Andrew Bird (US) on Are You Serious and returning to Australia for Bluesfest

After chatting with Andrew Bird about his latest release, Are You Serious, I was more than a little confused. His lyrics have always told stories across breathtaking folk-coloured soundscapes, and his wit and fresh take on life, music and writing precedes him. Before taking to Australian shores for appearances in Sydney, Melbourne and Bluesfest, Andrew sat down for a chat, to disclose truths about the album, his music and his future, yet his incisive wit left me asking; was he serious?

His thirteenth album, Are You Serious turns to some of his most sobering lyrical content to date, a distinct contrast to his earlier, acerbic works. “I was poking fun at myself with the title, I very self-consciously never thought of myself as that kind of a song writer… but then some heavy stuff happened and therefore how could I not write about it? That’s why I’m like, ‘Are you serious, really? You’re going to write about your feelings, in a very raw, sort of exposed way?’ It’s not really the kind of person I am, I’m not a sharer.”

Before releasing Are You Serious to the world, Andrew told fans; ‘Here I am with my most unguarded, direct, relatable album to date – go easy on me.’ He laughs when he recollects about the reaction to the album, “I learned a lot about sharing… in this case, because of what some of the songs are about, it was a minefield. And I got myself into some tight spots. I would have done it differently. I wouldn’t have written the songs differently, I just would have presented the record differently.” It is an undeniably different record, of which he says, “It was intentional. It was like, ‘Let’s go for it, let’s make that record.’ That going for the jugular record.”

“The opening track has got a kind of drum beat in it that I never thought I’d have in a song… It’s very masculine. When we first recorded “Capsized”, I thought, ‘This doesn’t sound like [me], this sounds evil… But in a good way.’ And that sort of set the tone for the rest of the record to some degree. I always am aware of the listener, when I get a couple of songs in, if I start to feel like I’ve been holding onto something too much, I change it up you know? It’s the same way live, I am very conscious of the kind of show that I put together.”

For those not familiar with Andrew’s live shows, it’s a display of virtuosity, recognised especially for his aptitude at whistling and violin. Although he’s been a voracious tourer over the years, he’s firmly established that before he gets on stage, he ‘never has any idea what he’s doing’. “It’s almost like a superstition, to some degree. I never walk on an airplane convinced that it won’t crash – you’re tempting fate when you do that. You need to humble yourself a little bit before the physics involved in a big hunk of metal travelling across the planet in the sky. Every time I walk onto an airplane I have to envision a fiery crash.  It’s the same idea, I guess, with going on stage. I’ve never made that comparison before…”

“Walking on stage, it’s not that I’m not confident, I know what I’m doing. As soon as I get on stage, I’m in my element – even if I make mistakes everything is going to be great, and in fact I hope I make a mistake. Create a situation.” He explains that this approach also relates to the concepts behind Are You Serious; “In the title track, I [wonder if] on my thirteenth record, what if I came out and I was a different persona? What if I was Bono all of a sudden, you know, high fives in the front row, making eye contact, pointing at people – it would be absurd.”

His inspired live shows draw from different experiences across Andrew’s life, “The first rock’n’roll show I ever saw was The Boredoms, this Japanese noise band and the lead singer put a blindfold on and before he sang a note, ran blindfolded and jumped into the audience and I was like… I like that. Too bad I’m holding a priceless instrument in my hand [laughs]. It’s just that I’ve adopted a certain thing that works for me on stage, it’s … I feel this affinity with comedians – this little shrug of the shoulders, ‘I don’t know folks, I’m up here, you’re down there, it’s a funny situation we’re in.’”

While he used to perform nearly 200 shows a year, having a family has changed that, “I still love touring, and I love performing. When I was in Chicago, I couldn’t wait to get out of town. Getting on the skyway and driving out of the city into Indiana, on the road, I would feel this immense relief… it’s a totally different dynamic now. I don’t want to leave, and I can’t wait to come back.”

Writing has always been an on the road process for Bird, allowing melodies to form before pairing his sardonic words. “I used to write a lot on tour when I was in a van, but once you get on a bus you’re not looking at the horizon, or you’re not fighting boredom. Airports are still good for that – long flights are good for writing. Travel exhaustion is good for writing because really ridiculous things pop into your head and you have no defences. In different places different melodies surface, given the right conditions. Like, every time I get into a cab in New York City, something about the smell of the air freshener makes a certain melody pop into my head. And it goes away – if I’m not in a cab in New York City that melody is gone… until I go back to New York and I’m in a cab again…”

Capturing the energy of his live show, and using that to drive the narrative, has always been a goal of his in recording, “I get wary of the studio. I like to be on stage, because that’s where the real stuff happens. And to capture that energy on a record, I’ve been trying to do that my whole career. And I’ve developed somewhat of a reputation – the whistling, the violin. I see it described sometimes [as] whimsical and I’m like you know… that’s not how I feel about it. That’s not how I feel onstage. I feel possessed on stage, not like ‘Here are my whimsical little ditties’. So you know, it’s a reaction to that. I just wanted to write the songs that I want to play on stage.”

Gushing about returning to Australia, he gave a run-through of what to expect, “I’m bringing the full band, the A-list band. Bluesfest will probably be high energy festival set, probably shorter than usual, but the Opera House – and I’ve played there before –that’ll be more of a dynamic show, going more of the quiet old time stuff with one microphone, solo stuff that’s more experimental, and then the full band stuff. I don’t do the festival set in a nice auditorium like that. Yeah, so, just three shows I suppose, but they’ll all be different.”

Catch Andrew Bird on his Australian tour…

Thursday, 13th April | Bluesfest, Byron Bay
Saturday, 15th April | Sydney Opera House
Tuesday, 18th April | Melbourne Recital Centre

 

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