By Bob McMahon
By Allison Babka
By Kelsey McClure
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Andrew Bird now makes his home in Elizabeth, Illinois, population 700, a village surrounded by farms and limestone hills in the northwest corner of the state. The Mississippi River flows just to the west, the drive to Chicago (his hometown since birth) takes two and a half hours, and solitude remains what you make of it.
Bird made Weather Systems there in Elizabeth; the recording is his first solo album and first release on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label. The album both refines and expands Bird's melancholy and introspection into a murmuring, nine-track (two of which are untitled) song cycle that defies his past. Throughout the '90s, Bird was best known as a virtuoso violinist and fellow traveler of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, then as the leader of Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire, a band that revived and refracted jump blues, swing and cabaret. Had Bird moved to Greenland, he couldn't have put more distance between himself and his previous life as a student of German Lieder and retro old-time swing.
That distancing, however, began in 2001 with the release of The Swimming Hour, the first record to reveal just how much pop ambition Bird possessed. The stylistic variations were dizzying -- psychedelic rock, rumbas, free-form jazz, folk blues, Celtic balladry -- but the real ambition lay in making variation accessible and fun while still thoughtful, taut and complex. The swing-oriented fans of his early work were, not surprisingly, perplexed.
"People pretty quickly realized they weren't going to get to practice their moves to our music," Bird says. "In The Swimming Hour there was some flailing going on, some disorganized movement, and I much prefer to see that."
The album -- and his increasingly manic shows with Bowl of Fire -- were breathless; Bird, finally, needed a breather. "Things were getting too cyclical," Bird says of his move, two years ago, to rural Illinois. "I was in Chicago, making these records, then going out on the road. I needed to create a different environment. Chicago was starting to feel like just another stop on the road." In Elizabeth, Bird found the family farm he would make home, complete with a nineteenth-century barn he could outfit as a recording studio and musical workshop.
"The idea was to have it be totally self-sufficient," Bird says. "It sounds cheesy, but I had a lot more to learn from myself than I thought I had, with that space and time, working more by myself."
Initially Bird planned a full-band follow-up to The Swimming Hour, but as the tracks accumulated, he felt more and more alienated from the sound and the process. "It had gotten out of my control," Bird says. "It was becoming too much like other people's record collections. I don't want to write music that sounds like other people's record collections. It was starting to sound by-the-numbers, and getting too huge, too complicated for its own good. I had always wanted to make a record that was subtle, understated, that you put on from beginning to end and it's like one piece. I've never been able to do that, because I have so many crazy things going on in my head. The last two years have been an exercise in total control. I love that band, but when I started out on my own, I thought, 'How can I do a solo show and beat what I had with a five-piece band?' Now I'm thinking, 'How can I beat with a band what I can do on my own?'"
Bird scrapped the project and instead turned inward. "I think of it as having too much pressure from the density of ideas," he says. "Weather Systems is a release of that pressure." Though the record features some eerie guitar work from producer and Lambchop member Mark Nevers as well as both Nora O'Connor (guitar and harmony vocals) and Kevin O'Donnell (drums) from Bowl of Fire, the album is really Bird's attempt to understand and test himself. Without a trace of self-pity, Bird sings songs that explore the wonders and terrors of solitude, whether in "First Song," the story of a boy finding music in an Illinois cornfield (and based on a Galway Kinnell poem), in the almost-paranoid sound of "I" or in "Lull," a reverie for the imaginative delights of self-exploration. "Being alone can be so romantic," Bird sings, "like Jacques Cousteau under the Atlantic."
"My composing is somewhere between improvisation and writing," he says. "I don't write things down, but I carry it all around in my head. It's organized, but I'm a total shambles when it comes to technical stuff, I'm tripping over wires and don't really understand how things work, as long as it does what I want it to do. I didn't wake up one morning and think, 'I'm going to create this solo career.' Every track on Weather Systems was improvised, but every track took many, many takes to get it to respond to the other tracks in the right way."
The sound of Weather Systems, its layers of violin arpeggios and pizzicatos -- all looped, doubled and tripled, sometimes raised or lowered by octaves -- is as dark as rural nightfall but never gloomy, as atmospheric as a barn brimming with starlings but never merely textural. Bird has arrived at a musical place free of genres altogether, where even the most sublimely simple musical act, whistling, can be supple and mysterious. But then, Bird whistles better than most. "That's a subconscious thing I've done as long as I've played the violin," he says. "I've just done it incessantly, mostly to people's annoyance. I was in college, miserable, and I was in the bathroom, just whistling, and a professor came in and said, 'What are you so happy about?' Nothing really. I don't realize I'm doing it half the time."
Weather Systems, however, does not spell the end for Bowl of Fire. Bird has finished a new band album (due out later this year) and plans to resume touring with his five-piece (at least) group. Currently, though, his solo shows find him surrounded onstage by amps, pedals, a guitar and a glockenspiel, building the songs piece by piece, loop by loop. His performances become windows on his process of composition.
"It's all about choreography," he says, "to balance three different instruments and not lose the attention of the audience. The connection with the audience is getting more intense. With the band it's an adrenaline thing; by physical force you create the energy in the room. In the past it was always, 'We've got a show coming up, we're going to be so damn entertaining, knock everybody's socks off, cram as much cool shit in as we can.' This is a break from that. Now there are completely different physics. The audience can see the song being put together. They get involved in the process. When I screw up they get even more involved, get closer. I actually like to do songs that are half-finished. That's the beauty of the solo thing: I don't get evil looks from band members. If I get an idea that day or hear something on the street, I can incorporate it into the show, and people can feel the newness of it. Watching me fall apart onstage, I admit, is part of it."