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Flights of Fancy

Singer-violinist Andrew Bird reinvents his music with every performance.

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Bird makes music with his head in the clouds.
  • Bird makes music with his head in the clouds.
For Andrew Bird, the world is a fantastical "Brothers Grimm and Gorey" place, where "good kids grow horns" on "Opposite Day," "Don Quixotes" fly B-17s, and life is a "fantastic voyage to parts unknown" perhaps best viewed "from inside an Etch-a-Sketch."

In light of such an imaginative worldview, it seems natural that Bird perceives music and the creative process as entities impervious to formula or explanation. He feels that just playing his songs alters their essence, as if a musical version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle were at work. This explains why there is nothing quite like an Andrew Bird solo show -- most of all another Andrew Bird solo show.

"It's an extreme thing to be playing every night," Bird says by cell phone while driving to Minneapolis to work on initial tracking for his next record. "You have to really create some sort of challenge to yourself to keep from slipping into an automatic mode. When things start to fall apart [in a live show], it becomes a more meaningful moment, one other thing that separates it from the night before. So you have to embrace the chaos."

The only consistent thing about the 33-year-old's career so far is the high praise generated by his recordings and live gigs. In three records with his band, Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, Bird turned heads with his virtuoso violin chops and a songwriting flair that reinvigorated every genre he tackled: 20th-century jazz, folk, gypsy balladry, rock, pop, and soul.

Then Bird left behind his label, band, and native Chicago for an Illinois farm, a solo career, and the independent Grimsey label. A period of gestation followed, rich as the soil surrounding his new home. He converted his barn into a studio and redoubled his experiments with tape loops. When he emerged in 2003 with Weather Systems, Bird had channeled all the influences he'd previously used as touchstones into an emotionally compelling and timeless new sound. In the process, he became a one-man string section, and Weather Systems featured panoramic soundscapes of pizzicato, bowed, and strummed violin textures.

The music buzzed with new ideas, inspired metaphors, and thought-provoking comparisons carried aloft on wistful melodies. Last year's Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs may have featured a more guitar-oriented sound and slightly more traditional song structures, but it was no less imaginative. Eggs' music was awash in what Bird describes as a "Muppet Show/Electric Company" vibe, but kept its elegiac sound.

Both Weather Systems and Eggs were acclaimed for their musical ingenuity and whimsical wordplay. Meanwhile, Bird was busy blowing minds with his live shows -- excerpts from which are chronicled on the 2002 and 2004 EPs, Fingerlings and Fingerlings #2. Though occasionally accompanied by various band configurations, Bird more often than not performs as a one-man orchestra, looping violin, guitar, glockenspiel, and his extraordinary whistling into dizzying sonic textures.

Along the way, Bird discovered that rather than being an exacting taskmaster, live looping was instead "very forgiving." With every live performance his songs mutate into something new. The trick is to "discover something" for himself and the audience without resorting to "half-hour improvisatory indulgences." He accomplishes this through his pop sensibilities and by tapping into a Louis Armstrong jazz spirit, where finding melody is the point of the improvisation. Keeping the songs in a "gaseous state" is paramount.

"Performing live fuels my confidence and just helps remind me who I am and what I'm doing," he says. "I tend to like to go into recording right after a live show, because I feel like when I'm in the studio, the way I think starts to change, and I start to consider things too much."

But malleability is the very DNA of Bird's creative process in the studio too. Last August, for his upcoming record (scheduled for an early '07 release), he spent hours at a time in his barn, sketching atmospheric loops -- providing the striking image of a virtuoso playing with "the windows thrown open" for an audience of farm animals and woodland creatures. Since then, Bird has traveled to Minneapolis' Third Ear Studio -- an old spice factory in the midst of the train yards -- where Low often records.

Third Ear is likely to be just one of many studios Bird will visit before the record is finished. Since leaving Rykodisc after 2001's The Swimming Hour, Bird has paid to produce his solo records, allowing him to record when -- and where -- time, finances, and his whims dictate. He migrates from studio to studio, depending on what he feels each has to offer any particular song -- Eggs, for instance, was recorded in six different rooms.

"I think it certainly helps the record not sound formulaic," he says of his studio-hopping. "Sometimes something incredibly simple, like a $50 microphone in someone's basement, is going to sound perfect; other times you've got to really go all out, record in a room with a 40-foot ceiling and a $10,000 microphone. There's just no formula for what's going to sound right for the song."

That's a lesson that also applies to Bird's word-happy, Pynchonesque narratives. Remarkably, Bird says that he doesn't write anything down. He's mulled over themes and lyrics for years, citing one song initially destined for both Weather Systems and Eggs that he still plays every night and obsesses over, to the point that he can't remember what the song was originally about. Bird likens the process to "speaking in tongues."

"The test is that if it keeps bugging me or keeps popping into my head, then I know I have to pay attention to it," he says. "I like to keep things in that malleable state, both lyrically and melodically, where it hasn't yet been put on a page or a piano or a fretted instrument, where there's a geometry that's going to impose itself on it."

Music is a living thing to Bird, and the "plasticity of the brain" and creative process evokes in him a childlike fascination that courses through his songs. But it's not without its dark side, which gives Bird's music its emotional heft. On Eggs' "Masterfade," he contrasts the hard science of describing the universe in mathematical equations with the uncertainty of experiencing it in human terms:

Well you sure didn't look like you were having any fun

With that heavy-metal gaze they'll have to measure in tons

And when you look up at the sky

All you see are zeros

All you see are zeros and ones

You took my hand and led me down to watch a kewpie doll parade

We let the kittens lick our hair and drank our chalky lemonade

It's not that I just didn't care I must admit I was afraid

And I'm awfully glad my finger's resting gently on the masterfade

"Science is a fun way to deal with issues of just being human," Bird says. "It has this reputation for being distant and academic, so to play with it in the context of a song that's full of emotion can be illuminating. It's like someone trying to quantify something that can't be quantified."

To put it another way, it's not unlike writing about music; there's no substitute for experiencing it -- live or on record -- yourself.

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