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Andrew Bird on stage fright, the Lusitania and his latest, Break It Yourself

A look inside the songwriting process with Andrew Bird.



If you count the records with his former band, Bowl of Fire, Andrew Bird has released nine studio albums, six live albums and six EPs, all in the span of 14 years. That feat doesn't include appearances on dozens of other recordings, including discs by Charlie Louvin and My Morning Jacket; a recent art installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; or his cameo in The Muppets in 2011. The Chicago native is releasing his 10th studio album, Break It Yourself, March 6 and stops at the Uptown this week. The Pitch spent a recent weekday morning chatting with Bird about his new songs, naval history, and how he's a hater of stuffed animals. Sorta.

The Pitch: Do you think your extensive musical training informs your pop-music path, or is it more like everything commingling in your mind all the time?

Bird: I'd say more the latter. The way I started gave me a lot of flexibility. I learned by ear, so everything was kind of like folk music to me in the sense that it was all soaked up, as opposed to the written. I learned music like a language, so that when I hear other languages, I pick them up very quickly, like osmosis. My teachers wouldn't like to hear this, but I was pretty self-taught.

Was it your parents who exposed you early on to music?

It was my mother's idea. She was committed enough that she played violin with me for the first year — just so it wasn't like me against her. She was into it, and that helped a lot.

Was reading as important to you growing up as making music?

I don't know. I was a pretty well-rounded kid until around like 17, when I got really devoted to violin. Before that, I was pretty into everything, you know? Yeah, I would read and write poetry as a teenager. I read a lot on my own. I liked history. I didn't particularly do well in school, but it didn't matter. It was my own stuff.

You weren't really interested in school?

Yeah, I guess I was self-taught in that regard as well. I thought the curriculum was watered down, and I did terribly on test scores and reasonably well in school, but I would just go off and read my own stuff that I was into. A lot of it was better than what they were giving out in school.

Who were some of your favorite authors?

Well, back then in the teenage years, I was into the heavy romantic stuff like Dostoevski, but more in the last 10 years or so I've been into Saul Bellow and Graham Greene. I like novels that have a historical tense so you can hear how people talked in a different time and place. I like dialogue and to hear the vernacular.

Are there any similarities for you in the process of writing prose or lyrics and in writing music? Or is the process entirely different?

No, there are some similarities in the sense that a melody will get under your own skin, and your own idea is just playing in your head. It's kind of like the Top 40 radio station of your own ideas — the ones that really get under your skin are the hits. The same thing happens with words, like a certain phrase will occur to me, and I don't know why, but everything I see around me makes me think of it. I know I have to pay more attention to it. Then I don't know, the dust gathers, you know, more residue with time, and you have more than enough there for a song. So it's similar. It's a little harder to harness the state of mind that you need for the words. The melody will come, barring major disastrous distraction.

You said something a couple of years ago about a line that you had in your head about the Lusitania. Did that finally make its way into one of the new songs?

Yes! Finally. It was a long time coming. That's a good example. That line occurred to me, and I thought, "That's a great line, but what the hell do I do with it?" But like I said, it gathered other ideas like, while thinking of the Lusitania, what else happened that threw the U.S. into international conflict? I think the sinking of the Maine is even a better example of a fabricated — well, I can think of more recent examples, but I felt like staying around the turn of the century with it. The whole idea of laying mines along the shore turned into using naval history as a metaphor for a doomed, codependent relationship.

Who's the woman singing in that song?

That's Annie Clark [St. Vincent]. 

Are you two friends?

I've known Annie for years, and I was just finishing the song up when we were on tour together, so I asked her to sing because the second verse felt like it was a different point of view. She gets the more upbeat point of view. It felt like the static electricity between two people.

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