For more than a decade, singer-violinist Andrew Bird made small, perfectly crafted albums for a small, devoted audience. "I remember going to shows in the mid-Nineties where everything sounded like, 'Fuck you, this is my guitar, and it's too loud, and it sounds really crappy, and it's out of tune,'" says the 38-year-old, who is about to release his sixth album, Break It Yourself. "Lyrically, it was a lot of 'You screwed me over.' I remember thinking, 'Are you serious? How can you do this every night and mean it?'"
So no one was as surprised as Bird when, in 2009, he swept through the chamber-pop door kicked open by bands like Arcade Fire. Noble Beast, his fifth solo album, sold 159,000 copies; he spent the next year singing his strange, pretty tunes at festivals and in huge rooms from Milwaukee to Shanghai. "It's a weird existence," he says, killing time before a photo shoot in New York. "You play the show, you empty yourself, and afterward you're like, 'Where are my friends?'"
The 165-date tour kicked off in the wake of a brutal breakup. If Bird thought the road would help, he was wrong: By the end, the sensitive, introverted singer was often performing with a fever and limping from an onstage heel injury. "I think he just ran himself ragged," says bassist Mike Lewis. "He'd had a relationship change — that wasn't a small thing. Being out and busy can be a false escape — because all that shit's just waiting for you. As soon as you're not busy anymore, it's all there."
When the tour wrapped in 2010, Bird relocated from his hometown of Chicago to Venice, California, to recuperate. "Those years between when Noble Beast came out and up until about a year ago were pretty dark times," says Bird. "I was gutted, empty, burnt out. It was about relationships — feeling like you'd done such a good job of being self-sufficient that you're invulnerable, but also desolate."
He got into a routine of biking on the boardwalk and writing his most personal songs ever — mostly leaving behind the elliptical lyrics about science and ancient history that packed his earlier LPs. "There are lines on this record that I had declared to myself I'd never use," he says. "I'm like, 'Screw it, just say it.'"
By the end of that summer, Bird had enough songs to start an album and brought his band members — Lewis, multi-instrumentalist Martin Dosh and guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker — to his family's 400-acre Illinois farm. Staying up late in the studio he built in a century-old barn, they bashed out the bulk of the loose, confessional Break It Yourself.
These days, Bird — who married designer Katherine Tsina in 2010 and recently became a father — is a lot less miserable. "I've had a couple of moments where I'm like, 'Holy shit, I feel like I'm getting better at life,'" Bird says. Adds Lewis, "It's almost night and day. He's elevated beyond the sea of shit that he was dealing with in those two years." In March, Bird begins a 23-city tour. "It's going to be hard," he says. "But I'm excited. I know what I'm in for."