PREVIEW: Andrew Bird: stringed migration

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Glenn Alderson, Beatroute, July 2008

The violin is such a classic instrument, but there’s something about the way Andrew Bird plays it that makes it so fresh and relevant in a contemporary pop setting. As a classically trained violinist who has been writing and playing music his entire life, there’s no denying he knows his way around the stringed instrument. And similar to likeminded musicians like Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallet, Bird has been pushing the boundaries of what can be done with it.

“I don’t even think of myself as a violinist anymore,” Bird says on the phone from his home in Chicago. “If I just thought of myself as a violinist, I wouldn’t be able to break out of the traditional forms as easily. I just use it and abuse it to get what I need, to get what’s in my head out, and it just happens to be this instrument on hand that I know. I figure I went through a lot of pain to learn how to play this thing, I might as well use it.”

Bird has come a long way in the last ten years since his debut in to the commercial music industry with the Squirrel Nut Zippers in 1997. Since then he has released five albums, two of which were on Ani DiFranco’s label Righteous Babe, and has provided his services on countless number of other artists’ recordings including Rufus Wainwright, Bonnie Prince Billy and Neko Case. His latest record, Armchair Apocrypha, came out at the beginning of 2007 on Fat Possum Records and marked a step forward for the 34-year-old artist as he delved further in to the realm of indie folk pop, utilizing looping effects, whistling as accompaniment and his dark and refined voice over top of lush melodies.

Currently, Bird is in the process of recording a new album that he started tracking earlier this year in Nashville with producer Mark Nevers, who he worked with on his first solo outing Weather Systems (2003). A couple tracks for the new album were also recorded at the Wilco loft in Chicago, and according to Bird it’s somewhat of a departure from the path he’s found himself on with his last three records.

“A lot of it is a lot more acoustic with more textures in it,” he says. “In the last record I favored an old Jaguar guitar, and on this one I’m favoring an old Martin guitar, working more with subtle textures and tapestries of acoustic instruments. There are even a couple of songs with no drums at all.”

Throughout the process of this recording, which should be finished by the end of this month, Bird has been called upon by the New York Times to document his trials and tribulations in the studio for an ongoing artist blog feature on their web site called “Measure For Measure”. The process provides a unique introspective look in to the creative process that Bird has been going through to put his music to tape.

“They just contacted me and wanted me to write. I thought I was writing an article, not a blog, and I thought, ‘Great, I’m writing for the New York Times now,’” Bird says with a laugh. “But, it’s been cool; it’s been a little weird getting into that self-examining mode when you’re in the middle of writing and recording. I had some apprehensions about it because it’s not always good to be that self-aware when you’re going through it, but I actually enjoyed it a little more than I expected. I’m just finishing up the last installment. I’ve been writing and playing music for a long time, so I have a couple of things to say about it.”

Whether you let the music speak for itself or have the well-read and refined Bird spell it out for you on his blog, there’s a lot to latch on to with this perfectly fitting addition to this year’s Folk Fest lineup. Make sure you catch him before this Bird has flown.

WHO: Andrew Bird
WHERE: Calgary Folk Festival
WHEN: July 25