Andrew Bird is an anomaly in the music world. A classically trained violinist, graduate of the prestigious Northwestern University, and a voice in pop-music. Bird manages to do the impossible in his recordings – odes to Americana, and melancholy – he makes his violin the center-piece of his art.
Over the past 18 years, Bird has released 11 studio albums. Each of them highlights Bird’s unique abilities as a performer, and as a songsmith. His most latest record, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of …, was released earlier this year. Bird took some time out of his day to speak with me on the new album, and how he manufactures his unique sound.
(Evan Almeida): Your most recent album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort of …, dropped on June 3rd. What statement does this album make about you as a musician? Why did you choose to record a collection of The Handsome Family’s songs?
(Andrew Bird): I’ve been so immersed in the songs of The Handsome Family for so many years I can hardly separate it from my own work. That being said, the fact that I didn’t write these tunes is freeing and I sing these songs differently than my own. My mission is to hopefully elevate these songs, take them out of the goth-country realm that they exist in and place them beside the likes of Leonard Cohen, Townes van Zant, John Prine. Because I believe they’re that good.
(EA): When you were recording “Far From Any Road (Be My Hand)” were you aware that The Handsome Family’s recording of the song would become famous as the theme of HBO’s True Detective? What are the most important differences between The Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road”,and your rendition? What makes your interpretation a representation of you?
(AB): It already was well known as such. I’m not sure my version is recognizable. I wanted to take the goth drama out of it. The lyrics are already dark and mystical and it’s very me to not put dark on dark. The contrast between lightness and dark is what gives us melancholy which is a good thing. I gave it more space, changed the melody, moved the verses around. It’s still pretty dark and I like how the fiddle solo feels like its pulling you down like that trembling hand.
(EA): Recently your song, Pulaski at Night, was used in the season premiere of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The first verse of “Pulaski at Night” is “Half empty, half full/Cup runneth over/Horns of plenty, coffers full/We’re starting over. Do you personally believe in the notion of second chances?
(AB): I wrote that song after leaving Chicago after 36 years. It had become too heavy. Burdened by memories and mistakes. It’s bittersweet.
(EA): Do you believe that the themes of optimism, and later the revelation that things can never be ‘normal’ again, felt in “Pulaski at Night” was the reason that it was chosen to be included in Orange is the New Black – a show about convicts trying to find redemption, and their place in this world?
(AB): Sure, but probably more important was name dropping Chicago.
(EA): Your music is notable for being constructed around the sounds of a violin – a criminally underused, and under respected instrument in the pop-music world – and making the violin the most memorable feature of your songs. What does it take to integrate some of the softer parts of a violin’s sound – pizzicato, chopping, etc. – into a recording, or a live show? Are you forced to change the construction of the music to prevent the sound of the violin from being drowned in sound?
(AB): I spent years playing clubs in Chicago struggling to be heard and have a natural sound. Eventually I had to think like a guitarist. Big old tube amps are the answer. I spend more time tweaking and tuning amps than I do at the violin shop. If you don’t do it right the violin sounds like a mosquito and deserves to be marginalized.
(EA): What are your plans for the future?
(AB): I’m itching to do something more improvised, rhythmic, kind of monastic Alice Coltrane thing. I’m also doing some outdoor recordings in canyons in Utah. It’s called Echolocations.
Andrew Bird’s music can be found on iTunes, Amazon, and anywhere that music can be bought.
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