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Andrew Bird Lets The Inside Out On 'Inside Problems'
Andrew Bird

Photo: David Black

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Andrew Bird Lets The Inside Out On 'Inside Problems'

'Inside Problems,' the umpteenth release from singer/songwriter Andrew Bird, is filled with quietly passionate songs about the "inside" stuff that can either "drive you insane" or "be the best companion."

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2022 - 04:10 pm

Prolific might be an understatement when it comes to Andrew Bird's work across a myriad of mediums. In addition to his own work, the GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter is a renowned whistler, and was a member of Squirrel Nut Zippers for several years. Bird's 1996 debut album, Music of Hair, was followed by about 16 solo records (some with/as Bowl of Fire), not to mention a variety of collabs. And let's not forget the live albums (six), EP's (10) and film and TV projects, including acting on the FX drama "Fargo."

So it's perhaps unsurprising that Bird has managed to follow up an album — the somewhat winkingly titled My Finest Work Yet — with a record that might be even finer. Inside Problems, released June 3, offers 11 often poignant, quietly passionate songs produced by Mike Viola (who has also worked with Mandy Moore, Panic! at The Disco and Jenny Lewis). Bird will support his LP on a tour that kicks off June 15 at Los Angeles' Greek Theatre.

Via phone from his L.A. home, Bird, a low-key and thoughtful native of Lake Bluff, Illinois talks about pandemic-inspired "inside" stuff (his brain, his home) and the resultant songs that populate his latest, and maybe, greatest work.

When did you start writing the songs that would become Inside Problems — before, or during the pandemic?

Some of them started before that. There are always things that have been kind of simmering for five or six years that I just find the moment to organize. It was strange; I was wondering if just being in one place was going to affect my writing, because I always thought that traveling and performing informed my writing. Going from one place to another, just the act of leaving your home can give you perspective that kind of triggers things. And then being on stage, that sort of sense of a dialogue with an audience; I thought [that] was part of my process, too. But it turns out it wasn't that essential, and I needed the songwriting process to sort of keep my sanity and sense of purpose.

Was there a song that ended up on Inside Problems that set the tone when you realized, OK, this is where this record is going?

I think of "Underlands" as a sort of template for the album. But the one that I spent the most time on was "Faithless Ghost." And that's kind of an outlier. It started, I think, when my son — during the pandemic, we just all hung together — started being the DJ around the house. And he was playing a lot of John Cale. And Velvet Underground, but the John Cale, "Paris 1919," particularly, that song was just on every day.

I was listening to lyrics about this ghost that is sort of a coy ghost, it doesn't ever show up when you expect it to, doesn't stick to appointments. And I thought I'd take that idea and kind of expand on it. I guess it's the way you feel when you're sort of chasing down things creatively too. But that one was a very specific melody that I'm trying to just point in the general direction of this idea about this coy ghost.

May I ask how old your son is? 

He's 11. He was 9 I guess at the start of the pandemic.

That's still a pretty interesting song choice for a kid to play, right? 

I mean, it's kind of funny. He lives in our universe. So from an early age, I never understand when people would  say 'Oh my kid listens to this horrible pop music and I can't do anything about it.' Like, why can you do anything about it? They're living in your house.

Not like we're militant about anything. He complains about going to birthday parties and having to listen to Post Malone or whatever. He's like, 'Why do they think kids like that music?' Anyway, that's a rant. But if I play one Nick Drake song, he starts  playing it all the time. And I don't really listen to music that much. So he's actually influencing me. And he's actually becoming a pretty good guitarist.

There are so many beautiful references and lines in your lyrics. I was curious about "Lone Didion," —  and I'm wondering if you read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking about losing her husband and then daughter? 

Actually before I read it, I was talking to a friend who used to host at a restaurant where Joan Didion and her husband [John Gregory Dunne] used to come in as regulars, and they would get the same table and order the same thing. This is around 2003. Then she didn't come in for like several weeks. And she came in one more time, alone. That story struck me and then I read the book.

You explore what you call the "threshold" of who we are in the moments "in between"? A liminal space might be one term.

I just want to acknowledge that internal world that we all have, that is usually not known to anyone else. It can either drive you insane, or it could be the best companion. If you can cultivate that internal world in the right way, you never have any good reason to be bored or lonely sometimes.

I just became more acutely aware of that during the pandemic, during insomnia…and it was like, Okay, I'm here, I'm stuck here. I can't sleep for two hours. I can either spiral — as we tend to in the middle of the night — or I can try to put everyone to work, and pull out a melody and play it back in my head. While I was working on these songs, it really, really helped me get through that. Once I was done, those demons came roaring back.

I watched the Nexflix film The Bubble and enjoyed it. You were a composer on the movie; how did you get  on board? Did that work affect this record?   

