Andrew Bird on his songwriting process and his approach to improvising using loops

Categories: Interviews

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Chicago-based singer-songwriter Andrew Bird (performing tonight at the Arvada Center for Arts and Humanities and tomorrow evening at Chautauqua Auditorium) says that since he's been writing music there's always a healthy conflict between brevity and indulgence.

On one hand, Bird knows all about crafting short, near perfect pop songs, but with his most recent effort, the instrumental album Useless Creatures, Bird took a more sprawling, ambient approach where songs run a bit longer. We spoke with Bird recently about making the album, his approach to songwriting and improvising with loops.

Westword: Can you tell me about making Useless Creatures?

Andrew Bird: It seemed like the last couple of records that were songwriting-oriented with lyrics and everything were just getting more and more focused on that, which is a noble pursuit, but sometimes there's so much jamming that goes into generating these ideas that ends up on the cutting room floor. I wanted to devote a whole record to those ideas, because before I started writing songs, I was a fiddle player and into my instrument. Sometimes it's good to just check in with that side of my musicality.

Yeah, it was a lot of fun to make. It was a fairly easy and effortless to make compared to the songwriting records. That doesn't mean it's... You start to equate hard you work or how difficult something is with how good it is. But sometimes you get some really good stuff off the cuff like that.

With the songwriter material, has that been hard or a challenge at times?

The challenges are different. I kind of enjoyed that for a while, having to be concise and having to become ruthless with your editing in service of the song. Everything kind of ends up being, "Okay, is what I'm doing here like making a song better?" And it's a very different approach than the instrumental stuff. Your attention span is completely different as a human being using their mouth.

Like when someone is trying to engage you in conversation and your attention span changes, and you're trying to process the narrative of that person. But when it's instrumental music, you can just relax and just let it wash over you and not be so intent judging it, necessarily. You can just let it be.

I've done this before with Weather Systems. It kind of served that purpose as Useless Creatures. It kind of diffused the pressure of trying to write those three-minute songs. My process doesn't always conform to the industry cycle of putting out a record with twelve songs every two or three years.

As you can see across several records, you might hear a similar theme pop up over three records, like for instance, what started off as "I" became "Imitosis." So there are, like, these themes that are very fertile for improvisation and they generate more ideas than any record can contain.

And it's just like some little riff that gives you ultimate freedom with what goes on top of it. Those are the songs that I tend to do every night just because they give me that freedom. I don't really play jazz music anymore but I'm coming from that mentality. I just happen to be writing pop songs.

Didn't you grow up listening to jazz and classical?

I kind of grew up playing classical music, and then I discovered jazz when I was like eighteen or nineteen, especially the early stuff from the '30s and '40s. I was into so much stuff, it's hard to say where I'm coming from. Sometimes it feels like I'm a folk musician that's into oral traditions, where everything gets passed around by ear, and that feels natural to me.

Other times it's that restlessness of the kind of sophisticated jazz where you're never quite satisfied to just play the melody the same way twice. I sort of synopsize it like this: I grew up playing classical music, so those are my roots and sometimes the themes that come out of me, but I have nothing to do with the classical culture.

When you play live, there's usually room for improvisation. Do you see approaching your live shows as a jazz player might?

Interview continues on the next page.

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