harness and these cables and pulleys. Safety first right.
Your storytelling abilities and lyrical content have always been breathtaking, what was it like putting yourself through the challenge to simplify that and make the messages blunter on this album?
There’s two kinds of processes that I employ, I can boil it down to two. The most dominant one is a really strong melody that comes out and I maybe do it instrumentally for a while and I think “for this melody to really have the most emotional impact, it should be sung.” Then I start speaking in tongues and trying to find the shape of the melody with vowels, syllables and words. It works its way over time from nonsense towards sense, subconsciously. That’s what I used to do in the past, and songs like “Chemical Switches” were written that way.
Then songs like “Valleys of the Young”, it’s not exactly narrative, but it’s got some scenes. It’s laying out for you and there’s some points I’m trying to make. I have something to say and I don’t want it to be lost. I really want it to be heard. That’s a totally different process.
Songs like “Left Handed Kisses”, it’s like a short play. It’s like a dialogue that you’re trying to tease out of your own head and figure out who’s speaking to whom and take this internal neuroses and turn it into two people arguing. Those are I think a bit more… it has to go beyond just simple intuition, you really have to be critical of what you’re doing and the editing and everything is pretty key. Whereas “Chemical Switches” is a different story. I have a great admiration for writers like John Prine, who can boil things down to a couple words that really speak volumes, that have so much contained in just a few words. They don’t have to be flowery words or anything. Often times it’s somewhat blunt and not always poetic, but it works. That’s the ultimate goal for me.
The way that you stuck to your roots with the sound put forth in “Puma”, but got such a moving message across even just in the chorus was remarkable. I know you’ve been asked this question before, but could you share the story behind this song with our readers?
That’s one where it’s very personal, it’s talking about some hard times, but it’s ultimately a celebration. I don’t like to do dark on dark, so the song is pretty exuberant and the words of the chorus… I had major doubts about if I could do something so blunt.
The song chronicles our time in New York and a mix of my wife and I’s courtship and then her serious life threatening illness, having a kid, and all that stuff. We were having a run of really bad luck, but the opening line is about see[ing] particles in the air. We had this apartment where you look out and it’s these strange urban noises, it sounds like you can hear the tones from the telephone wires, then you look out in the sky and you feel like you can see the molecules in the air, the static in the air. I got to thinking about these unseen particles lacerating, protons and neutrons lacerating in our bodies, but we never see them. Being bombarded by these things.
We were living in this apartment where developers had taken it over and were trying to scare people out, by putting up asbestos warning signs all over the building. This was not a ghetto place (laughs), we were paying a lot of money to be there, but it wasn’t enough for them. It worked, we eventually got out of there, and before that, hurricane Sandy hit and we had to evacuate and we were in and out of hospitals. At one point, my wife said to me when she was going to get this test, she said “I’m afraid they’re going to tell me I’m a girl and not a Puma.” I thought that was such a remarkable thing to say. It’s a bit hard to explain why she would say that, but I can say that she has kind of a feline disposition (laughs). I decided I wanted to write a song that celebrates how she dealt with all of this diversity.
She kind of came out as the Puma I presume, in that metaphor.
Yea, though by all scientific evidence that was being presented, there’s strong evidence that she was a girl as well. I think it was her wanting to be beyond the science. It was a crazy time, I’m glad it’s over and she’s fine now. Everything is good.
You’ve worked with Tony Berg in the past and you brought him back for this album. Was there any specific reason for choosing him to produce it?
He had only really facilitated Mysterious Production of Eggs. He’s a guy who connects creative people together, to do their best work. I wanted to bring him on as a full on producer and I’d never really used a producer in the traditional sense, ever. Record number 13 I figured maybe I’ll give it a shot. I have a lot of control over what I’m doing, so I have a lot of trust issues about bringing in other people. He’s awesome, but it was also a bit of I’d rather work with somebody I’m friends with and I was really looking for some serious scrutiny for the first time.
I really wanted someone to tell me “no, don’t do it that way, that’s not working,” or you need to write a different chorus, you need another verse here, you need to try this voice leading. I wanted concrete nuts and bolts stuff, not setting the mood and lighting candles and whatever. He really brought that. He’s a really heavy musician and super intelligent guy. He also did what he calls casting, getting the right people to come in. Such as Fiona (Apple) and Blake Mills. He did a great job.
