PREVIEW: He sings the body eccentric: Violinist, singer-songwriter and whistler extraordinaire Andrew Bird

Posted by on 13 August 2008

Garth Paulson, FFWD Weekly, July 24, 2008


“I kind of enjoy the fact that there’s no formula that works, that’s going to guarantee you a good song,” says songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird. Though he cut his musical teeth as an auxiliary member of swing revivalists the Squirrel Nut Zippers, as well as in his catch-all rock group Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, Bird’s solo work skews towards American indie pop and folk, albeit with a fair share of eccentricity. It’s a style that’s difficult to pin down, and even Bird has difficulty putting his finger on how his songwriting style provides success. “You just go in flailing at it and hope for the best. Your songs kind of become your companions for awhile and you get very loyal to your own ideas. When you’re recording, you need to be kind of ruthless and just say, ‘sorry, this isn’t working out, you’re going to have to go.’”

Bird’s ruthlessness has paid off. Since striking out on his own, the idiosyncratic songwriter has whistled, fiddled, strummed and looped his way to the tops of critics’ year-end lists, most notably with 2005’s Andrew Bird and the Mysterious Production of Eggs and 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha. Despite his achievements, Bird hasn’t grown comfortable with his songs. In fact, whether playing solo with an array of instruments and looping pedals or with his current quartet, Bird is known to willfully chop up his songs on the fly, often keeping few recognizable elements in place.

“I don’t like to just play the same 12 or 13 songs every day for two years,” he says. “Or if I do feel compelled to play those songs, I’ll have to do my best to stay entertained, [which I do by] straying from the original. It’s just a cycle that goes around with the songs. After awhile, suddenly playing the song like it is on the record is kind of novel and enjoyable, which has started happening with the Mysterious Production of Eggs now.”

Bird’s willingness to experiment should come in handy when he comes to the Calgary Folk Music Festival. In addition to his mainstage performance, Bird will take part in two of the festival’s more alluring workshops, which will see him collaborate with A Hack and a Hacksaw, the Master Musicians of Jajouka and more. Bird, however, isn’t as keen on jamming as you’d expect from a musician who’s skilled in improvisation, though he is optimistic about his workshop appearances.

“If I like what I’m hearing, I like to participate and I want to get in there and play, but I don’t often like forced situations,” he notes. “There were too many years in my early 20s of struggling as a musician, playing in jazz combos, Irish music, bluegrass and all that stuff. I would eventually get a sense of futility from all that jamming. The moments of real vitality had worn off, but people just kept playing anyway.

“This one I’m looking forward to,” he says of the folk fest sets. “I mean, how often do you get to play with the Master Musicians of Jajouka? I’ve no idea what they’re expecting from the whole thing, but I’m looking forward to this forced collaboration.”

Folk fest audiences should look forward to Bird’s performance and collaborations, forced or not. At the very least, it will give them a chance to pin down Bird’s unique appeal.