Progress Report

Progress Report: Andrew Bird

Today we check in with Chicago singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist behind 2007’s wonderful Armchair Apocrypha.

NAME: Andrew Bird
PROGRESS REPORT: Noble Beast out on January 27 (Fat Possum), written and recorded in Nashville (“but also in like five different studios”), including the Wilco loft in Chicago.

Chicago’s Andrew Bird is sometimes as anachronistic as his music. Eschewing newfangled songwriting aids as notebooks and tape-recorders (and, I’m guessing, that new iPhone four track recorder), Bird wrote songs for Noble Beast the same way he’s always made records, by letting melodies simmer in his brain, chewing on words until they mean something, putting down ideas only when they’re ready. Making Noble Beast was another mysterious production: “It’s liquid, gaseous ideas flowing around in your head, and really it’s up to you to wave the wand and say ‘Now it’s a song,'” he says. “Not that it’s a bunch of random shit. It’s just that moment that you decide something exists.”

On the other hand there’s he had lots of non-magical help. As on 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, Minneapolis musician Dosh contributes drum loops, and Atlanta’s Kelly Hogan sings background along with Bird (he says singing with yourself is “fundamentally wrong,” though it’s mostly a little creepy, like Seal). Hogan’s voice has a sultry, country tinge to it, which fits Noble Beast well. Bird says he listened to stuff like Kris Kristofferson while recording in Memphis, and The Everly Brothers’ butterscotch harmonies were the inspiration for the LP’s production. Noble Beast is woodier, drier, and less electric than Armchair Apocrypha, though it’s not really a country album. “The way I characterize it or visualize it is kind of a steamy, mossy, fecund sort of rainforest,” Bird says. “Not like a tropical rainforest. More of a, uh, Pacific Northwestern rainforest.” Bird really does use words like fecund out loud (for comparison, I don’t think I’ve said “eschewing” out loud before), and so the multisyllabic words that dot his lyrics aren’t that unbelievable. Take these lines from “Natural Disaster“:

No peace in the valleys
Malarial alleys
Where the kittens have pleurisy
Donning our goggles
Valerian ogles
To see microscopically
A colony of dermestids
Undressed and digested
A grey spotted owl
And a wolf with the lung disease

Bird says he didn’t flip through the thesaurus for his songs, instead he heard words and asked friends for what they thought a word means, and then took into account its real and imagined meanings. Album standout “Nomenclature” is a good example: “I really love that word, rhythmically. If you take out the, everything but the rhythm: ‘nomenclature.’ Da da da da,” he says, letting his voice drop on each syllable. “But I think I have a healthy distrust of words. The whole pretense of writing a song with lyrics is just opens up the possibility for ingenuine things. A melody is pure. Lyrics can be corrupted.” So Bird’s releasing an album of instrumentals just after Noble Beast. Maybe that record will resist the evil seduction of words.

If there’s a band you want Progress Report to drag out of the studio, or bed, for an update, shout out in the comments or e-mail [email protected].