How was it working with them?
Everyone in the room, I had this real intent, I wanted to play with people who were as good, or better than I am and I don’t usually do that. It’s not an ego thing or anything. I usually try to empty the room of as many people as possible and that’s when I tend to do the most interesting work. But I thought let’s try bringing in some really heavy musical minds, like Blake, who plays guitar in the band, but really brought a lot of good ideas. Ted Poor is just a phenomenal drummer. Getting Fiona to come in and do Left Handed, she was top of the list and she threw herself into it. I’m eternally grateful to her. There was a very specific thing I was looking for [and] I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it really.
Did it turn out the way you wanted it to?
Yeah. Her role couldn’t be too ethereal, or threaten to float away, like a lot of singers probably would have had it sound. If it [was] too beautiful, [or] too perfect [of a] tone, it would’ve just gone in one ear and out the other. The way the video plays out, you really hear the drama of it. Two people having it out. It had to not sound too much like music, it had to sound like two people arguing.
You were raised on the Suzuki Method from age four, would you say that and having an understanding of multiple instruments brings a different understanding to how a song will work when you’re in the songwriting process?
I learnt violin when I was learning language, so that’s the whole idea. It’s the mother tongue and you learn by the ear. Kids that are raised bilingual have an easier time picking up other languages as well. It’s the same thing for music. My ear, there’s these neuropathways that were formed early on and it’s not even music, it’s conversations [too]. It drives me insane sometimes. I’m picking up languages, [whether] musical, or otherwise, all the time. I have to kind of put myself in a vacuum sometimes to stop the noise. That beginning had a huge effect on the kind of musician I became.
Having been raised on music from such a young age, I’m sure you’ve always had a love for it, but was there, or do you remember a moment where you fell in love with the craft?
Yeah. I think it kicked in… I’d been doing it almost every day from an early age, but it was just something I did. It wasn’t an expectation that I would do it for a living, there was no talk of being an artist. It was a fairly unconscious thing. I was good at it, I had good tone, I wasn’t a particularly star student or anything, but then [at] age 15 or 16, when everything sucks in your life and you’re looking for something that you can feel good about and I was already pretty good at this, that’s when [a] combination of things [came together]. Social anxiety, escapism, but whatever it was, I threw myself into it, spent hours in the practice room and it became this epic, romantic struggle to master this instrument. That’s when I became very obsessive and passionate about it.
Interesting that you say that, I feel like when a lot of people really fall in love with music, it’s around that age. Maybe not everything is the end of the world, but when you’re 15, 16, in your head, everything is the end of the world.
Exactly, and thank god I had that. You’re looking for some kind of shelter, you’re getting it from all sides at that age. Thank god I had that, who knows where I’d be now.
Is there a song or place that you’re most excited to play live on this tour?
We’re playing the new King’s Theatre in Brooklyn, I hear that’s great. We just played the Tennessee theatre last night in Knoxville for the Big Ears festival, and that’s a gorgeous room. My favorite place though is First Avenue in Mineapolis. It’s this classic rock club, [a] big rock club. I like playing theatres and everything, but it’s really hard to gauge the polite applause, feel what the audience is feeling, and it’s always good for morale to play a good old black box rock club. Where everyone’s perspiring together.
I can imagine it’s a lot more intimate as well like that, when everybody is that tight in one room.
Yeah, it’s just really important for the band morale and all that, to feel a more physical thing.
For every ticket sold to the shows on your tour, one dollar goes to Everytown for Gun Violence. Is that something that you’re passionate about?
It is. I think it’s an unusually smart organization. Very grounded in reality. Everything is so reactionary in that issue, that you’re not going to get anywhere in America making people think you’re going to take their guns away. Their precious guns. They’re very realistic and smart about how they tackle the issue and I think they’re having some success. So I’m doing what I can.
You have a few songs that are relatively political. How do you feel about the whole Trump debacle?
He’s a frightening man. There’s others that are perhaps even more so, but I see major threats to our democracy on the horizon and human rights. He’s a classic strongman. I just don’t want to see what would happen if he’s elected. It’s a strange time in America.
I’m sure there are a lot of people who are very terrified. I hope that reign of terror ends in October.
There’s some hopeful signs, but we’re all in suspense.
This article can also be found originally posted on aestheticmagazinetoronto.com