Over a two-decade career, Andrew Bird has had two constants in his life, his delightful whistle and his inventive violin playing.
“You don’t practice your scales, you don’t do your work, but you’re musical and you have a nice … tone,” Andrew Bird recalls with a chuckle.
It’s the kind of backhanded compliment his music teachers would give to encourage the young, presumably headstrong, violin player to stay focused as he was developing his musical chops.
The American songwriter credits learning violin by the Suzuki method for making him the musician he is today, that is, starting with kids when they’re young, “when the brain is malleable”, and teaching them by ear, as one would learn a language.
“And, it’s exactly the kind of musician I’ve remained,” Bird explains. “When I hear other musical languages, I understand the accent, I don’t always understand the meaning at first but I understand the inflections and I can absorb them right away. Little nuances of a Swedish fiddle playing, to Thai music or South Indian music, I hear the inflections right away and I can play them right away.”
There’s another fundamental element to his music-making arsenal that adds to his unique sonic capabilities: his crisp and versatile whistle.
“When melodies come to me they escape via whistle, it’s like an escape valve for melodies,” he says.
“Without an instrument in your hand there’s no geometry to it, it’s a pure form of that melody you hear in your head and I find, before I pick up an instrument, the melody tends to be more unusual. Once I pick up an instrument, the geometry starts to impose on it, it starts to fit into the eight-bar phrase, so I just try to keep it in that state for as long as possible ... it’s more of a gaseous state … you get an instrument and the concrete starts to dry.”
As an artist most intrigued by the pure states of sound, it comes as no surprise that he listens to music "never for the narrative but for the melody, and little tiny moments of a combination of vowels and syllables and melody”.
“Often times if I’ve stood back and said, ‘What is the songwriter saying?’ I’ve totally misunderstood it anyway … so I was rarely curious about what the songwriter was trying to say. I was just entranced by tone really and resonance,” Bird says.
That’s not to say Andrew Bird’s music is devoid of narrative intrigue. His songs, particularly from current release Are You Serious, are perhaps his most intimate and direct yet. But there was one important Townes Van Zandt song that prompted him to question his mindset as an artist and his approach to his song craft.
“It was one of the rare times that what the songwriter was saying, I was like ‘Oh wow he’s writing about my life’ and I realised, ‘is that the way people listen to music?’" he says.
"I mean people want different things from their music, there’s no right answer to that, but you do become aware of your tendencies and you do want to keep improving and doing better work and in that sense, you’re aware of your audience. And I start to question ‘Am I too much in my head with this? Am I too much in that vacuum?’
It was a valuable opportunity for Andrew Bird to take stock and even though he’s still mulling over the question he resolves that “oftentimes when I follow my whims and my curiosities it seems to find people who’re also curious”.
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Christine Anu on Don't Look Back.