I'm having flashbacks to high school. Andrew Bird is too popular to talk to me.
I thought it was going to happen. I really did. I e-mailed his publicist, like, a month ago, and she wrote me back and said, yeah, he totally wants to do an interview. She sent me his new album, Noble Beast, before it came out in late January (and debuted at No. 12 on the U.S. album charts). But then I didn't hear from her, even after I sent three or four desperate—but, um, nonchalant-sounding e-mails. The day before this story was due, I got the news. My rendezvous with the whistling wunderkind was not to be.
Andrew Bird is too popular to talk to me.
OK, so those weren't his publicist's exact words. It was more like, he's far too busy to schedule any interviews right now. I'm trying not to take it personally. After all, the guy's been fawned over by everyone from NPR to The New York Times (true, that's not really everyone, but it's everyone that counts, in my opinion). He's been on Letterman andConan O'Brien. He played to 13,000 people at Millennium Park in Chicago, his hometown. And his San Diego gig is at SOMA, one of the bigger venues in town.
Have you even heard of this guy? To be honest, I didn't know much about him until recently, which is surprising because he's sooooo up my alley: a quirky, classically trained folk-rocker with serious fiddling skills and a penchant for old-timey styles like swing, jazz and gypsy. And his avian-worthy whistling? It blows Peter, Bjorn & John back to Stockholm. Noble Beast is no beginner's luck, either; it's Bird's eighth full-length album, though some of those were with his previous band, Bowl of Fire, whom I hadn't heard of, either. Where have I been?
So, like any schoolgirl with an unrequited crush, I set about stalking—er, researching—him. Seriously, what did people do before Google?
Turns out Andrew Bird, dark and dreamy in a consumptive sort of way, started playing music more than three decades ago, when he was just 4.
“In the seventies, the Suzuki Method was sweeping American suburbs,” he told New York magazine in a Q&A about his musically formative years. “The philosophy is to teach people when they're young, make it fun, and it's all by ear. It's like the one-room schoolhouse, with everyone from the beginner to the most advanced all in the same room together, all playing the same tunes, and when you don't know it you drop out.”
They taught him, alright. He became a veritable violin prodigy. But exquisitely performed concertos don't exactly win you popularity contests, especially with the ladies. When he was 19, he joined a punk-ska band called Charlie Nobody. (It should also be noted that when he wasn't skanking, he was studying at Northwestern University's prestigious conservatory.) At 23, he started his own band.
During these early years, Bird also worked at Renaissance faires, where he developed a nasty case of tendonitis from his stint as a fiddling serf. That's why he first picked up the guitar, among other instruments—like the glockenspiel—which naturally led to more experimentation and to composing music that engages his exceptional level of craft and classical training, while also pleasing his inventive, pop-leaning ear.
Songwriting can be a conflicting experience for an artist like Bird, who has an expansive vocabulary and whose songs have serious emotional heft, no matter how breezy they may sound. In a blog he wrote for The New York Times' “Measure for Measure” series—in which musicians document their creative processes—he discusses an instrumental album he's been recording in a barn on the farm he owns in eastern Illinois. A follow-up to Noble Beast, it's titled Useless Creatures.
“The title self-mockingly alludes to my uneasiness about the usefulness of instrumental music,” Bird wrote. “Like some heirloom chicken that stumbles over its own plumage or a pug struggling to breathe or a hairless cat, bred for aesthetics…. Not that such creatures are useless. They're cute as hell, but sort of beg the question. Who's to say a creature is noble?”
Turns out Andrew Bird (noble, I say) is pretty deep, the kind of guy who questions the value of instrumental music—classical, perhaps?—while making an instrumental album. He's also the kind of guy who reads a lot (Cabinet, a magazine that explores archaic subjects, is his favorite), and finds musical inspiration at the Natural History Museum.It also turns out Andrew Bird really isn't all that comfortable with this whole fame business, though, as he told a Times reporter, he's worked very hard to be where he is.
“I've gotten here by winning one person at a time,” he said.
Well, he's won me over, even if he was too busy to talk to me. Andrew Bird is popular for good reason. But I'm fine admiring him from afar. Like all the high-school boys who never knew I existed—most of them artists, too—this Bird sets my heart atwitter, anyway. Andrew Bird plays with Loney Dear on Sunday, Feb. 15, at SOMA. www.myspace.com/andrewbird.