by Dan Reilly
If Andrew Bird's new albumAre You Serioussounds a bit less playful or whimsical than his previous records, it's for good reason: The singer-songwriter-violinist has more "real, visceral" things going on in his life. He and his wife had a son just before she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. While dealing with that, they were forced out of their New York City apartment by Hurricane Sandy, leading them to pack up and move to Los Angeles. On the way there, they stopped by the Bird family farm in Illinois, where his pent-up frustrations and vulnerabilities spilled out into the songs that make upSerious. We caught up with the 42-year-old to find out more about the album, the records he and his son love, why he relates to comedians and how he approaches this new type of autobiographical songwriting.
VMP: You've said the nameAre You Seriousa running joke that you'd use as a working title for your last four or five albums. Why did you choose it now? Was it a way of saying "Are you serious?" after having a few years of hard times and bad luck?
Andrew Bird: Yeah. I like titles that have many possible readings. You get so many different inflections on that line. It was that and it goes way back to the mid '90s when I would go out to see music in Chicago. I was trying to make sense of the indie scene at that time, coming out of conservatory and being an over-trained musician trying to comprehend a scene that made a point of being as untrained as possible. Also, it's about a lot of stuff I would see, very raw emotion with music that's raw and dark, the sort of dark-on-dark thing I would play with when I was in music school. I would be reading this romantic German poetry that Schumann had set to music or whatever and I'd think,Man, these guys have no sense of humor to save their life. And I would see this sort of dark-on-dark opening a vein, and I was a bit incredulous, like, "Are you serious? This is heavy. If you're serious, okay. All right, but how do you do this night after night and not hate yourself?" I was fascinated by it. That started becoming, "Are you serious? Are those the 12 songs you think is going to be the next record?" Now it mostly means, "What's the role of sincerity in music?" What do people really want from their pop songs? Do you want someone who has clearly suffered for it and it's this autobiographical thing or where's the room for irreverence that seems to be in every other art form except for songwriting?
VMP: Did you find yourself fighting to keep some of the humor in your writing?
AB: No, that almost got lost. It got very dark. I was writing new songs during that time and actually in a way sort of compartmentalizing them or repressing them. I felt like I went into laying down these songs with a lot more intent to say something I needed to say or I celebrate something I needed to celebrate. Songs like "Puma" [about his wife's radiation treatments] are chronicling very dark times but it's also a celebration, as the music implies. "Valleys of the Young," the final verse gets super dark. I felt the need to be provocative in that song because it's tackling an issue where a lot of younger people don't want to look.
VMP: Is "Valleys of the Young" about a specific incident?
AB: It's based on something that happened when we were making [2012's]Break It Yourself. It's based on a true story that happened in the middle of that session to someone in the band and their family. I can't go into detail without jeopardizing their privacy but it's the idea of two elderly parents going to tend to a middle-aged son who's attempted suicide. The idea I'm trying to get across in the chorus is that our hearts are constantly breaking, the idea that when you have a child your heart will be at risk of being broken. Even the joys are tinged with a sort of heartbreak. It's a glorious thing. The idea that getting married and starting a family implies settling or complacency couldn't be farther from the truth as far as my experiences go.
VMP: How do you approach writing more autobiographical songs while still trying to protect the people you love?
AB: It's a funny irony that once you actually find the people you want to spend the rest of your life with and want to protect, it also creates this confidence and solid footing you want to celebrate and talk about, so then you run the risk of exposing your privacy. I don't come from a background of sharers, so what a funny profession I find myself in. I'm still figuring it out. It's kind of a minefield, but songs like "Puma," that chorus, it lays it out there pretty bluntly. I had some doubts about it.
VMP: You've also toured with comedians. Which ones have opened for you?
AB: Eugene Mirman. I've done a lot of shows with Zack Galifianakis, Jenny Slate and a bunch of folks at Largo [the club in Los Angeles]. I identify with comedians more than I do with other musicians, sometimes. The posture that they take onstage makes a lot of sense to me and I do a similar thing. They just come out there with a microphone. They're completely naked and they have to be vulnerable and hilarious and irreverent and personal, and I'm fascinated by that dynamic. To follow a comedian as a musician points out some of the weird expectations we have of songwriters. It's like, no matter how funny or twisted or irreverent the song I've written is, it still comes off way more sincere. You're following someone who's making a joke about ordering pizza. The assumption is like, "He's singing about heartbreak, or his precious thoughts and feelings." You feel a little ridiculous but I like that.
VMP: What were you listening to while recording this album that might have had an influence on it?
AB: I was listening to a lot of Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and then my steady diet of Brazilian, Jorge Ben and Caetano Veloso, and West African, Ghanian and Malian music, a lot of Nuyorican soul and New Orleans stuff, Allen Toussaint productions and Meters. More humid jams. I snap up almost everything by Analog Africa. Those reissues are phenomenal -- great-sounding vinyl, really well mastered. They're digging deep for stuff. There's a whole record of West African music played in Colombia. There's some really interesting cross pollination. A lot of Studio One dub stuff. I just love the way that stuff was recorded, the bass, the drums, the percussion. There's two volumes of Angolan music from the '60s and '70s, which I listen to more than anything. That's all about the vinyl. I don't ever get tired of that stuff.
VMP: What's on your turntable at home right now?
AB: Probably the Vince Guaraldi TrioPeanutsalbum. My son, it's his favorite record. He likes to play the Charlie Brown theme.
VMP: Did he get into it through the cartoons?
AB: He likes the cartoon. He's a little too excited how horrible they are to each other. You don't really realize how violentPeanutsis. Someone's always getting bonked on the head, so yeah, we stick with the record.