by: Michael Shields
Looking back on an interview with one of music’s most individual of performers, Andrew Bird…
Andrew Bird is a bit of an enigma. Describing the brand of rustic Americana folk pop he champions can often be trying, as in tandem with his esoteric and complex wordplay, Bird’s music is entirely individual. Timeless, both with hints of yore and suggestions of where music with the accession of technology is headed, Bird’s music is often simple, elegant and heartfelt, instilled with an elemental complexity that has the power to awe. It is this complicatedness that makes Andrew Bird’s pairing with surgeon, writer and public health researcher Atul Gawande for a discussion and performance at The New Yorker Festival this past weekend an ideal union. Gawande, in addition to his medical duties, is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and by the end of the evening it was clear that not only was he well versed in Bird’s talents and catalogue, but in music comprehensively. Walking us through Bird’s career and into the heart of some of Bird’s more memorable and intricate song craftings, Gawande revealed a side of the performer that was earnest, open and decidedly human, while cutting deeply into the underbelly of some of the more exceptional songwriting taking place today.
The conversation that unfolded amid a packed house at the Gramercy Theater spanned not only the length of Bird’s career, but the entirety of his life, as it was unearthed early that he started playing violin at the young age of four, and that his relationship with music was a slow burn as he didn’t get serious about it until late in his teens, not even attending his first concert until he was twenty-one (The Boredoms!). Initially, Bird wanted to be a psychiatrist, more for the “aesthetic of the offices,” he quipped, “than to learn more about the human mind.” This idea, that he contemplated delving into the inner workings of the mind, makes a great deal of sense in consideration of his lyrics and their yearning to anatomize human nature. This led to a humorous, and straight to the point, question from Gawande, “When did you realize that whistling and violin would be the premise for some awesome rock and roll?” Here again, Gawande was in the know, completely in tune with Andrew Bird’s stylings.
What started out as a terse discussion about the intricate, yet admittedly (by Bird) not technologically current, looping systems the musician employs, veered quickly into a conversation about lyrics. Often in his music, Bird invokes a sort of second (and sometimes third or fourth) voice, creating a meta and unique self dialogue within a song. This, he explained, is why he often enlists musicians for duets, to sing the second, often opposing voice, as is the case on his most recent album (Are You Serious) with the alluring song “Left-handed Kisses” with Fiona Apple. This idea of a second, critical voice employed by Bird was exhibited perfectly to the audience through the song “Lull” off of 2003’s Weather Systems. In that track you can plainly hear Bird questioning his own lyrical wordplay throughout, harping, “This whole damn rhyme scheme’s starting to get me down” and “I’m rambling on rather self consciously.” In this way Bird’s music forces you to pay attention and to think, and the more actively involved you are in consideration of his mosaic soundscapes, the greater the reward. Further, too, in this dissection of “Lull,” it became increasingly evident that Bird is in his own league when it comes to lyrical wordplay.
Bird, later on in the interview, in deliberation of the lyrics to “Puma” (also off of Are You Serious), became more deliberate and assumed the role of the inquisitor, asking Gawande to help him understand cancer. He demanded to know if cancer had an end game, just as viruses are master manipulators, exploring their environment in a tireless drive to multiply and survive, Bird wanted to know if cancer had any aspirations excepting killing its host. Bird’s passion for the subject, it was revealed, was the basis for “Puma,” an unusually lively track about his wife’s spat with thyroid cancer. Here again, Gawande was a fortuitous pairing with Bird, as unlike those not medically trained, he was cognizant of the lyrical substance of “Puma,” a song that described the immediate aftermath of radiation treatment, and enlightened the audience to the underlying reasons why “she was radioactive for seven days.” In time, the mood was lightened when Bird exposed that the reason the tone of the song was so cheerful was because his wife never conceded ground to her cancer, and though the duration of her treatment, fought back with wit and optimism.
Before the evening concluded, Andrew Bird let the audience in on the veiled meaning of the somber second half of the otherwise inspiring “Valleys of The Young” (it was a true story of a friend), declared his obsession with the record label Analog Africa, and then treated the crowd to a slew of beautiful, affecting songs including “Capsized,” “Left-Handed Kisses” (sung alone, or as he put it, sung in companion with “his internal demons”) and the tour de force that is “Weather Systems.” As the interview with the remarkably capable Gawande came to an end, Bird suggested that “a lot of territory has been covered in pop music” and that he wanted “to cover the other stuff.” While defining his music as pop is certainly appropriate, Bird’s music does excel when it is exploring the fringes, in taking chances and by delving deep into the exasperations and delights of the human heart and mind. With thirteen studio albums already under his belt ((Three of which are with his band, Bowl of Fire.)), one could make the assumption that Bird’s most prodigious days are behind him. But what was unmistakable through this evening with Andrew Bird, was his undying passion and desire to continually forge ahead with his inimitable art.