Over the course of his nearly three-decade long career, Andrew Bird has formed a creative process around live performance. Like a comedian trying out new jokes on a crowd, he has often experimented with improvisation and half-finished songs on stage, just to see how they feel with an audience. “It wasn’t that I really wanted anyone’s specific feedback,” Bird said from home in Los Angeles. “Just the sense of some sort of dialogue that was outside of my head is important.”
This trial process echoes Bird’s ongoing fascination with the divide between the internal and the external, and the threshold that transports ideas from one to the other. That concept formed the foundation of Inside Problems, Bird’s latest record, which mostly came to be while the multi-instrumentalist was stuck inside, unable to embark on tour during the height of the pandemic. “During the insomnia that probably a lot of us were dealing with, I was taking those personal demons and putting them to work,” Bird remembered. “I would just lie there and pull up, say, the melody to ‘Underlands,’ and play it back in my head, and then all that chatter in my head was put to some positive cause.”
The result is a record that unapologetically has more questions than answers. “How the hell did you know, when all you know is what you don’t know?” Bird asks on the rollicking but romantic, Lou Reed-inspired track, “The Night Before Your Birthday.” Recorded live with production from Mike Viola and additional vocals from folk rock musician Madison Cunningham, Inside Problems honors the constantly evolving internal self and finds solace in knowing that there is so much hiding underneath the surface that we may never understand. VMP chatted with Bird over the phone to discuss the making of Inside Problems, Joan Didion and the songs he is most looking forward to finally performing live.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VMP: For the new album, when did the writing really begin and what did it start with?
Andrew Bird: The writing probably started close to three years ago, mostly during the pandemic. We started working on it last January. I called up my friend Mike Viola, who produced it, and he did the Jimbo [Mathus] album that I did. His ethos fits with mine. Live takes, analog tape. We had a lot of time to do pre-production. So we got together every week from January through May and rehearsed the band a lot. And then we went into United B room in Hollywood, which is an old classic room from the ’40s and ’50s. Sinatra, Dean Martin, just a lot of great records were made there. High-ceiling room. We could play the four of us, facing each other, with vocals live. Put the drum set like five feet in front of me and I could still hear myself singing with no headphones. We just cut the record in 10 days in May.
Do you remember which songs were the first ones you started writing that started the whole process?
I feel like “Underlands” was sort of the template for the album. That was a melody I wrote, I think, first on guitar. And I thought, “Wow, this would make a really great [score] to a film.” I remember playing it for T Bone Burnett when I was working on True Detective with him. He said the same thing.
I just had a lot of time. Obviously, I wasn’t traveling. My routine that kind of kept me sane during the pandemic was to go through my old catalog of tunes and record a live performance of one of my tunes from the last 25 years. And then do kind of a scrappy solo version and put it up on Instagram and that’s how I’d start my day. Then I’d do various things and end the day on the couch with a guitar working on these new songs. The song writing and having these songs going were very important to my mental health.
When you were playing old songs during the pandemic, did that impact how you were going into writing new songs? Were you ever reminded of something you used to do that was kind of inspiring to you?
It’s hard not to do those old songs and take the sort of retrospective point of view on things. There’s times when you’re supposed to reinvent the wheel and challenge yourself and deconstruct everything. And this didn’t feel like the time to really disrupt things. Over all these years, there’s a specific vernacular that I was becoming aware of, like the way that I’ll do a phrase — the tendencies that become a thing that kind of identify you as a distinct performer.
I remember doing a show with Allen Toussaint years ago. We were talking before the show and he was super nice. He was like, “You got your own thing going on. You got your own sound.” And then he got up there on stage and sat down at the piano in his emerald green suit and was immediately himself. He was immediately just Allen Toussaint and couldn’t be anyone else. That struck me as, like, man, that’s all I want, just to easily inhabit myself on stage. That’s what these songs are designed to be, something that I step on stage and it’s just easy.
They feel like you as a person, as a performer?
Yeah. And it’s hard, not being able to perform live during this time. Performing live while I’m making an album has usually been part of the process, because it reminds me of who I am and what I naturally sound like. On stage, there’s very little pretense in thinking about how you wanna present yourself or anything. That’s why I like to make an album in kind of like a 10-day creative bender of performance, not of making decisions like what kind of reverb you put on the vocal. I don’t like albums that sound like a series of decisions. It should be a performance.
I watched the short film that accompanied the album. Why did you choose to make that?
