Andrew Bird’s been busy—over the past six years he got married, had a son, released five studio albums, saw his wife survive thyroid cancer, and then moved across the country with his family. And now he's got a brand new album out—Are You Serious—that mines much of the above. We caught up with him ahead of his upcoming Schnitz appearance to find out about biking on tour, writing after a period of personal hardship, and how Portland is pretty much like Amsterdam.
You’ve moved from Chicago to New York to Los Angeles in recent years. How does place affect your creative process and songwriting?
Well, part of me can write anywhere—when I’m waiting to get on a plane or sitting on a plane, or on tour, at a gas station parking lot. It doesn’t have to be inspiring. But I notice there are certain things that do affect the kinds of things I hear. I noticed when I was spending some time on the family farm in Illinois that getting out from underneath the urban canopy does change the kind of phrasing, the temporal sense of things.
But I just need some sort of sanctuary and I’m fine. Or I don’t! Sometimes I write a lot when I’m traveling and in a different city every night and I have a couple of hours to walk around some unfamiliar pace. Then in the pace of walking I get tons of ideas there. It’s a complicated answer to your question!
Do you feel inspired by transition?
Yes, I would say that. But I long for the quiet life, for sure. But with this record I did something that I don’t think had ever quite happened before, where were traveling from New York and heading to LA and we stopped at the farm in Illinois for a week just to catch our breath. All our time in New York was very intense and somewhat dramatic and all this stuff had to be held down to keep it together, and then it all kind of poured out of me in a four- or five-day period. I would just go on the porch and write and that’s where about five or six of the songs came out in that four or five days
So do you feel like you need to see a place and your experiences in a rearview mirror to access it creatively?
Yeah, I think being in a safe comfortable place after being under assault for a while, you stop for a second and then you catch your breath and it comes flooding out. I didn’t think I was that kind of writer, but it happened. It makes sense that it happened.
How does Los Angeles feel to you as a creative space compared to Chicago or New York?
It’s a nice balance. I’m standing right now in my backyard which is fenced in, there’s an avocado tree, and an orange tree, I’ve got a studio that’s separate from the house, and it’s kind of a sanctuary, something impossible to get in Manhattan or Chicago even. If I had my choice I’d be more out there in the wilderness, but this will do.
I've been told you’re a big cycling enthusiast. Do you take your bike on tour with you?
I do take a bike on tour. I have bikes strategically placed in different parts of the country. It’s kind of my indulgence of sorts. I have one that lives in a storage space in Chicago and comes on the bus—it keeps me from losing it or getting into a really myopic space when you’re on tour, which can happen. This tour I’ve been doing live radio almost every day so it’s been tough to get out there, but this West coast run I’m determined. And I’m getting in that headspace where I’m in a different town every night and the day kind of shrinks down to just the show and every other part of your existence is geared toward it. You’re just living for that show and you start to get out of your body. You’re doing interviews and talking about your songs all day and you’re very much in your head in a not healthy way. And I just start to fantasize about how when this is over, I’m going mountain biking in the Rockies.
Does the experience of biking inform your creative process or does your mind just go blank?
It’s actually more the latter. Walking is a better creative pace. The pace of biking doesn’t lend itself to the phrasing of songwriting. Maybe because it’s a bit erratic, or the way I like to ride is a lot of uphill—I like struggling and obliterating, exhausting my body. It’s like a drug of sorts.
You are going to be in Portland very soon. Do you plan to get some biking in?
I plan on it, yeah. I just came from Amsterdam a few days ago. I’ve been there many times, but it’s kind of where Portland is heading towards—a utopian biker’s paradise.
How has fatherhood and family life affected your work, making that transition from a single person to someone with such a pressing daily concern in the form of a family ?
I have some theories about what it’s done. I don’t know if it’s that or it’s just time for this anyway, but it makes me a little tired of my own cleverness and internal machinations, and more interested in speaking in plain direct language. But I might have been heading that way anyway. I still like ambiguity and mysteriousness in writing. I’m still drawn to it. But it takes someone like Towns Van Zandt or John Prine or the Handsome Family—there’s plenty of mystery there but there’s also those lines that are so brutally simple and direct that they’re exceptional. And I guess you would think that having a kid, being exposed to the child’s imagination, would make you be into more fantastical things, but I guess not. So I’ve learned.
Can you tell me a little bit about the new band you’re touring with this time and what we can expect from your Portland show?
They’re all phenomenal jazz players who are really tired of jazz. So the playing is really not super indulgent, pretty efficient. It was time for change, so I’m not playing with the Minneapolis guys I came here with last time. All I can say is I feel very supported, like I can really just go on and sing my ass off. It’s a pretty exuberant show.
Andrew Bird plays the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday, May 18.