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Andrew Bird - The IndieLondon interview

Andrew Bird

Interview by Sue Wilkinson

ANDREW Bird is one of the hottest tickets on the touring circuit. We caught up with the talented American singer songwriter ahead of his London tour dates this month.

Andrew Bird stands out as a musical innovator who can genuinely be described as ‘genre-defying’. The Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist is renowned for his virtuoso live performances.

Sensational violin playing and a musical palette that includes vocals, guitar, glockenspiel and whistling make him a compelling performer. Bird has been on the road for most of the year promoting his CD Noble Beast – and now heads to London for two dates at the Union Chapel.

Q. What can audiences expect from your London shows?
Andrew Bird: Almost every show we perform some cover or change the arrangement of the songs and mix up the set as much as possible. I guess that I mix performance with writing – I regard them as almost the same thing.

Q. How do you go about making every gig unique?
Andrew Bird: I want to make every gig special – and keep it fresh for the audience and the band. If it was always the same I’d go mad. It’s what I call ‘the happy birthday principle’. If you had one more day to live and all you could do is sing ‘Happy Birthday’, you’d have to make it count and make it special.

Q. You seem to enjoy injecting jeopardy into your performances?
Andrew Bird: I might go as far as to say I cultivate it. It makes every show special. If everything was perfectly comfortable and executed, I’m afraid I would lose some edge.

Q. At a recent Chicago gig your violin dramatically smashed to the floor when it slipped from your hands. What happened?
Andrew Bird: It’s what could happen every night – and should happen more often. I got kind of excited, stepped on a cable, lifted the violin up and it snapped out of my hands and broke into two pieces in front of 3,500 people. And there’s a situation for you. I get strangely calm and philosophical at those moments!

Q. Do you use your classical training in your music?
Andrew Bird: I guess I use my classical training in my song writing – it’s part of my roots. But I have absolutely nothing to do with the classical mind-set and the culture around it.

Q. Your music is hard to pigeon-hole. How has it evolved in recent years?
Andrew Bird: Somewhere around the age of 27, I let the music consume me completely. That’s when my songs stopped sounding like any style in particular.

Q. It was around that time that you introduced your trademark whistling. How did that happen?
Andrew Bird: The whistling came out of playing the violin. The violin is an extremely painful instrument to learn to play and the whistling was so casual. There’s a certain geometry and fluidity to it.

Q. You make a lot of your music in a barn in Illinois. How does that affect what you write?
Andrew Bird: Spending time in a place where you can see the horizon, and where your eyesight calibrates to longer distances, affects the kind of music you hear in your head. It’s very different to being in an urban place and travelling all the time where you never look more than three feet in front of you.

Q. One of your new songs, Natural Disaster, was influenced by a trip to Niagara Falls. How did that take shape?
Andrew Bird: I was sitting in front of Niagara Falls and there’s such an immense amount of power that kind of puts your senses on edge like something terrible is happening. It also draws on some childhood memories of when I used to take a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and throw myself on a pile of decaying leaves and pretend that I was microscopic and examine nature.

Q. Your songs are full of strange words. What’s the attraction?
Andrew Bird: I’m fascinated by that time when things were still being discovered and named. I really enjoy reading natural history books and get a lot of my inspiration from them. I like words that take the listener outside the everyday vernacular. I also enjoy street language like Saul Bellow’s writings about Chicago.

Q. Your music has a sweeping, cinematic quality which some have likened to the film scores of Ennio Morricone. Is film work something that interests you?
Andrew Bird: I’m doing some film music right now to see if I’m cut out for it. But I think I’m a little more creative with meaning rather than just responding to other people’s ideas – so I’m not sure if it’s for me.

Q. What will be your next musical move?
Andrew Bird: I’d like to try to go back to recording with just one microphone – a really simple live thing, perhaps with the band standing around. On the other hand I thought about producing a kind of wall of sound collage.

Watch footage of Andrew Bird live

Andrew Bird plays London’s Union Chapel on November 10 and 11. Noble Beast is out now on Bella Union.