It’s good to mess with the formats of the traditional music video where you’re lip syncing your song. I’ve always wanted to kind of go off script. People are listening to what you have to say. A lot of times when you stop singing and you just talk, it really can make an impact on people. When I saw Leonard Cohen on his last tour at Radio City Music Hall, after a long, long show of singing, he just stopped and recited a poem. It was the most moving part of the whole show. It’s like when your third grade teacher suddenly breaks from the syllabus and tells you a personal story and everyone’s rapt.
Where did the inspiration strike you to explore the idea of the “moments in between” that you brought up in the film a lot?
Every time I would cross a state line and it says “Welcome to Kentucky,” or whatever, I just feel a shudder go through me, like, “Oh, now I’ve passed through into this other state.” It goes back to games we played as children, like going through portals and into different dimensions. This idea of passing through and being forever changed. It’s just kind of been a constant obsession of sorts. The contented-ness I feel with an internal world, the satisfaction it brings me to just be able to entertain yourself in an airport. If you zone out and can pull out files in your head and kind of tinker with them in moments when other people might play a video game or do whatever it is to pass the time. Going back to when I was living in a barn by myself and making music day in, day out, not talking to anyone and then getting in my car, going on tour by myself and getting on stage. That was the most extreme, stark, example of an internal world direct to an audience.
There are at least two Joan Didion references on this album, one to her actual words on “Atomized” and then “Lone Didion,” which I’m assuming is just kind of word play. What is your relationship with her work and why did it resonate for making this album?
The books on my nightstand during the last three years are gonna end up in my work in some way. The song “Lone Didion,” yeah, it began as word play. I had a melody and at first I was like [sings] Ponce de León for some reason. And I was like, well, I don’t really wanna write a song about Ponce de León. I was reading The Year of Magical Thinking and I was like, oh, Joan Didion. I had to kind of stretch out a vowel to make that work. At the same time, I was reminded of a story. A friend of mine was the maître d’ at this restaurant in New York where Joan Didion and her husband would come in as regulars every Saturday night and order very specific things and very specific drinks. She was working there when [Didion] lost her husband and later her daughter. She didn’t come in for, like, five weeks and then came in once, alone, and ordered the same things. That story really hit me as I was reading her account of that time. When you also have a once-removed anecdote from someone who’s seen that, how can you not address that in what you’re doing? Making an album during a two- or three-year period, you’re taking the things that have struck you or hit you, including your own melodies that have popped into your head. You’re just taking the most important things and organizing them into song form. Sometimes it’s that simple.
What songs are you most looking forward to performing live from this album?
I think “Make a Picture” is gonna be really fun to play live. It’s got some of the elements of “Roma Fade” in the past. “Atomized” is a jam and can be so many things. It’s probably gonna take on a different life live than on that album. The songs that are the least explicit about what they should be, have the fewest chords, tend to be the most interesting live. Because there’s not too much of a blueprint. Still, to this day, I love to do the song “Why?” from 20-some years ago because it’s just a 32-bar groovy jazz ballad. It’s so elastic. It can accommodate the way you feel at that particular moment. That’s what I mean by explicit. There’s not too many instructions to come with it.
In the past, you’ve done exciting duets with St. Vincent and Fiona Apple. I feel like for this album, it’s Madison Cunningham. How did you connect?
I met her probably five or six years ago. I started to hear her on Live From Here, the show that Chris Thile took over from Prairie Home Companion. I was like, wow, what a voice. She’s also a phenomenal guitarist and, for a while, she was in my band as guitarist. I think that was like the most kickass band I’ve ever had. A good chunk of that touring was with Madison opening and then she would play in my band. It is just a really rare thing, that kind of musicianship and vocal control.
I have to ask, your last piece of original work was called My Finest Work Yet, but that’s not the title of this record. Would you consider this your finest work yet?
I mean, I don’t have perspective to comment on that, but people have said that to me, that I should have called this one that. I knew I was prepared for something like that when I called anything “my finest work yet.” “Yet” is the key word. I mean, the last three albums, the titles are very clearly, at least to me, poking fun at myself. You know, Are You Serious, Inside Problems... You get to this many albums and you just have to take that stance. Everyone used to ask, “Is this your definitive work?” That’s why I started just not taking the title seriously.
What is the title Inside Problems specifically poking fun at for you?
Everything could be so simplistically boiled down to a matter of inside and outside problems. It struck me as funny. To me, it’s like, “So, what’s going on with you?” “Oh, I’ve got these inside problems.” It’s specifically the kind that are inside, you know? That’s my twisted sense of humor, I guess.
Natalia Barr is a music and culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, Interview Magazine, Consequence of Sound, and Crack Magazine. Find her on social media @nataliabarr_.