I did that after the record was finished. I know Judd [Apatow] and he asked me to play a bunch of his Largo shows. They were doing once-a-month charity shows, and I would do those and hang out and I got the sense that he might have been kind of circling me and waiting for a project to offer up. [He did] I came in, in the final two months of the score work to work with Mike Andrews. Mike is his longtime composer and I was sort of artist-in-residence, I guess. It is a very complicated score because you have to score the movie within the movie. And I luckily didn't have to deal with…

Dinosaurs?  

Yeah [laughs]. He's very exacting and has very very strong ideas about music, Judd does. So, it was a long, long process. But it was good. I came at a good time: I was finished with the record; I needed a project. But you have to generate a tremendous amount of music to satiate Judd. So it was five or six weeks, just churning out many, many cues.

I know you had a song in Orange is the New Black and other visual projects. How often do you write a song that you feel is super cinematic? Or are there times when you're watching something and you feel inspired to write? 

Writing a song for a movie is the ultimate challenge for me. Doing [an] instrumental score is cool, but writing a song with lyrics specifically for movies…. I'm thinking like Harold and Maude as the ultimate project that I hope would someday come along.

It's just so challenging to try to do; to address what's happening in the movie without leading the viewer and hitting it too close. I feel like I would be well suited to that because my lyrics, they can be a bit ambiguous sometimes. When I was writing "Underlands," at first it was simply a melody. I was like, wow, this sounds like a film score scene. I was working with T-Bone Burnett at the time on [HBO crime drama] True Detective and I played it for him. He said, 'that's like the theme to a great '70s movie.'

When I first came out of music school, that's what I thought for sure wanted to do; film score work. But then I got a conversion van and a band, and hit the road and started playing rock clubs around the country. And that became the buddy road movie of my 20s.

I understand there's an unusual guitar on Inside Problems, the one that starts out "Underlands"?  

My good friend Reuben Cox has the guitar shop Old Style in Silverlake. When I was working with Blake Mills on [Bird's 2006 LP] Are You Serious, he was working with Blake. First we had these electric banjos that we were all collecting. And then they're very weird, rare harmony, electric banjos. And then Reuben started putting rubber bridges on these strange old guitars. It's not that radical to mute the instrument, but it's like you commit to it.

Like permanent mute.  

Yeah, it's hard to explain but what Blake was looking for… Well, guitars can chew up so much space because they resonate so much, sonically. So you take all that and then it creates these weird overtones too, if you distort it in the right way. It sounds otherworldly. I found when I started playing these guitars that it was kind of like pizzicato, but not quite.

It's funny what started with Blake and me and during that time , you hear it a lot now. You hear it kind of affecting the music that's being recorded. It was this particular Harmony guitar called the Caribbean, kind of art deco and very cool looking. It's the thing I just reached for when we were recording; it just worked. From "Underlands" to "The Night Before Your Birthday," it can go from this beautiful pizzicato to a Keith Richards rock 'n' roll thing.

The album closer, "Never Fall Apart," seems to end things on a somewhat upbeat note.  

For "Never Fall Apart," my old guitarist, Jeremy Ylvisaker, sent me an EP he had done and [it] goes into the sort of Kevin Shields, My Bloody Valentine territory. He had this melody in there, and I thought it was so beautiful. And the song was called "Never Fall Apart," but it had no lyrics. I sat down, took the melody and over time it kind of evolved. I wrote that one fairly quickly, really inspired by that melody.

The last two songs on the album ["Stop n' Shop," "Never Fall Apart"] — from the title of my record, people are describing it as maybe not addressing all the upheaval that My Finest Work Yet was, but it really does have as many songs addressing what's happening in the world. "Stop n' Shop" is trying to understand what's missing in our lives that so many people need guns or walls or trucks to kind of fill a void in their identity. And then "Never Fall Apart" tries to answer that question.

Would you always keep those two songs connected in a live set?  

I do like to keep things [together.] The sequencing of the live set is a huge part of my job. Not just what key, what tempo and the segues in between, but then the scenes and everything. It feels like half my job is sequencing. Whether people pick up on that or not, I don't know, but it's  important to me.

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Andrew Bird Turns It Around With His "Olympians" Performance For Press Play

Andrew Bird

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Andrew Bird Turns It Around With His "Olympians" Performance For Press Play

The multi-talented musician/composer shares his "darkest before the dawn" original song on the latest episode of the Recording Academy's original performance series

GRAMMYs/Aug 15, 2019 - 09:00 pm

In the latest episode of Press Play, the incomparable Andrew Bird performs "Olympians" with help from Madison Cunningham. Have a look and listen:

From his new album, My Finest Work Yet, "Olympians" can be taken as a "socio-political allegory," according to Bird. Showing the contrast of despair and hope, the "darkest before the dawn" scenario song expresses how we as people can, "Spiral in our thoughts," said Bird, "get competitive about suffering" and ultimately, "Will ourselves out of these dark places." 

