A Conversation with Andrew Bird: Crafting Music and Chicago Memories

andrew_birdIt’s not every day you get to speak to one of your favorite musicians, and when that day comes, narrowing down your questions proves to be a bit daunting. Throughout my time spent listening to Andrew Bird’s countless albums or seeing him perform in eclectic venues, I’ve always wondered how his brilliant mind creates such intricate music. His process is so deliberate and exact, and so intertwined with the city of Chicago, as well, since the advent of his days collaborating with so many artists throughout its many neighborhoods. On September 7, Andrew Bird will be playing a sought-after hometown show right here at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

I had the chance to speak with Bird and ask those questions I’ve pondered for quite some time, discussing everything from how to play to the room, to his favorite Chicago memories.

Third Coast Review: There’s always something to be said about playing a hometown show. What’s your favorite part of playing shows in Chicago, and how are you looking to use the acoustics of the Pritzker Pavilion to your advantage?

Andrew Bird: I get pretty wound up playing hometown shows, and it’s something psychological, there’s something about it. But it’s just not just another stop on the road. And of course playing Millennium Park, I think we played there in 2009, it was a free show and we had Oprah’s jumbotrons, and the weather was perfect, so I wasn’t afraid to play it again because everything worked so well that night. I’m doing some special things with the lights, and just for this show, I’m getting the giant speaker from Specimen Products and just some things to reach everybody.

TCR: You’ve given us a lot of really unique performances in Chicago, from the Sonic Arboretum at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the Gezelligheid shows. Your shows become more than just a show. They’re meant to create a sensory experience for your listeners, too. What experience are you hoping to deliver on September 7 in that space?

AB: Well, a lot of these things like the Gezelligheid and Echolocations and even the Great Room thing I’ve been doing are all about playing to the room, letting the environment inform what you play instead of just plowing through and promoting your record and everything. That’s always been really boring to me. I’m into just trying to be as in the moment as possible and respond to the space that you’re in and the acoustics, and just letting that tell you what to play.

That’s been the defining thing for me, I think tone, resonance, and acoustics since I’ve been little have been a big thing for me. When I was younger, I used to go into different spaces and just play one note for an hour, just trying to get parts of the room to just vibrate. At every show, I’m looking to have a feeling of connection, like something real is happening for everybody, including me and the audience that particular night. That’s the goal. Hopefully something unexpected happens. It’s tough to try to design a show to make sure something like that happens, but maybe that’s partially why some of the things we do are almost beyond possibility technically, so that you do stumble sometimes and it does keep you on your toes and creates human moments.

TCR: That’s what music should be about these days for sure, and I think it’s lost a lot these days, which is kind of sad. I actually read a quote of yours from another interview that said, “Every time I get up in the morning, melodies occur to me and I start trying to shape lyrics to melodies.” This reminded me of what you were just talking about with creating connection or being in a room and playing one note. What is your process like when you’re creating music?

AB: I don’t keep office hours, I kind of envy those who do, kind of like, I write between eight in the morning and noon, something like that. But, it could be in the middle of the night with insomnia. It could be when you’re completely exhausted on an airplane. It tends to be these times when you’re in altered states where the everyday mundane things, you don’t have energy for that, and the weird tangential thoughts creep in. It’s really a mysterious thing, I don’t know if I’ll ever quite harness it. Bits and pieces of songs come at very random times and there’s a healthy amount of editing and mix and mashing that goes on that pulls it all together. I kind of wish I was just a singer in the rock band who showed up to rehearsal with a bunch of poetry I wrote the night before. That would be a lot easier, and I would just intone things over a band. That might be fun to try sometime, but that’s not the way I work. It’s really distinct melodies that I have to mold words to.

TCR: Your music has been so diverse since the start. You’ve had Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs which features really intimate, soft tunes, and then you had instrumental albums, and then a Handsome Family cover album. Your latest album, Are You Serious, features Fiona Apple and Blake Mills. I feel like it’s hard for a lot of artists to keep growing and innovating, and you’ve really managed to do that really well. What is your process for keeping your sound fresh?

AB: I feel like there are a lot of facets of how I experience music, and whenever I feel like I’m neglecting one part of myself to say, write a very concise series of songs like I do every four or five years, that takes a lot of restraint. So there’s a lot of good stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor that I want to explore. So then I create these other projects to make sure that I’m using all parts of my musicianship. I used to fit in with people when I was younger. I used to play sessions, I used to play on other people’s songs a lot, and I haven’t done that for a long time, so I just kind of cooked up this Great Room show that I do in my living room to say, music is a social thing, and this is a good excuse to explore that part of playing, just winging it with people. It seems like the antidote to writing this last record, which was trying to write 12 really focused songs.

TCR: You did a very good job with that. The album came together really, really well. You have a flair for keeping everything full of continuity. Even your concert set lists, as well. Everything flows really well and you’re incorporating music from decades ago. What are your favorite songs to play and how do you go about creating set lists for your shows?

