In today’s fickle pop culture world, we don’t run into many virtuosos these days. If you’ve ever seen Bird perform or heard one of his patented orchestral Folk songs, you know you’re in the presence of a master maestro — whether he’s playing guitar, violin, glockenspiel or just whistling. His background includes Classical training for violin and a music scholarship at Northwestern University as well as a late-‘90s stint playing with the retro-Swing band Squirrel Nut Zippers.
I recently spoke with Andrew from a stop in Missouri, where he’s decamped for his year-long tour in support of Noble Beast, his sixth solo record. Though he often plays solo behind his pocket-symphony array of loop pedals, this time out he’ll have Martin Dosh on percussion and Jeremy Ylvisaker on bass.
For the uninitiated, Bird’s unique sound emanates from a gypsy dervish of symphonic layers, baroque rhythms and Jazz/Classical inflections that swirl into lush Chamber Pop concoctions. If that’s not enough, his lyricism combines the touch of a poet with the empirical observations of a scientist. The right brain hotwires the left in Bird’s elaborate creations.
“I didn’t start with a concept on the new record," Bird explains, "but I think I was moving on a little more from being interested in molecular science and obscure history to more natural history. I just like the idea of that time when species were still being named, a botanist naming some obscure fern, and the energy that exists right before something is given a name. And then the names themselves give me inspiration.”
Language has always been one of Bird’s fascinations. Often his lyrics read like the shorthand notes of a doctoral student in linguistics — but they rhyme.
Try singing along with “Proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans/ Greek Cypriots and Hobis-hots/ Who hang around the ports a lot,” from “Tenuousness,” and then reel off a 12-bar whistle solo for an exclamation point.
Bird has actually been criticized for choosing words for their sounds rather than their meaning, but as he explains, “I could go through every song and tell you exactly where the lines came from and what they mean. But that’s not so much my intention to lay out all my feelings and thoughts, and certainly not in a matter of fact way. … I never really cared about the story in a particular song, I always focus on one or a couple words that (are) pleasing. They could be in Portuguese, I don’t really care.”
With his inventive wordplay, Bird uncovers and satirizes the ways language evolves and devolves through misuse.
“That’s kind of a recurring theme in a couple records — the cheapening of sentiment in language, the overuse and buying and selling of emotion in our culture," he says. "These intangible things that we do our best to co-opt. I think that’s why I search for other words and sometimes even invent new words and imbue them with meaning again.”
He alludes to this in “Fitz and the Dizzyspells,” a punster standout on the new record: “Has a name but the name goes unspoken/ It’s in vein ‘cause the language is broken.”
Bird is nothing if not ambitious as a songwriter. Weaned on Mozart and the Hot Jazz of the 1920s, his music both challenges and entertains in equal measures. It’s heady stuff, almost sweet like intellectual candy.
At times, though, his dense arrangements and fecund stream-of-conscious lyrics run the risk of pretentiousness. His whistling habit, while stunning because of his prowess, can sometimes come off as a gimmick or novelty trick. Yet his best songs soar as they lift off into higher planes — the exquisite melodies whirl and dance above the organic loop textures as he plucks his violin, pizzicato style.
If Bird remains one of Indie Pop’s most idiosyncratic artists, it hasn’t stymied his popularity at all. At his Bonnaroo set this summer, his graceful crescendos swooped over the standing-room-only field of college kids and twentysomethings. With two large Victrola speakers spinning madly behind him on the stage, he pumped his loop pedals and switched off between acoustic guitar and violin throughout the set. His slight stature, rumpled suit and thin, plaintive voice rendered him vulnerable in the humid sunshine as the crowd swayed in approval.
For an admitted introvert who lives part-time on a farm outside of his hometown Chicago, Bird enjoys performing onstage.
“Touring warps you because you get into this hibernating, daily existence," he admits. "I like it because you’re sort of off the hook and have every excuse in the world not to engage people except during the show. But I ask myself, ‘How am I evolving to deal with this lifestyle? Will I have some weird appendage when it’s all over?’ ”
Toward the end of our conversation, Bird reveals, “I’m not your typical singer-songwriter, you know.”
We both chuckle at such a blatantly absurd understatement. No, this virtuosic, whistling, violin-bending, kaleidoscopic linguistic whiz is certainly not conventional.
ANDREW BIRD performs Oct. 14 at Bogart's with St. Vincent (read CityBeat's interview with St. Vincent here). Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.