Growing up in Chicago with a mother who loved classical music and a father who loved Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, Bird started playing violin at age 4. His influences grew to include jazz, gospel, Lester Young, Staples Singers, and much more. Early in his career, Bird became known as a virtuoso violinist, songwriter, composer, vocalist and whistler, pushing the boundaries of style and technique with each new album since his 1666 debut, Music of Hair.

Enjoy Bird and Cunningham's live rendition of "Olympians," and stay tuned for more exclusive original performances on Press Play. 

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ReImagined Returns With More Exclusive & Unexpected Cover Performances All Summer Long

COASTCITY

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ReImagined Returns With More Exclusive & Unexpected Cover Performances All Summer Long

A wide-ranging array of artist dig deep into the GRAMMY vault to cover classic songs with their own special twist, starting with Caribbean soul duo COASTCITY's take on a Childish Gambino's "Redbone"

GRAMMYs/Jul 9, 2019 - 09:00 pm

Summer is upon us, and now here's another musical wonder to look forward to: every two weeks, the Recording Academy will debut a new installment of ReImagined, a video series where artists bring a fresh take on classic GRAMMY-winning/nominated songs by their favorite artists—from the Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, Best Rock Song, Best R&B Song and Best Rap Song categories.

To kick things off, Puerto Rican Caribbean soul duo COASTCITY tackle a modern classic, Childish Gambino's GRAMMY-winning hit "Redbone," which took home an award for Best Traditional R&B Performance at the 60th GRAMMY Awards.

Other upcoming ReImagined performances offer interpretations of songs by Lorde, Neil Young, Oasis, Ed Sheeran, Lady Gaga and Brandley Cooper and more, from artists such as Andrew Bird, Angela Aguilar, VINCINT, Asiahn, Shea Diamond, La Santa Cecilia and others.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel and visit our video page to watch each ReImagined episode, along with other exclusive content, as it's released.

ReImagined 2019 Schedule:

July 9: COASTCITY, "Redbone" by Childish Gambino

July 23: Angela Aguilar, "Shallow" by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper

Aug. 6: Shaun Ross, "Believe" by Cher

Aug. 20: Brandon Stansell, "He Thinks He'll Keep Her" by Mary Chapin Carpenter

Sept. 3: Madison Beer, "Put Your Records On" by Corinne Bailey Rae

Sept. 17: Andrew Bird, "Harvest Moon" by Neil Young

Oct. 1: La Santa Cecilia, "House Of Cards" by Radiohead

Oct. 15: Jessenia + Jaimie, "Wonderwall" by Oasis

Oct. 29: VINCINT, "Issues" by Julia Michaels

Nov. 12: Shea Diamond, "Thinking Out Loud" by Ed Sheeran

Nov. 26: Asiahn, "Royals" by Lorde

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Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

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Poll: From Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" To Tyler, The Creator's "I Am The Grinch," What's Your Favorite Holiday Song?

Let us know what your favorite holiday song is in our latest GRAMMY.com poll!

GRAMMYs/Dec 19, 2020 - 06:49 am

'Tis the season to listen to Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You" on repeat! Whether you're one of the people who turned up the jingle bell jams to find some joy back in November or you've just started to dust off your playlist of jolly gems, we want to know what your favorite holiday song is.

Let us know what your fave festive bop of all time is in our poll below. You'll see new songs from artists like Todrick Hall, Andrew Bird, Dolly Parton with Miley Cyrus, and classics from José Feliciano, Chuck Berry, Eartha Kitt and more.

And make sure to check out our 2020 holiday songs roundup here to hear some of the latest ones.

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Nathaniel Rateliff, Wilco & More To Perform At Charleston, S.C.'s High Water Festival

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Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

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Nathaniel Rateliff, Wilco & More To Perform At Charleston, S.C.'s High Water Festival

Find out who's headed to the fourth annual fest next April in the Holy City

GRAMMYs/Nov 6, 2019 - 12:36 am

High Water Festival announced its 2020 lineup today, featuring Nathaniel Rateliff, Wilco, Brittany Howard, Mavis Staples, Andrew Bird, Sharon Van Etten, Drive-By Truckers, Shovels & Rope, Angel Olsen, Rufus Wainwright and more.

The Charleston, S.C., fest returns for its fourth year on April 18-19, 2020 at Riverfront Park. Curated by hometown folk heroes Shovels & Rope, made up of musical duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hears, the two-day festival will be a celebration of music, food and libations. 

The stacked lineup also features Delta Spirit, Liz Cooper & The Stampede, Drew Holcolm & The Neighbors, The Felice Brothers, Cedric Burnside and more. High Water also offers unique, immersive oyster education classes and community service opportunies through its charitable partners. 

Weekend passes for High Water go on sale Nov. 7 at 10 a.m. EST, with VIP passes and a new ticket tier, The Platinum Pearl Experience, also available via the festival's website.   

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