top of page


Belatedly catching up with the fourth season of Fargo has brought Andrew Bird back into discussion at my house, a reminder that his uniqueness goes beyond whistling, angularity (in body and in song) or being a genuine nice guy who makes one wrong decision and just keeps paying the price - as nice guys who make mistakes must in Fargo.

In this 2008 interview, as he prepared for a show in a sweltering Sydney tent (when he returned two years later it would be to the Opera House stage), violinist/songwriter/singer/whistler/actor Bird explains the line between improvisation and spontaneity, why going barefoot doesn’t mean being footloose, and the strange turns of lyrics.


When Andrew Bird performs you can sometimes get the feeling that he has lost himself within the performance, that he has moved from calculation to more muscle memory and an instinctual, physical reaction to what is happening as he plays.

Which, considering the brain-taxing solo shows where he will often play two or three instruments, loop them on stage to create a sound and rhythm bed, play something else over the top and then either sing or whistle a melody, is rather startling.

"I can sometimes forget where I am and wake-up on the other side of the stage after four songs have passed by and have entered a totally alternate universe," says Bird. "There are parts of the song that are choreographed and I know there's a certain muscle memory. If one piece of equipment is like an eighth of an inch off its can really throw me in a way.

“I take off my shoes and feel with the bottom of my feet where things are without looking at them. There's a lot of spatial stuff going on and when I'm doing songs, I don't have to think about mechanics of them any more so I can get lost in the song and not be distracted by what I'm trying to pull off."

Watching Bird, who played here a year ago on the same bill as Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan and Holly Throsby, it clear that this is not improvised music: it's folkish pop music crossed with crafted art music. But it is also evident that he's not necessarily locked into every musical move.

"Often what's really cool about doing the looping thing by myself is that failure is part of the plan," Bird says with some enthusiasm. "Like making mistakes become the little seeds of new ideas that you have to respond to every time it comes around. I look forward to things not going as planned so it's a very elastic, intuitive process. People think, oh it's electronic and electronics are the antithesis of intuitive organicness but it's definitely not the case."

He's said that melodies come to him constantly. "As an improviser I am looking for a good melody all the time. I'm not like John Coltrane taking you into outer space; I'm Louis Armstrong trying to find a good melody." But lyrics don't come naturally.

"With lyrics, if you try to write it usually doesn't lead to much. I'm not like a novelist who works office hours, 9-5, and carves out a chapter every couple of days. You've just got to take an absurd little moment and think how can I make that into a song. And sometimes I'm walking down the street with a melody my head and I start just speaking in tongues or singing in tongues and then whatever word happens to come out of that becomes the seed of that song.

“And considering that that's how songs might start, that the songs make sense is interesting."

He's right. There is no feeling that he's only making sounds into words with his lyrics, but a genuine reflection of thought and a better than average turn of phrase.

"I write a lot of lyrics and I think I remember an interview where John Lennon said this too, they write to fill the space without any pressure to make sense and that's when they create some of their best lines. Out of necessity really. I think what makes the songs make sense is that they are coming from the same person's brain. The things that I care about come out in the songs."

Sometimes it's not possible when you are that close to the writing of the song to see the logic of that interconnectedness. It may only become apparent later.

"I often discover after I've finished a record that there were connections, that I may mention some dark subject matter in one song and finish it in another. And things within the songs kind of leap temporally, from one pronoun to another.

"I like that too in old ballads and blues tunes, pre-war stuff, where there are lapses in reasoning all the time - suddenly your protagonist has switched from male to female. I like that kind of mysteriousness."

bottom of page