Singer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird visits Dallas on Wednesday night, with a show at the Majestic Theatre. His new album, Are you Serious, keeps with Bird's tradition of unpredictability. His folk-infused music is alt-rock for the cultured listener, and his grandiose projects have included a sound installation at the Guggenheim Museum. He chatted with the Dallas Observer via phone about his songwriting process, how his eccentric mind develops melodies and the Chicago native's musical connections to Dallas.
Dallas Observer: Tell us about the new album. I understand you used a different approach to recording than you have in your previous records.
Bird: It's the first time I've used a producer in 13 records. I mean, I've worked with engineers with very strong opinions before, but this is a very tightly controlled record and it's a new group of people I was playing with, and everything was raising the bars several notches. The previous couple of records were by design kind of scrappy and live, and I'd become tired of production. This is me kind of going back to it and trying to make a better record.
What made you change direction on this album?
I just had a period where I got tired of the conceits of production; you get to the point where you hear a record and you kind of hear decisions being made instead of music being made. I was really trying to close the gap between the energy of a live show versus the records, people have always told me that the records don't always match the intensity of a live show, so I'm going to change that.
You've said this was your most personal record, while you normally write more in the abstract. Was that a conscious effort?
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It came as a natural result of life getting very intense and visceral, so it'd be strange to put out a record or write songs that didn't have that in it. But that's what I'm playing with in the title is that I don't think of myself as a confessional, "these are my pains and struggles in song form" [type of person]. It's not how I think of myself. So I suppose some of it's that, as I get older, I really appreciate more plain-spoken, condensed poetic songwriting.
Did the cliché "write about what you know" hold up or make it any easier?
There are a couple of songs, like "Puma," where I was like, "Can I write like this? This is fairly blunt and matter-of-fact." My approach tends to be more like a song like "Chemical Switches," which is speaking in tongues, working from sounds towards sense. But this record, like "Valleys of the Young," "Puma," "Capsized," they're cutting to the chase.
Do you start with the words or the melody?
I have melodies for days in my head, and then I think this melody's so strong that I have to use the human voice to really bring it to people, and that necessitates words. Then I get to work on the words and the variables are pretty tight when you're trying to find just the right vowels and syllables to set that melody.
What are your biggest fears as a musician starting each new album, like, say, being afraid of running out of melodies or words?
The industry schedule tends to slow down the creative process, which bums me out sometimes, but every day I wake up, I'm capable of writing a song. ... But, pretty much 12 songs every four years, people say I'm prolific, but I say that's a snail's pace. I usually have too many ideas before I start a record, and too many options, and that can be overwhelming. Usually these records require a lot of restraint, in service of the song, and then I have to find other outlets to kind of cut loose.
And what are those outlets?
A number of side projects. One I have going right now is called Echolocations, where I go into extraordinary outdoor environments and record myself responding to the environment and doing a sort of sonic map of it. I've done one in a canyon, a number of acoustically interesting environments, and that's what I've put out as a record, a sort of map of that space.
Which "Echolocation" have you not played yet that you would like to attempt?
There are so many options. Like I said, we've done the canyon, the river, the headlands in San Francisco, which we called "Fog," and then I did an ancient aqueduct in Lisbon. All these, coincidentally, involve water, but I'd like to do a cave, that seems like an interesting choice.
How did your collaboration with Fiona Apple come about? [Apple is featured in a track off the album called "Left Handed Kisses."]
I always like to have a different guest on the record that brings a different point of view. Listening to me sing one song after another, you need a break after a while, so this is the ideal song, and then Fiona was kind of in our orbit. I didn't know her yet but we had a lot of mutual friends so she was at the top of our list, perfectly cast I think, for the song. She's awesome, she's a force.
Having played different genres and instruments [Bird is trained as a classical violinist and has a background in jazz], who or what are your definitive influences?
I'd say Lester Young, a great tenor, a jazz player from the '40s and '50s. I feel like, as a violinist, I don't really play like a violinist, I play more like a tenor saxophone player, and he's my biggest influence, and he's kind of underrated, under-sung in the jazz world. And Charley Patton, old Mississippi blues guy, is one I come back to. And before every show I listen to the Staple singers, Mavis Staples.
What is it about the simplicity of whistling that makes a better choice for you than any of a variety of instruments?
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I oftentimes don't intend to put whistling on a song, but when you play guitar or violin, or something, it's so easy just to whistle the melody and say, "Ok, this is where the melody goes, and this is what it sounds like," and I intend to replace it with another instrument and nothing else beats the whistle.
You have a Dallas connection: You've played on Daniel Hart's solo album and have worked with St. Vincent aka Annie Clark. What are your plans while you're in Dallas?
I would hope to see Daniel; he's a good friend of mine and super talented musician. I played on his record a while back, and he's doing incredibly well with his film score stuff. And Annie, I haven't seen her in a couple of years, but we've made some good music together. I know some other folks in Dallas, it's a good town.
ANDREW BIRD performs Wednesday, Sept. 28, at the Majestic Theatre.