Outside of the greats, not many artists find themselves asking new questions over a quarter of a century into their recorded career. Platitudes are usually a preordained symptom of the lesser-known reverse of second album syndrome: the maudlin vicennial malady. But Andrew Bird still eagerly catches the worm, defies the comfort of laurels, and comes up with new tricks. Most of all, his passion is self-evident. Why wouldn’t it be? Making music is pretty much a miracle – and that isn’t even flatulent – and Bird is still making some of the most beauteous around. His forthcoming album, Inside Problems, is a testimony of that.
“It’s not easier and it’s not harder,” Bird tells me mirthfully musing on his current creative process. “I have made albums where I have thrown the completely mixed final drafts in the trash and started over so I’m not at that point anymore. This one was recorded in ten days. It took about three years to write, and maybe four months of band rehearsals. It was relatively easy.”
While that process sounds like a lot of work, Bird’s declaration that it was “relatively easy” is not a paradox—this much is clear from the cathartic sound of the music itself and the evident joie de vivre with which he approaches it. “I had a lot of time and not much chatter to keep the personal daemons from getting in there in the middle of the night, so I ended up just trying to put them to work,” Bird says of the therapeutic process of making the album. “It was helpful to have these songs to organise these spiralling voices that are driving me crazy.”
It’s a record that orders the detritus swirling beneath the night-sweats. Creatively he mops his brow—art itself will do that. And as ever with Bird, he thinks the final process of snatching this excision on vinyl, should be reflective of the flowing boon in the first place. “I was trying to record it outside and that would’ve been hard,” he explains. “Some dude with a woodchipper could really throw a wrench in things.”
Nevertheless, the naturalistic feel still presides. “I think studios and modern recording is all about control and kind of taking away the environment so you can control it in post. So, even when I do go into the studio, I try to avoid that control. I like there to bleed between the instruments and the vocals. I like to keep it a performance,” he adds.
Continuing: “That flow is what I like to hear in the recordings that I like, a sense that something is really being made and it’s in the moment, not just a bunch of decisions being made in post which is always like ‘What kind of reverb should we put on the vocal?’ and you get vocals chopped up from 60 different takes. I can always hear that when I’m listening to an album, and it turns me off. So, when I hear something I love like Lee Scratch Perry where something is way too loud but it’s so right, everything is bold and messed up and that stuff excites me to hear.”
The further cases Bird lists are examples of his keen eye for sloppy human details. “On that song ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T & the M.G.’s, Steve Cropper’s guitar comes in for a solo. It’s drowned in reverb and then all of a sudden, the engineer pulls it down to zero because he’s like, ‘Oh crap that’s too much reverb’ and it goes completely dry for no reason. That is just evidence – in a world that is so auto-tuned and fixed – that there are human beings behind it,” he adds.
Bird captures that feel without ever forcing it. After all, he is a top rate musician, and his band rehearsed the record for months. He’s not gunning for distortion on his records, that would be manufactured, he’s aiming for flow. I wagered that there is a kinship there between Inside Problems and Big Thief’s recent rollicking record, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. “I am a big fan of that album and I recognise a similar ethos,” Bird happily agrees. “That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s just live for the most part. Obviously, there are decisions being made but you can tell they’re just kind of going with it.”
But as previously mentioned, Bird is somewhat of a virtuoso and he knows that music follows rules too. Thus, with structures in place, he joyously relishes in the poetic in-betweens, the lyrical songwriting nooks and crannies that suit the introspection of the album’s theme. “If someone said, ‘Hey I need a song about X, Y & Z, and I need it 45 minutes, I could do it,” he wagers, “and it might be as good as anything on this album, I don’t know, but these songs took an incredible amount of time for them to come together.”
Adding: “Every song is its own world. Every song could be an album. The ideas that have emerged from them could be expanded into a 45-minute album, but I’ve been trying to fold them into a three and half minute song. To make an album that warrants repeated listens every moment has to have occupied your mental real estate for a long time. And then it comes down to the way you make it too, you have to do things that give it as much value as possible.”
So, with that in mind, Bird went as close to live as he could. “If I focus on choices too much in the studio, I kind of forget who I am and lose my compass. I have to keep it as though I’m performing on stage. It has to move quickly; I can’t stand to consider whether a mic is placed in the right spot. I have to get in there and get out.”
This also meant that the inspirations were vague and more introspective. “At the beginning, I was referencing a lot of Nick Drake stuff, but in the end, it didn’t sound anything like that. We tried but it was just like why are we even trying when we’re going to end up going off-script anyway,” he explains.
Thus, with a free reign to forage his own psyche the gems he is looking for are little individualistic poetic ones—the ones that spring forth naturally rather than ushering your muse down an ethereal Drake alley. This reality has dawned all the sharper with continual creative pursuits. “Over the years I think I’m clearer about what I like in a song and what I want to say vocally. I spend a tremendous amount of time honing these lyrics,” he says.
Philosophically adding in a broader poetic sense: “The trick is to say as much as possible without being explicit—without being matter of fact, just poetic detail. My favourite songs are the ones that have one or two words that bring it all home. They’re usually kind of ambiguous and strange.”
Then filling in the blanks in a strange act of kismet I mentioned I’d just listened to a classic by his old pal who is a great proponent of the expressive poetic vagaries of life, and upon mention of his name Bird exclaims, “Exactly, like Jonathan Richman’s ‘Summer Feeling’ when he talks about the girl with the dirty ankles on the playground flirting with him. That is all I’m trying to do as a songwriter—find the girl with the dirty ankles.”
“You’re just trying to write about the things that keep coming back into your consciousness,” he adds. “Those things that seem important to you and you’re not even sure why yourself—those things that just keep sticking in your head or get triggered by something sensory. For some reason, for years when I would get into a taxi in New York and I would smell that certain air freshener, I would always hear a certain melody. It happened so much I thought I’ve got to write a song with this melody.”
The whims that swirl and flow throughout the filtered guizer of Inside Problems are proof that a switched-on psyche will always be ready to heed these pinecone smells and scruffy ankles. Bird opines they always will: “Songwriting for me, at this stage, is not a discipline it is just an inevitability of being alive.”