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REACHING, NOT PREACHING, BEYOND THE CHOIR: THE ANDREW BIRD INTERVIEW

May 6, 2019

This conversation with Andrew Bird, a writer and singer of songs which can dip into folk, swing, pop, rock and the edges of contemporary classical, but who has not hitherto offered himself as a priest, begins with my confession.

 

I tell him that I know this isn’t what is sung, I knew from the second time I heard this joyous, pizzicato pop song and checked the title on his new album, My Finest Work Yet. Yet I can’t stop hearing the song Fallorun as “Folderol” and I can’t help but think it’s also appropriate in a song about a flim flam man and the people not wanting to address the truth in front of them about his lies.

 

I’m caught between wanting to apologise and wondering whether it’s not too late to change the song title.

 

“I thought about doing that,” Bird says, surprisingly. “It was a weird phonetic, misunderstanding in the first place. I had about five different options for that chorus and I started with Fall Of Rome, which was dumb, well not dumb but pretentious, and my wife thought I was saying fall or run and I said that kind of sounds like folderol. And that made me think of an old Waterson/Carthy British folk tune that had that line in it. So it’s funny that you would hear that.”

Let’s be honest though, it also says something about the age of the men discussing this: it’s unlikely anyone under 30 has ever heard the word folderol (or Norma Waterson and Marty Carthy for that matter). Hell, you would probably struggle with anyone under 40.

 

“Probably not,” Bird concedes. “A lot of curious words like that have stuck with me. I like colloquial expressions that are out of fashion. When I read a book that has slang from another era, I really love that.”

 

This would not be a surprise to anyone who has followed Bird’s 15-album career, as his penchant for playful language and words which feel as good to say as they are to hear, is as vital to him as his fondness for out-of-their-time instruments and arrangements, and of course his whistling.

 

“I definitely got a little bit of backlash for ‘being clever’ and using big words and getting a reputation for that. But I never force anything; I’m just following my own curiosity,” Bird says in his defence. “I think a lot of that comes from the way I mostly work, which is: melody first; speak in tongues over that melody until things fall into place; then replacing things that make absolutely no sense with things that make a little more sense, without sacrificing the musical or lyrical quality of a word for meaning.”

 

There is, he says, often a push and pull, a forced compromise, between meaning and sound. “But that’s the nature of writing songs.” True that. It’s good to be reminded occasionally by the cleverer songwriters that we are also meant to enjoy the sound of words, as much as we enjoy the sharpness or aptness of its choice.

 

“There are other times when I get obsessed with the word, just as I will with a melody,” says Bird. “And that melody will tend to drive a little more rhythmic thing, like in [another album track] Sisyphus, where in the second verse it becomes more like a reflex thing and begins to sound like a rap in a way.”

Not surprisingly, this fondness for wordplay and rhythmic speech extends beyond Bird’s songwriting and into his personal life.

 

“When I named my first child, I thought about the kind of syllables it should be before Bird. As Bird is monosyllabic, I thought it should be a triplet,” he says, adding, perhaps slightly embarrassed, “I’ve never said this to anybody.”

 

And nothing wrong with that says someone whose daughter’s first name is similarly triple-syllable because it sounded much better with a monosyllabic surname. A name should be melodious after all.

 

None of this however, stops Bird on this album from being quite direct in his language and his intent when it suits. In a collection of songs about a fracturing society around him, the American can sound annoyed but not angry, frustrated but not despairing, urgent but not anxious.

 

Is that the right balance for dealing with a world where, “the worst … [are] peddling in their dark fictions”, as he sings in Bloodless, “the poets explode like bombs/While the gentry is drinking Moet Chandon” and it may as well be “1936, in Catalonia” as fascism, religion and nationalism crush independent spirit?

 

“You wonder if it’s too considered for these times?” Bird asks.

Not at all. He makes a solid argument for the view that if you react instinctively and immediately, you may make the mistake of the fevered but unconvincing.

 

“I had my impulsive, instinctive reactions to the 2016 election, but I had to step back and think, okay if I’m really can have any idealistic hope of getting behind the choir here I have to make this music as appealing as possible. There’s got to be some hope and optimism and moments where I don’t shy away from dropping something like Catalonia 1936 in order to make a point, because more than any record I’ve made I need to communicate, not just entertain myself.”

 

He describes some of his earlier albums as “very internal, circular thinking and simply trying to entertain my mind”, which he has no problem with. But this time, he wanted more. “I was thinking about my audience, and not just the people who agree with me.”

 

As he says, one of the goals of this album was to preach beyond the choir. Is saying “we’re all just stumbling down in an unnamed struggling town” a request to see beyond city/country/suburbs/small town divides, or saying we’ve all had a part to play in where we are at but also a part to play in getting past that?

 

“I currently live in LA, and before that in Chicago, but I spent six years in rural Illinois, where most of my family is from - Iowa and Illinois, farm country - and I wanted to speak to everybody. I have been in Walmart parking lots where it feels like the walking wounded stumbling towards the pharmacy, in these small towns. And it’s like, what’s happening? So I wanted to take an all-inclusive look, not just at my tribe on the coasts.”

It is one thing, and not insignificant, to make people feel this isn’t an accusatory approach, and to not be driven purely by anger. But that doesn’t prevent him from calling out what might in other times have been called enemies of the people – no, not the media, but the drivers of the algorithms and the creators of division.

 

In case you were wondering as the folderol flowed earlier, while this is characteristically attractive, My Finest Work Yet is no Kumbaya singalong.

 

“There’s something very insidious going on that is taking our human nature, things that have been there forever, and bringing them to hyperdrive. What I’m trying to say in Bloodless and Fallorun is we are being played,” says Bird. “My only hope there is that by realising that we are being played off against each other for profit that we might be able to extricate ourselves from it.”

 

I’m loath to suggest anyone must do something, but did he feel it was his responsibility as an artist or as an American, or even just as a sentient being, to address some of these things?

 

“Yes, and no,” he says. “As soon as I hear somebody say we have a responsibility as artists I bristle. That’s not why I make art. It’s not where the impulse comes from. But you should do it because you are paying attention. And because you’re alive and you’re listening to it, it comes out in your work.”

 

Andrew Bird’s My Finest Work Yet is out now through Loma Vista/Caroline

 

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