They say the early bird gets the worm. Chicago-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird is a prime example of this (admittedly strained) idiom. Bird first picked up the violin at the tender age of four, and his formative years were spent mastering a veritable smorgasbord of musical disciplines. Classical, jazz, blues – you name it, Bird could play it.
As an adult, he’s been releasing albums since his 1996 debut Music Of Hair, he’s collaborated with the late-'90s swing revivalists Squirrel Nut Zippers and along the way has revealed himself to be a virtuoso whistler.
Bird’s eleventh (sixth solo) and most recent record Break It Yourself was released earlier this month, and frankly, it’s a thing of beauty. Full of haunting melodies, plaintive soliloquies and subtle instrumentations, Break It Yourself is the product of Bird and collaborators Martin Dosh (drums), Jeremy Ylvisaker (guitar) and Mike Lewis (bass and tenor).
On the phone from New York City, the well-spoken and eloquent Bird recalls started the violin at such a young age. “It wasn’t a conscious choice,” he admits; “it was my mom’s idea and I was not unwilling. I was pretty into it, and it was a social thing, not too high-pressure for the first couple of years and, you know, by the time you’re ten years old you can play pretty well! I had as much technique at the age of eight that I would need to pull off most of what I do. And then, I just had a really good ear since I started so early, and I was able to look up other musical languages like classical pretty easily!”
That good ear paid off quickly, giving Bird the ability to play, well, pretty much anything. “It’s the same neural pathway you’re forging if you’re learning language, or any other thing at that age,” he explains. “That’s why you can learn multiple languages at that age. Like the mother tongue, music is a language. And it holds pretty true. I can hear any kind of music in the world and I can pick up on its accent right away, and its vocabulary. It’s the little inflections that make one type of music different than another.
“Now I’m a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. I can read and write music, but I don’t need to and I prefer to play with people who play instinctively.
“At some point, I found exactly the right people to play with – but what I really had to do was just go solo for five or six years, and reinvent the type of music I was creating and control every aspect of it myself in the studio and onstage before I was ready to play with people again.
“I took the violin, typically a linear instrument, and expanded its dimensions by several degrees; I could play in different layers, I could do staccato, I could play bass-lines. [The compositions] were like improvisations that ended up on a loop, and I could isolate them. I think that led to my music becoming more distinctly ‘my own,’” he concludes.
Once he’d spent those years recording and performing on his own – and discovering he had an unearthly talent for whistling – he was ready to play with other musicians. In regards to the recording of Break It Yourself, he states that it was the first time he’d trusted other musicians to “use their creative instincts.”
“It’s the first time I’ve let more than just one other member of my band in the studio with me at a time,” he reveals. “It was just the four of us in a room, all facing each other, playing with no headphones and no separation between us, just learning the songs while the tape’s rolling.”
I mention that the record certainly has that feel to it, that it sounds as if there was a lot of trust in the making of it. Bird concurs, “Yes, [the mood] just happened, it’s the nature of having done it in eight days, in a farm in west Illinois. Living in a barn under one roof, eating together – there was definitely a mood out there. Late August, in the Midwest, in an old red barn!”
Finally, this scribe has to ask Bird about his unearthly whistling abilities. More specifically about his memorable turn in The Muppets, performing the jaw-dropping whistling finale of the film, where the character Walter finally discovers his hidden talent during a telethon the Muppets have thrown to save their rundown theatre from the clutches of a greedy oil tycoon.
“Well, I had my ear to the ground; I was living in LA for a period of time and I heard the film was in development,” Bird recalls fondly. “So I offered my services. All the songwriters were doing it on spec, and there were some pretty heavy people in there, doing it out of love for The Muppets!
“I got the script, and it was funny, I thought it was really good and had a nice sense of humour to it. So I wrote four or five songs, either with Walter or Kermit [the Frog] in mind that had to move the story along. And the part they ended up using was the whistling finale. It was fun, because I respected the director (James Bobin) and the music supervisor from Flight Of The Conchords (Bret McKenzie), and I respected what they were going for, so I didn’t mind doing revisions,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘Sure! Got it!’ It was so much fun."
BY THOMAS BAILEY
Break It Yourself is out now through Spunk Records.