Listening to Andrew Bird's quiet yet hyper-literate indie-folk, you wouldn't exactly peg him for a hip-hop head. But he says he gets it – and he even sees some of his own songs as having a rapper's flow.
"I can't say my record collection is full of rap, but I like it," the violinist/whistler extraordinaire says, barely above a whisper. "Sometimes I get into a flow in my writing, and it's not too far off [from rap]. Take a song like 'Sovay' [from 2005's Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs]. Everything about that song is gentle and not hip-hop-like, but the rhythm of the lyrics and the way one phrase leads into another, and how the rhymes go over the bar – 'I was getting ready to threaten to be a threat/ instead of thinking about my plan of attack' – it's almost got a rap feel."
Bird sat down backstage at Louisville's Forecastle Festival last weekend, where he opened for fest curators and headliners My Morning Jacket. His 90-minute set was as rock-focused as Bird gets, but toward the end of his set, the band left Bird to man the stage solo with a few of his more delicate songs.
He said he is exposed to hip-hop through his drummer, Martin Dosh, and that he favors the "more underground stuff" like Madlib and MF Doom. In the same breath, Bird praised the lyrical talents of Cass McCombs, Jon Brion and other "middle America" songwriters he thinks are "pretty underrated."
But if he likes his share of hip-hop, his recording method couldn't be more opposed to the posse-filled studio sessions favored by many rappers. For his most recent album, this year's Break It Yourself, Bird recorded in a barn three hours west of his home base in Chicago. The barn is a secluded spot that Bird has owned for most of his solo career (following the 2003 disbanding of his Bowl of Fire), but his use of it isn’t necessarily what he first envisioned.
"I always thought the barn was going to be this social thing, but it turned into this very isolating place where I learned how to make all my music in the last 10 years," he says. "I always imagined that people would come over to the barn and we'd make records. It'd turn into big house party, with people sleeping on the floor. We'd just need to bring someone in to cook and clean.
"I tried to bring people out there from Chicago 10 years ago, but it's tricky. There's no bar, there's no coffee shop, and for super-urbanized people, that can really be unnerving."
After Forecastle, Bird continues his tour in support of Break It Yourself with a backing band (whom he says are in "full rock mode"). Though several festival dates are peppered in, Bird said he wouldn’t want to play the festival circuit.
"It’s such a strange concentration of energy at festivals," he said. "You lose the subtleties."
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