Andrew Bird: A whistler, wordsmith violinist
Bird arrives at FreshGrass with "My Finest Work Yet"
NORTH ADAMS — Two hallmarks of Andrew Bird's music don't take long to emerge in the singer-songwriter's latest record, "My Finest Work Yet."
Five seconds into the album's opening track, "Sisyphus," Bird's melodic whistling arrives, and his poetic verses soon follow.
"Sisyphus peered into the mist / A stone's throw from the precipice, paused / Did he jump or did he fall as he gazed into the maw of the morning mist?" Bird sings, referring to the famous Greek myth about a king condemned to push a boulder up a hill for eternity.
Coming from Bird, the impressive consonance in these lyrics isn't surprising. The singer-songwriter has a way with words. He's the rare musician who can carry a New York Times blog about his creative process with specificity and, perhaps more importantly, without incessant self-promotion, and his verses can range from humorous to devastating. Tongue-in-cheek "My Finest Work Yet" offers plenty of opportunity to explore that full spectrum, though its political subject matter, especially in songs such as "Bloodless" and "Fallorun," tinges any amusement with darkness.
A third strength of Bird's musicianship — his violin-playing — doesn't greet listeners immediately, but resounds later on. A classically trained violinist, Bird began his career in the jazz realm with Squirrel Nut Zippers during the late 1990s. His subsequent solo career elevated his musical stature; by 2009, his album "Noble Beast" peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard 200.
All the while, Bird has been apt to experiment, working with pedals and producing instrumental works. He has also dabbled in TV and film. (He'll appear in the next season of "Fargo.")
But it's "My Finest Work Yet" that brings Bird to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams on Friday night. He'll play at Joe's Field on the opening evening of FreshGrass. Before the show, Bird answered some questions about the record and his Mass MoCA debut by email. His responses have been lightly edited.
Q. "My Finest Work Yet" opens with "Sisyphus." Did a specific sound you heard in everyday life inspire that melody? If so, how so? Were there other songs on the record that drew inspiration from random sounds?
A. That certainly happens in both urban and natural environments. The screech from the breaks of a bus or the moan of a tree in a wind storm. The cry of a kid on an airplane turned into the song "Oh No" [on "Noble Beast"]. But "Sisyphus" is not one of these. I wanted a melody that's like wind in your hair, like that scene in "Easy Rider" at Four Corners. Glorious full-bodied whistling.
Q. What was it about the story of Sisyphus that compelled you to write a song about it, and how does that song relate to the political subject matter in other songs on the record?
A. It started with the word "precipice." I was thinking about thresholds when Sisyphus ponders how to escape his fate and how it turns into a moral crisis. It's a time for drastic measures. "History forgets the moderates," but won't there be collateral damage if the whole system comes apart, if the baby goes with the bathwater? Every time I talk about this song I say something different. I thought it good to start this record with that melody and that moral quandary. The gloves come off later with "Bloodless" and "Fallorun," and the record ends with "Bellevue Bridge Club," bruised and bloodied.
Q. We hear your famous whistling almost immediately. Are you somebody who's constantly whistling?
AYes, even if it's inaudible. I literally breathe in and out music.
Q. The record was recorded live to tape. Why did you take that approach?
A. Everything I've done that way sounds more valuable. The tape absorbs the drums and guitar and makes it easier to digest. Digital is too much information for the brain to process. I like to sing live in the room with the band. Making a song one track at a time, as 90 percent of it is done these days, feels more like architecture and, at worst, like karaoke.
Q. Your career has spanned multiple artistic disciplines, not unlike much of the art housed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where FreshGrass is hosted. What do you know about the venue, if anything?
A. I visited Mass MoCA a few years back and have been trying to play there since. I remember the curation being pretty dynamic and unexpected — how that plays off the Industrial Revolution exterior made an impression. I like having to react to different environments and play what the day and the space wants, so that play between art and environ is what makes Mass MoCA so extraordinary.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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