By Mark Guarino
Ghostly whistling opens Andrew Bird’s newest album while a choir of fiddles flutter away like birds. Then a guitar is slowly fingered, picking up the tempo, leading to his opening lyric. “Then it was dusk in Illinois,” he murmurs. You swear you can see stalks of corn, swaying in a field. In just a few moments, Bird has set the mood for a lonely Midwestern night where, sitting under the stars, the most miniscule sounds are music.
This intoxicating album was conceived, naturally, on a farm in the tiny town of Elizabeth, Ill. (pop. 650) in the Northwest corner of the state near the Mississippi River. Bird moved there a year ago, settling into a family farm that today raises mostly soybeans, cows and corn. His parents live in town a few miles away. Living alone, he converted the 1890s barn into a recording studio. His daily routine consists of getting up, making coffee, selecting a couple of eggs from the chickens, cooking up an omelet and then getting to the music. In other words, a world apart from his former apartment on Chicago’s North Side.
“It is extreme, I must admit,” he said recently. “But the things I got out of it have been totally valuable.”
“Weather Systems” (Grimsey Records) is the result of the change. The opening song takes its lyric from “First Song,” a poem by Pulitzer Prize winner Galway Kinnell. It imagines three boys making music in the corn, one boy waking his “heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.” The Zen-like isolation of rural life, at once beautiful and sad, permeates these nine songs. Bird’s violin is recorded so it sounds like a lush string quartet. Other times, it twists into an exotic dance. On “Skin,” an electric guitar and drums bustle together a rhythm while his fiddle and whistle sew a melody above. The romantic detachment in his voice is similar to Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. The album’s landscape is patched together through short interludes, lively melodies and mysterious textures.
It’s a far distance from the days Bird was a touring fiddler for swing music revisionists Squirrel Nut Zippers. He joined the group after graduating Northwestern in 1995 where he studied classical violin. He soon got his own record deal with Rykodisc, which released three albums. While the first two were also flavored in hot jazz, the third album, “The Swimming Hour” from 2001, was an ambitious push in a more contemporary pop and soul music direction.
“With the first two records I thought ‘I like that music, I want to write songs in that style’. That’s how I got started. Instead of moving into the next style, I wanted to move into a different way of thinking about music,” he said.
Instead of following conventional song structure, Bird started thinking of music that wasn’t exactly complete but instead had the capability to “fade in and out” and reoccur throughout the record as a theme. “I’m always restricting myself from developing certain themes and ideas instrumentally because (before) I was mainly concerned with writing really effective songs that keep solos short and instrumentals short,” he said. “But oftentimes I have more to say than I think I do. I thought that I’d like to indulge these themes and stretch them out a bit.”
The new songs stick to the average song length but they blend together so that the entire 34-minute album becomes one complete piece.
Escaping the apartment life helped Bird create “a more open sound,” as well. He created the demos in the barn, inviting Chicago singer Nora O’Connor out to Elizabeth to sing harmonies as well as long-time drummer Kevin O’Donnell. Instead of recording the entire album in the barn on his computer, he went to Nashville to work with Mark Nevers, producer and guitarist with the enigmatic country group Lampchop, who helped capture the album’s quiet intensity with atmospheric electronics.
Bird’s time on the farm may be numbered. At home only about ten days at a time, he is constantly on tour, performing with O’Donnell’s jazz group Quality Six, doing session work in Chicago and Nashville and also taking these songs on the road solo (at the Old Town School Saturday, he’ll be joined by O’Connor and O’Donnell). For his own tour, he is figuring out how to play the songs by himself on fiddle, guitar, pedal effects and of course, whistling.
Bird is self-releasing “Weather Systems” right now but in June it will be reissued and distributed by Righteous Babe, the successful independent label run by songwriter Ani Difranco. A year ago, he asked Rykodisc to exit the label after they started going in the direction of a major label and wanted to sell higher numbers. “I’d be really happy selling 30,000 to 40,000 records but they were like ‘you’re thinking too small.’ I’d rather be ambitious within the independent network than go with the slightly larger thing,” he said.
As for moving on from the farm, he said he wants to wait it out, “out of the respect for the work that went into” making the album there. But “I’m also careful not to delude myself too far that this is the way to be,” he said.
For the time being, it makes sense to come home to Elizabeth. “There are people who constantly need the allusion they are not alone, who need to hear noise, even if it’s static, to keep the demons out. When you go out on your own like this, it becomes very apparent what it is that actually makes you fulfilled or happy. You find that out. It’s been a very anti-social experiment.”