AB: Well, like I said, I try to play to the room and every room is different, so I’m changing the setlist quite a bit. When you’re playing a vast outdoor space, it’s more broad gestures and everything, so you want to play music that’s going to feel good doing that. We’ve been kicking off the set with this snippet of an Alice Coltrane tune, then we go into “Capsized”, which feels pretty good because that song just plays itself and if you’re not having fun playing that, then there’s something wrong with you. [Laughs] I try to put stuff at the top of my set that’s going to loosen me up and get me to feel adaptable. I have a database of all my old set lists to make sure I don’t repeat myself too much. If I have to play two nights in one city, I get really neurotic about playing the same thing, or saying the same thing. I’d just feel like such a chump.

TCR: A lot of your fans do see you multiple times, and I think it’s cool that we don’t know what to expect every time.

AB: Yeah, that’s been the benefit of years of growing with my audience and that they are not coming to hear the hits. One of the upsides of obscurity.

TCR: I want to talk a little bit about Chicago, too, since it is your hometown. It stems back to your Bowl of Fire days here. What memories does being back in Chicago bring back for you from that time period?

AB: The local scene was everything. I did that for many years before I started to think in a broader sense of getting out of town, but it was such a nurturing place. I remember, I used to live in Edgewater in an apartment-hotel from the ‘20s, kind of a funky neighborhood at that time. I would ride my bike down to the Green Mill in the morning, because they would open in the morning for the local population. I would go in there and play the 45 jukebox on the wall, I don’t know if they still have it, then I’d have to order a drink at 9:30 in the morning, which is a hard lifestyle to maintain. It was pretty rich. I would listen to Blues Before Sunrise every Saturday night, all night, listening to these old 78s, and I would make tape recordings of it. I can’t imagine getting quite that kind of education. Maybe New Orleans, I spend a lot of time there as well. It was awesome. I’d have weekly gigs at Elbo Room and then later on at The Hideout. I think it’s still true, if you’re doing something different and slightly interesting, you’ll find your audience in Chicago.

TCR: Even now, with “Pulaski at Night”, the city still infuses itself into your music. How does the city influence your sound still and play a role in your lyricism?

AB: You know, I wrote “Pulaski” after I left Chicago, after being there for 36 years, and somewhat out of guilt I guess you could say for having left. [Laughs] Which is kind of silly when I think about it now, but it was kind of a bittersweet farewell to this place that had shaped me and it’s talking about Chicago with all its less attractive qualities as well, but it’s my love letter to Chicago for sure and it’s in a lot of my music, I think.

TCR: I wanted to talk about your lyrics as well, as I think they’re what draw a lot of people to your music, too. They have such imaginative, whimsical qualities about them and are just filled with wisdom, too. I really like “Masterfade” and the opening line of “Lull.” Which lyrics have you written that have just stuck with you over time?

AB: I can tell you this, there was kind of an epiphany when I was doing “Lull” from Weather Systems. That was the first time that I took my inner voice, the internal conversation, I took to my doubts about my song and included that in the song, which I had some reservations about. I was like “Ah, can I do this?” you know, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Not in every song, but that’s the way a lot of people think, and I appreciate writers that do that too, that really write the way people think, which can be sometimes a bit tangential, and it was a decision to include some of that mental debris in the song itself. In a sense, I think that broke down the fourth wall in a way with the audience. It starts to pull the listener in and includes them in the story, in a way. I think over the years I’ve gotten a little better at that. A good example is “Left Handed Kisses.” That’s definitely the epitome of that inner dialogue being turned into a duet, almost like a short, one-act play of sorts. The trick is projecting it out of your brain. You don’t have any need for pronouns when you’re having these internal conversations. But when you write the song, you need to say who’s talking to who, and what are they feeling? That’s what turned into “Left Handed Kisses.”

TCR: When you’re back in Chicago, where do you find places to inspire your creativity and where do you recharge?

AB: When i’m in Chicago, I make a beeline for Lula in Logan Square, that was one of the last neighborhoods I lived in, but I like to get down to Pilsen, I also lived there for awhile. I was just in Andersonville for a night on my last trip, I hadn’t been there for 10 years. I lived all over. I went to school at Northwestern and then was in Chicago the following 16 years after that, so I lived in probably 10 different neighborhoods over the years, and they all had their qualities. I was never in the happenin’ neighborhood. It always had a great Mexican grocery store nearby, and good avocados and fresh tortillas. That’s what I miss, going to the grocery store and getting the tortillas that are still warm.

TCR: Many of your shows see a special appearance from one of your past collaborators, like Nora O’Connor or Kelly Hogan, are you going to have any special guests in store for us this time around?

AB: Well, Margo Price is opening the show, and she’s from Illinois, not too far from our family farm too. I played in Nashville with her and she did “Left Handed Kisses” with me, so we’ll definitely be doing that. I haven’t lined it up yet, but you’re prompting me to call up a few friends. So yeah, you can expect something like that.


Andrew Bird will play the Jay Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park on Wednesday, September 7. The show begins at 7pm, with lawn and seated tickets available for $23.50-$58.50 plus fees. Margo Price will open the show.

Sarah Brooks
Sarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks is a native Chicagoan with a penchant for words, music, art and this magnificent city of Chicago. Raised on The Beatles and learning the violin at age 9, Sarah’s passion for music began early in life. Her musical obsessions include Wilco, Otis Redding, Neko Case and Real Estate, but they truly change daily. She can be found at a concert, trying a new restaurant, or running along the lakefront path.