Andrew Bird's Relentless Quest for Songwriting Perfection Culminates Onstage

Andrew Bird is set to perform at the upcoming GroundUp Festival in Miami Beach.
Andrew Bird is set to perform at the upcoming GroundUp Festival in Miami Beach. Photograph by Matthew Siskin
For the restless music machine that is Chicago native Andrew Bird, each song is an enthralling puzzle with no real resolve. He’s in it for the adventure of it all. The virtuosic violinist and whistler has been yarning out his cerebral tunes for audiences for more than 20 years, unearthing innovative ways to bring new life to his compositions.

“All along, I’ve been writing short, concise pop songs with compelling words, hopefully, and exercising my curiosities about ideas and melodies,” the singer-songwriter says. His approach, though, has been anything but poppy. A Suzuki-trained violinist since the age of 4, Bird earned a violin performance degree at Northwestern University before embarking on a musical career.

His debut album, the traditional Music of Hair, showed off his fascination with rustic European folk music. Bird’s later work as the leader of the band Bowl of Fire had him fiddling to gypsy jazz and swing. “At that time, I was very enamored with early jazz and was writing original songs [in that style],” he says. “I was obsessed with it.”

Yet he soon found himself at what he calls “a dead end stylistically.” The band’s final album, 2001’s The Swimming Hour, was Bird’s first foray into indie rock — a genre he admitted he previously found dull — fusing it with his diverse palette of musical fascinations. Critics adored the album: Pitchfork called it “a killer batch of songs,” and AllMusic said it was “like taking a walking tour through 20th-century musical history.”

But if you know Andrew Bird, you know he likes to switch things up. In 2003, he made his formal debut as a solo artist with Weather Systems. Here, he says, he “stripped away the stylistic references,” phasing out the swing and jazz for what has now become his definitive sound: whimsical chamber pop elevated by cryptic lyrics that read more like tongue-twisters than songs. There's the fan favorite “Fake Palindromes” from 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, for example, which opens with the line “My dewy-eyed Disney bride/What has tried/Swapping your blood with formaldehyde?

“I’d get a lot of interesting letters,” Bird says of his lyrics. Fans and even astrophysicists have weighed in and tried to figure out what his words mean. “It just leads to cool conversations,” he adds.
Andrew Bird's upcoming album will reflect his recent preference for more "plainspoken" songwriting. - PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA STEMMER
Andrew Bird's upcoming album will reflect his recent preference for more "plainspoken" songwriting.
Photograph by Laura Stemmer
Many years and successful albums later, Bird has begun yet another chapter as an artist, favoring less elaborate and more vulnerable lyrics. First evident in 2016’s Are You Serious, Bird’s role as a husband and father led him to feel more at ease with opening up about his personal life in his lyrics.

Speaking with NPR while promoting the record, Bird said, “Knowing that you're going to be with someone for a long time definitely changes [the way you write], often because you're sitting in the same room with them as you're writing, and when you're sitting on the couch and you know it's not going to last, you might... have to... encrypt... things. And when you don't have to do that anymore, it might change your writing in that sense."

The album follows Bird’s recalling the first time he saw his wife (“Roma Fade"), her battle with cancer (“Puma”), and their decision to become parents (“Valleys of the Young"). In the title track, Bird even pokes fun at his obsession with intricate lyrics, singing, “Used to be so willfully obtuse/Or is the word 'abstruse'?/Semantics like a noose/Get out your dictionaries.”

“I think I’m on a trajectory towards even more plainspoken and to-the-point songwriting than I was in the past,” he admits. “Earlier records have definitely been more abstract and playful and kind of pondering internal dialogues with myself, whereas more recently, I just hope that [the listener] can understand in three to four minutes what I’m really getting at... But I’m still a fan of ambiguity, still like leaving the listener a little room to create their own narrative around it.”

And his upcoming album, My Finest Work Yet, seems like it will stay true to this newfound writing style. Its first single, “Bloodless,” is perhaps his most candid song to date, commenting on our current political climate via lyrics such as “I know it’s hard to be an optimist/When you trust least the ones who claim to have the answers/It’s an uncivil war/Bloodless for now.”

The new album will also nod to his lifelong inclination toward jazz. The project was recorded with the goal of “going for the [prolific sound engineer] Rudy Van Gelder jazz-room sound from the early '60s,” Bird explains. Noting he has always embraced the “jazz way of thinking,” Bird calls this a more natural approach to recording as opposed to that of most modern pop music. “It’s the whole band live in a room going through takes, singing live, everything bleeding into all the microphones, and getting... things you just don’t get any more. Everything from the last 30 to 40 years has been pretty isolated and carved out.”

But the stage is where audiences can experience Bird at his most natural, improvising with himself and his band, peeling as many melodies as he can out of his songs, creating hypnotic results. Not interested in rigidly replicating his recording sessions onstage, he sees live performance as a chance to explore what else is living in his songs. “I don’t worry about re-creating it note to note," he explains. "I find that kind of boring.”

And he keeps that in mind when he's writing, saying he leaves “enough room in there for that to come alive onstage.” Evolving his writing when recording an album and modifying his songs while improvising onstage are not obstacles for the artist but rather part of the thrill of being a musician.

Bird will soon grace South Florida audiences with his gift when he performs at the upcoming GroundUp Music Festival in Miami Beach. He'll play two sets, one with his full band and another alongside fellow artists on the festival’s roster, which includes David Crosby and Lalah Hathaway. “I think it’ll be very cool,” says Bird, who is also excited to see what the outdoor setting will bring out of the performances. “Your environment changes what you play, and I’ve always been interested in that — responding to the environment,” he says, true to his constant shift toward whatever feels right regardless of the precedent.

GroundUp Music Festival. Friday, February 8, through Sunday, February 10, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; Tickets cost $85 to $225 via
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Patricia Cárdenas is a Colombian-American arts and music journalist. She loves '80s pop, bike rides, and thrifting.