Break It Yourself
An Interview with Andrew Bird
By Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family
Congratulations, Andrew, on the new record! The many instruments and voic- es on this album glide in and out of the music so naturally that it’s easy to imagine the recording took place in some hypnagogic state in which the entire band was completely attuned to the music of the spheres. Who else plays on the record? Was it all as effortless as it sounds?
This is the first time I’ve trusted a group of musicians to just play what they hear and use our collective instincts. The session that yielded this record was to be no more than a week-long rehearsal. I wanted to show my band these new songs and give us all time and space to feel them out. My long time collaborator Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on gui- tar and Mike Lewis on bass and tenor came down from Minneapolis. These guys are not mere axemen, they are singular musicians and a total pleasure to be around. We had our front of house engineer Neal Jensen bring his old Tascam 8-track tape machine and Yamaha board (nothing fancy) out to my barn. We rolled tape as we were learning the songs and to our surprise we started nailing the songs by the second take. I think we got a rough, unfussy honesty in this session. A mix of distilled, grounded songs and some wild soloing. This is not the carefully crafted, one-layer-at- a-time puzzle that recording/producing often turns into. This is just musi- cians playing together in a room.
Your violin has many voices—some as delicate as fine porcelain and others as harsh as howling wind. As a musician do you feel like a medium in a dark room calling out to the spirits?
I think the “I am just a vessel through which music passes” idea is suspect. I do think the melody itself can be inhabited by the musician, but they have to be in sync with one another. That’s why I’d usually rather play a new idea that’s been in my head all day rather than the single from the new record.
In the song “Eyeoneye” you sing, “No one can break your heart so you break it yourself.” Do we need our hearts broken? Do aching hearts sing more sweetly just as those mythic violin bows carved from the bones of drowned beauties were said to make the most dulcet tones?
Well, I think it might be impossible to break one’s own heart but I thought it was worth bringing up as a possibility. We all know that massaging your own shoulders or cutting your own hair doesn’t feel the same as when someone else does it. The idea that one’s heart has to be broken so that one can know love and therefore have lived, that’s sort of a back- ward way of going at life.
“Eyeoneye” started when I was having trouble sleeping on tour. Every time I thought about my own eyes they would strain as if they were trying to see themselves (not a pleasant feeling). This got me thinking about other feedback loops in nature, like a teratoma—a kind of tumor thatcopies other cells in the body like hair and teeth, causing one’s immune system to freak out and attack the good teeth and hair cells. If one could break one’s own heart it probably wouldn’t go much better than this. As to whether broken hearts sing sweeter, I’d say no—music is more often an overflowing of joy for me even when the content is sadness or rage.
In “Danse Caribe” a calypso wave of steel drums happily follows your violin as you sing about “mistaking clouds for mountains.” Did you spend months in rags on a deserted beach to write this song or can you write about triumphing over fear and loneliness while rushing through a crowded airport with a rolling bag?
Nothing inspires fear and loneliness like a crowded airport. The island is kind of a theme. Are we all basically alone or are we all connected? This song comes from a story my mom tells about me exiling my stuffed ani- mals from my crib when I was 15 months old in a declaration of autono- my. It seems the conclusion I’ve reached through nine records worth of songs that deal with this issue of autonomy is that it’s over-rated. I’ll take the comfort of others even if it’s an illusion of security.
In “Give It Away” the music circles between sweetness and dissonance, between a lover’s tryst in the hay and a dark den for asphyxiation. Are beau- tiful songs like rays of light, their colors only fully revealed as they fall across dark valleys?
“Give It Away” is a funny song about feeling as if you’ve taken everything and thrown it into a black hole and the clarity that comes from being so desolate. I wrote this after a show in Belgium where I felt like I had given the last piece of myself to a cold audience. In the van to the airport hotel was when I saw those clouds that looked like mountains in the moonlight and I started laughing. It asks if that energy one gives to an audience or a person is a finite resource.
“Hole in the Ocean Floor” is a lush 8-minute descent that warps and sways as we reach the farthest depths and yet is blissful and expansive even as it plum- mets. “Near Death Experience” is a tango danced in the cockpit of a crashing airplane. Where do we end up when songs lead us in two directions at once?
That friction between the tone of the music and what the lyrics are saying creates the humor and melancholy that helps us deal with it all. If it’s dark on dark my eyes glaze over or I think “are you serious?” In fact, that’s what I was thinking of calling this record, I guess because the songs got into a personal territory that, dare I say, are almost confessional, and that naturally makes me a bit uncomfortable.
What about the instrumental number, “Behind the Barn”? Are there some things that can only be said without words?
Once someone opens their mouth to sing our expectations and attention span changes. We expect a story. I also think the listener needs a break in a record that is relentlessly from a single person’s point of view.
“Lusitania” and “Fatal Shore” both reference historical tragedies but are ulti- mately about the pain of a broken heart. Must we know the horrors of history before we can fully appreciate the beauty of a single heartbeat?
Remember Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Castaway” being devas- tated by the loss of his surrogate friend, a soccer ball crudely resemblinga human head? The answer is no, it can happen in a near vacuum. I just thought the sinking of the Lusitania and the Maine were both incidents in naval history that drew the U.S into conflict. When the song is finished you can say it’s a metaphor for a wounded codependent relationship, for example.
In “Orpheo Looks Back” it’s easy to wonder—can a song itself be lost if we ponder it too closely? Orpheus’s beautiful music led him to be torn apart, his severed head thrown into a river. Are you comforted or cautioned by the knowledge that Orpheus kept singing even as his head floated away from his body?
Hmmm. Floating heads? Desert islands? Floating soccer ball heads? Tom Hanks?
As for pondering a song too closely, it doesn’t concern me. Take your song with the Handsome Family “Don’t be Scared”—there’s this guy named Paul who is all alone at home staring out the window and the phone rings just once late at night like a bird calling out reassuring him that he’s not alone. No amount of pondering is going to demystify this song. This song always reminds me how little needs to be said to draw in the listener and stoke their imagination.
The last song, “Belles,” is mostly bells, crickets and violin. Gradually the music fades until we are left amid a chorus of crick- ets. It’s a mysteriously hopeful way to end a record—expansive as a room with all the windows suddenly opened, but also tinged with longing for the music that has faded away. Is this what it feels like to break your own heart open?
I’ll let you know if/when I’m successful.