Andrew Bird: A Study in Artful Contradiction

Lesley Mahoney
August 10, 2010
Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird performs for Five-Week Summer Performance Program students August 2.
"Don't get too discouraged. It's really hard getting started," Bird tells the students.
Bird answers questions from the audience.
Bird gives a clinic to a packed audience at the Berklee Performance Center.
Photo by Tony Luong
Photo by Tony Luong
Photo by Tony Luong
Photo by Tony Luong

He is a one-man show. Alternating between a violin, glockenspiel, and guitar, Andrew Bird also sings and uses looping pedals. And whistles—so proficiently that it sounds like another instrument. Then there are the whirling, exposed double-horned Leslie speakers. What emanates from it all is music that defies definition; all at once, it's epic yet intimate, artfully composed yet improvised. And for a softspoken man, Bird delivers a big sound, enough to pulsate the room with some serious energy and put a respectful hush over the crowd. The singer/songwriter, whose style is most commonly associated with the indie-rock scene, penned lyrics that made enough of an impression on one audience member to tattoo them on her arm.

During a clinic for Five-Week Summer Performance Program students on August 2, Bird—who holds a bachelor's degree in violin performance from Northwestern University and often plays with a band—performed several songs solo and entertained questions about process, influences, and a small toy monkey perched near those enormous speakers. Here's a sampling of what was heard in the Berklee Performance Center that afternoon.


On looping:

I never thought I would use it live. I started seven or eight years ago, just because the violin is a linear instrument. I accidentally started doing it live. It's a really great compositional tool. I'm not looking to replace an ensemble or orchestra or something like that.


On the Suzuki method:

I'd say Suzuki has a lot to do with the musician I am now because I learned a very pure form of Suzuki where I didn't look at a note of music for the first 10 years. . . it kind of has some principles of folk music but you're playing Bach and Mozart.


On influences:

I haven't really been influenced by anyone for a long time. There was a student phase that I went through from around 18 to 26 where the records were the textbooks. I was ravenous, soaking it up. And I would jump from one genre to the next every couple of weeks and get deeply into it and want to participate and make that music. As a violinist, I stopped listening to violinists when I was 20 or 21 and I got really into jazz, especially more traditional jazz. I got into Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. . . I found fluidity that maybe I found missing in a lot of classical music.


Advice for a "crazy dedicated songwriter" (the one with the tattoo) who wants to end up like him someday:

Don't get too dogmatic about something. . . it's a strange thing when your job is to daydream. Give yourself enough mental space and room to be able to think about certain things. I find walking in unfamiliar places to be very inspiring. . . . Try writing without your instrument in your hand. You can start to fall into muscle memory.


On how performing live influences the creative process:

Playing songs live is really instructive every time I play. It's the changing that makes them better. It's truer to my everyday process. I wake up, make coffee, and keep music flowing all day even as I'm doing menial things.


On the monkey:

I get superstitious about certain things and when you do a bunch of shows, it's like, why didn't that show go right? Oh, the monkey wasn't there. I get a lot of handmade gifts. This one was particularly endearing. It's supposed to be modeled after me.