Six albums into his career, Andrew Bird has established himself as a man of certain habits – the whistling, the violin, the sock-footed live shows – stuff that’d seem like a heap of geeky gimmicks if they weren’t executed so well. Classically trained from an early age, he seems nothing if not a lover of routine and control; even when he’s warbling about the end of the world, it’s with poise, grace and intelligence.
But when it came time to record his seventh LP, Bird decided to loosen up. He gathered his closest collaborators on his family farm in western Illinois, rigged up a converted barn with a broken eight-track machine, and basically tricked himself into making an album by not trying to make an album at all. Break it Yourself is a loose, big-skied record that stares down all his usual concerns – life, death, mutually assured destruction – but, for the first time, really works at tempering his gorgeously-rendered existential terror with a bit of a shrug and some twang.
eMusic’s Rachael Maddux spoke with Bird about making music in his barn, entering the world of film scores, and his odd preponderance of kitten lyrics.
I was wondering if you could tell me about your farm.
Sure. I didn’t exactly grow up there, although my folks got it when I was, like, 12. It’s a working farm in western Illinois near the Mississippi River. It’s like 400 acres of rolling hills and corn and soybeans and some cows and occasionally some chickens, and it’s got a couple of barns on the property, one of which I fixed up. And that’s where I lived for four or five years and that’s where I work and record. It’s a pretty wonderful place…I built it to make The Mysterious Production of Eggs, [but] I kind of crumbled under the pressure; not only to write, produce, record and sing, but I had to build the building that it got recorded in.
So I hadn’t really recorded there until now, almost eight or nine years later. It’s just been almost too sacred of a place to bring that kind of madness, to bring a bunch of people out there. They really have to be cool with being that isolated and it takes a while to find people who can handle that. There’s no coffee shop, there’s no people, there’s no bar to go have a few drinks afterward and blow off steam. It’s just total immersion. These guys I play with, from Minneapolis– their ethic is pretty similar to mine when it comes to music. They’re devotional, you know? And we set it up pretty nicely. We had a friend come and cook for us and we had our front-of-house engineer use his own equipment out of his garage.
I’ve worked in many studios and there’s something nice about a proper studio in a sort of ceremonious feeling, like, “Now we’re making the record.” But this one was just supposed to be a rehearsal, like a jam session, a luxurious opportunity to just make music together.
It sounds a lot more laid back to me.
The only production was the decision to not produce. It was seven tracks we had to record the entire band; we were all in this one room with high wooden ceilings, and really no option to do any overdubs or any studio trickery. It was just an eight-track tape machine with one track broken. I was singing live over the drum set, so I had to really belt it out. I’m really happy with the result. Not to make it sound like, “Gosh, why doesn’t everyone make records like that?” It was really deceptively hard for everyone to play at the same time for some reason. Usually records have all these options at your disposal, all these options to make yourself sound more awesome than you might be. I hear so many records like that these days. It just sounds like a series of creative choices rather than a musical performance.
At what point did you say, “Oh, this is the kind of the album that we accidentally made”?
After the second or third song I was like, “We’re kind of nailing this.” I’ve made enough records to know that there’s the demo syndrome – like, be careful who you play your demos for because they’ll always prefer your demos to the finished, polished product. There’s something about capturing songs for the first time. There’s no chance to doubt yourself, you know what I mean?
When you’re making records in a more traditional way, it’s like listening to your outgoing voicemail message, like, “Ugh, that’s me? I sound ridiculous.” So you keep going back and sculpting your voice until you don’t sound like yourself anymore. There was just no chance for that to happen with this, and that was by design. I secretly hoped I’d get the record, but I didn’t count on it. It wasn’t like every time we did a take I was like, “Holy crap, this is the version that’s going down for the ages.”
I’m guessing that around the same time as you were working on this record you were working on the score to Norman, and I was wondering if you could tell me how that came about and how it might’ve been different from making this album.
I did Norman maybe four or five months before this recording session but I was right in the middle of writing these songs, so I applied some of the songs to the movie. It’s funny; I kind of had to change some of the lyrics. My lyrics tend to be a little more acerbic or dark and that’s not appropriate for a kiss scene, you know? I had to kind of stomach that. I was just sitting in the studio with a monitor and watching the scene and playing the song or improvising ideas after watching the film. It was a pretty cool experience. I did it in, like, four days.
You have so many dark subjects and themes, but another thing I’ve noticed in a lot of your songs is that you often mention kittens.
I mention who?
You mention kittens. I can think of three different songs that have lyrics about kittens.
Huh, yeah. I can think of two.
There’s one on the new one, there’s kittens licking fingers on The Mysterious Production of Eggs (“Masterfade”), and then on “Natural Disasters” there’s kittens with pleurisy. The kittens are everywhere. I was wondering if it was something that you had been aware of.
The kitten motif is well-worn symbolism. [Laughs] I don’t know why that would be. What’s the reference on the new record?
Unless I totally misheard it, it’s something about “toffee in the mouth of a kitten”?
Oh yeah, like when a cat kind of gets something chewy in its mouth and it starts kind of…yeah, anyway. I cannot really explain that. Lots of themes pop up from record to record. It makes sense – that’s the one binding factor, that it’s all coming out of my head. Beyond that, I don’t give myself any restrictions. With lyrics, there’s this chain reaction that’s sort of random, but you think there might be some reason to it, some reason to the rhyme. As soon as that line occurs to you, everything you see around you makes you think of that or there’s some kind of serendipitous sign that you need to pay attention to that. And I know this is getting into metaphysical stuff, which I don’t always go in for, but sometimes you see these things, you’re in a bookstore and you see that one word on the spine of a book and then it leads to this and – you know what I mean?
I absolutely do.
That’s the funny thing about writing lyrics. Melodies are just kind of always there.
I’ve read that you go to museums as part of your songwriting process.
I only did that once, and it was because I was trying to fill some holes. I was working really fast, as opposed to this new record, where I took some time off and waited for things to come to the surface. Sometimes it’s good to have little projects that stimulate you and get you going. Like, for this last record, it was the Muppet movie – I wrote like five songs for the Muppet movie based on the script, and I had to move the scene along and say like, “OK, we need a song where Kermit’s doing this and he’s thinking about this.” And I actually used some of the spare parts, because they didn’t take any of the lyrics-driven songs for the movie.
But, um, what was the original question? Oh, yeah. I was finding little field trips to fill the holes in the songs, because I had like 80 percent of the song written but if that last 20 percent was elusive, I would go to theGarfield Park conservatory and research obscure prehistoric plants or something like that. I don’t usually do something like that. You just don’t want to do too much forced writing like that. You generally try to be awake as much as you can in your everyday life because mostly things come to you while you’re daydreaming while you’re doing the dishes, you know, or occupied with something else, not like, “OK, I’m writing now, these are my office hours.”
Now I just want to talk about the Muppets forever. How did that come about that you got involved with the Muppet movie? Was that like a dream project?
I had gotten wind that it was in production. I kept getting offered a lot of work for really terrible films and I kept turning it down. And then I got wind from my film score agent that the Muppet movie was in production. They had like a pool of songwriters, probably 15 songwriters, working on spec, [thinking] maybe someone will knock it out. It was a labor of love, let’s just say. I knew the chances of getting something in were pretty slim. But I did get in the “Whistling Caruso” piece I wrote for the climax of the film, and I’m pretty happy with that.
Do you have kids?
I do. I have a 10-month-old son.
So one day it’s gonna be like, “Dad’s in the Muppet movie.”
He jumps up and down when we play that track, so he’s already into it.