“I feel like a comedian on the stage.” They’re words you don’t expect from violin virtuoso and lyrical maestro Andrew Bird, whose most recent record, Are You Serious, saw the 43-year-old exploring his most autobiographical terrain yet.
After a year of touring the album, Bird finds his appreciation for candour and “cutting to the quick” extending into his shows as well.
“I really do feel like a comedian,” he explains. “I just adopt a similar sort of shrug of the shoulders. You know, ‘I’m up here, you’re down there; this is a funny situation we find ourselves in.’
“I just like to acknowledge that we’re all here. I don’t like to have the feeling that I’m just presenting my 12 songs from the new record for you, but that something real is happening.”
For Bird, the essence of what’s ‘real’ boils down to humour and honesty. Even during our garbled LA to Sydney phone call, he is courteous and open – surprising for an artist whose discography revolves around lyrical obscurity. He doesn’t shy away from discussing the strange sensation of returning home after life on the road.
“Every night you’re used to going onstage. You’re used to getting the shakes. Used to thinking, ‘Something important is supposed to be happening right now.’ But then here I am, reading a story to my son. It’s just a different situation, [like] the bends.”
In conversation, as on record, Bird threads his words together with care. Not to evade, but as if to make each reply something of worth. It’s a similar desire for genuineness that leads him to watch the tropes of some other indie performances – the emotional exposés, exuberant gestures, obligatory crowd banter – with an impressed bemusement.
“Why do we have to be so damn interesting? Why do we make it so hard for ourselves? All I want to do is sing a nice melody.”
He’s only being half-serious, of course, but it’s precisely this strange middle ground between earnestness and theatrics that gave Bird the name of his album.
“I came up with [Are You Serious] based on doing a lot of shows with comedians,” he says. “One second people are laughing at a joke about pizza or sex, and then you come on and suddenly everyone recalibrates themselves thinking, ‘Here comes the songwriter with his precious thoughts and feelings.’ You might be ready to do a song that’s totally tongue-in-cheek and weird, but it doesn’t matter – they still expect you to be sharing the depths of your innermost feelings. It’s a strange dynamic, but I enjoy it.”
One such tongue-in-cheek moment comes in the form of ‘Left Handed Kisses’, a feisty musical duet (or standoff, rather) between Bird and Fiona Apple.
“I love how that song unfolded in a strange way,” Bird says. “It started off as a challenge to myself to write a love song knowing that, left to my own devices, it would go horribly wrong,” he laughs.
“I started writing from my point of view and this other voice crept into my head saying, ‘You’re totally full of shit.’ That voice became Fiona – she helped me get into character. When she opened her mouth, I felt just like that guy that can’t quite express himself. It was perfect.”
The other tracks on Are You Serious are completely Bird: no characters, no aloof third-person pronouns. He tackles issues on the home front like fatherhood, relocation and even his wife’s cancer diagnosis in ‘Puma’.
“I haven’t written songs that exposed and matter-of-fact before,” he says. “Usually it’s embedded deep in there and no one would presume that it’s about this or that personally. [‘Puma’] gave me some pause before I wrote it, but I couldn’t help it. I write about the things I care about, always have. It’s just life has never gotten that real until now, so there’s a song.”
This philosophy of reacting to the world around him is what Bird brings to his performances also.
“I don’t like to play the same way every night. Depending on the environment, the songs mean different things and feel different and sound different. Take ‘Capsized’, for instance. I’ve been doing that song for 15 years in different forms, because it changes according to how I feel. That’s why it was so hard to nail down on a record for so many years.
“We feel differently every 15 minutes; why shouldn’t our music change as well? They’re the songs that have the longest life, the ones that are just blueprints that allow present feelings to come true.”
For Bird, this means every time he performs – whether in his living room alongside other musicians for a Great Room session, or before thousands at the Sydney Opera House or Bluesfest – there’s always an added risk. But for him, this is where the reward is too.
“People can tell when you’re going out on a limb and you’re playing something that’s never been played before. I still have faith in that. I play with people who believe that. They appreciate a good, concise pop song, but nonetheless [they say], ‘Let’s make this show different.’”