Before gigs, Andrew Bird paces. His head twitches slightly. He gets superstitious, too: On past tours, Bird felt he had to drink an espresso exactly 90 minutes before showtime and misspell certain song titles in a blocky script when he wrote out a set list. "For a while I spelled the song 'Measuring Cups' as 'Measurink Kups,' " he says. "I told myself, 'If I don't do these things, I'll have a bad show.'"
Bird's peculiarities extend to his music: The 35-year-old Chicago native is a classical-trained violinist who writes lyrics that refer to arcane subjects like mitosis and Cypriots; likes to whistle both onstage and on record; and can compose nearly complete songs in his head, often while driving.
On his newest — and prettiest — album, Noble Bcast, Bird leans heavily on his handsome croon and the meticulously arranged string parts. The songs range from simple folk to chamber music to wonkier stuff- including "Not a Robot, but a Ghost," which sounds like a jazz quintet doing a Radiohead impression. The sound isn't a huge departure from his earlier, ornate albums, but the material is less dense and more pastoral; he sounds less afraid of gorgeous, slow-moving melodies. The result is Bird's most tuneful and accessible album yet — and one that could significantly increase his fan base.
Noble Beast, his sixth solo album, is getting roughly twice the marketing push his last one got. His label even worked out a deal to sell the album at Target.
Bird cut Noble Beast mostly in Nashville but also at the Chicago loft owned by his hometown buddies in Wilco. Bird broke up with a longtime girlfriend while working on Beast and put in marathon recording sessions he calls "four-day benders." Much of that time was spent keeping Beast direct and concise. "That requires repression, but in a good way," Bird says. "I'm still driven by the idea of writing a song that's gonna get everybody singing."
"This album feels airy and full of space, which I like," says Bird's buddy Jim James of My Morning Jacket, with whom Bird toured in the earlier part of this decade. "Andrew's a complex motherfucker, and no one else sounds like him."
In person, Bird is usually soft-spoken and ruminative. Although he can be wryly funny, he allows that he's "a pretty classic introvert." During lunch, he mentions that James — at whose New York apartment Bird is currently crashing — gave him some advice about dealing with demanding people on tour: " 'Just rememberthe windshield wipers,' "says Bird, quoting James and waving his middle fingers back and forth. "Know when to say, 'Fuck everybody.' " Then, as if realizing he could never pull off that kind of behavior, Bird chuckles and adds, "I guess that's not my style."
Bird's rise has been slow and not exactly steady. The son of an artist and art-therapist mother and a father who worked in finance, Bird grew up in a Chicago suburb, a few blocks from Lake Michigan. He was a loud kid who sang for strangers he met in elevators — until age five, when he suddenly became very-quiet. His shyness landed him in special education. "I was put in super-remedial classes with troubled kids, even though I was reading at a high level," Bird says. Music was an outlet. He studied violin and ended up with a music scholarsliip to Northwestern University.
Bird took on random gigs after graduating. He played with the retro-swing band Squirrel NutZippers at the time of their 1997 hit single "Hell" and took a job as a knave fiddle player at a Wisconsin renaissance fair, where he dressed in a floppy hat and blousy shirt and played jigs and reels for Dungeons & Dragons fans waiting to use the bathroom. Inspired by folk, jazz and swing records, he formed Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire in 1997.
Bird made three jazz-influenced albums with Bowl of Fire, but by 2002 the band was playing to dwindling crowds. Bird responded by breaking up the group and adopting what he calls "guerrilla tactics" — acting as a one-man touring operation. He did solo gigs with My Morning Jacket, Ani Di Franco and loads of other artists. After the shows he would run his own merchandise booth.
The shows highlighted Bird's uniqueness: He would often begin a set by filling his lungs with air and holding a long whistled note until the crowd stopped talking and paid attention. Once they did, they saw a guy singing strangely pretty folk tunes while handling a violin, a guitar, a glockenspiel and a looping machine. Still, the solo tours were a grind: Bird would pull hairs out of his legs to stay awake. "One time I fell on my ass at a pub in Newcastle," says Bird, who nowadays performs both solo and backed by two bandmates. "I was just too tired to stand."
Around that time, Bird moved from Chicago to his family's farm in rural Illinois. There, while taking time off from touring, he recorded two solo albums. "I read about all these artists in Paris getting their little country studio," says Bird. "I didn't want to be just another urban-dwelling twentysomething." By the time he made 2003's Weather Systems, he had stumbled onto his signature sound — orchestral folk spiked with touches of Latin swing and other left-field elements. "I hear glimpses of tango, Debussy and Radiohead in Andrew's music," says Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. "But he's got his own voice."
By 2005, the size of the crowds at Bird's shows had mushroomed. Last summer, he played for 13,000 in Chicago's Millennium Park. The massive hometown show went well, thanks in part to Oprah. "She had done a special about the Olympics that day and left these huge TV screens up i n the park," Bird says. "We got to use them for our show."
Today, Bird has the flu. After lunch, he treats it with a hot toddy, followed by a glass of Maker's Mark. He fears his rigorous schedule — which includes gigs at Carnegie Hall and on Letterman, and a tour that runs through April — will somehow land him in the hospital. HE fears he'll play shows in which nothing special happens, nothing to differentiate one night from the last. Of course, he also fears not being in front of the crowds. "I'm afraid of downtime, honestly," he says. "The fact that people come out of their houses and are coming together in a communal way for me . . . that's pretty cool."