Andrew Bird - Biography
Indie singer-songwriter, violinist, and exceptional whistler Andrew Bird was born July 11, 1973 in Chicago, Illinois. Beginning at age four, he was schooled in the Suzuki Method of music education, which places an emphasis on nurturance and working at the student's natural pace. This provided a strong foundation for Bird, who graduated from nearby Northwestern University with a BA in violin performance.
Andrew Bird jumped into his recording career right away, releasing his debut album, Music of Hair (1996 Grimsey), that same year. Betraying none of his future indie rock inclinations, the record is fairly straightforward American folk music. Most of the tracks are instrumental, with Bird's violin leading the tunes. "Oh So Insistent" begins as a pensive duet for acoustic guitar and fiddle, with Appalachian themes blending into Eastern European melodies. Then, mid-track, the composition speeds up and explores Spanish motifs, as well. Several cuts on the album make obvious nods to traditional forms, like "Oblivious Waltz" and "St. Francis Reel." On vocal tracks like "Pathetique" and the creepy, pizzicato-based "Song of Foot," Squirrel Nut Zippers members Katharine Whalen and Jas Mathus make contributions. Bird immediately returned the favor by adding violin to the Zippers' breakthrough LP of retro trad jazz and swing, Hot (1996 Mammoth). Though Music of Hair bears few similarities to Bird's well known late-2000s works, fans of weird Americana should pursue this early curio.
Two years later, Andrew Bird assembled his own hot jazz outfit, Bowl of Fire, which consisted of Bird on violin and vocals, plus an upright bassist, trap set drummer, and banjo player. Again, his pals Mathus and Whalen pitched in on a few cuts. Though accomplished, the group's debut, Thrills (1998 Rykodisc), largely covers the same territory as Squirrel Nut Zippers' output. Then again, the whole country was in a swing revival at this point, so another addition to the offerings of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, and Brian Setzer fit the zeitgeist of the times. Bird and his Bowl of Fire continued as part of this movement for one more album, Oh! The Grandeur (1999 Rykodisc). However, the album offers a more subdued, crepuscular take on the trad jazz of Thrills. In particular, "Tea & Thorazine" — which Bird wrote for his autistic brother — conveys a somber tone.
With a new millennium and the quick waning of interest in swing revival, Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire significantly changed their focus. On The Swimming Hour (2001 Rykodisc), the band explore a wide variety of styles, but they make it clear right off the bat that this they're not interested in rehashing their old sound. "Two Way Action" features distorted guitar, beefy rock drums, and a Latin funk groove à la War. Vibes-enhanced torch song "Why?" then subverts any expectations listeners may have formed during the record's first two tracks. The rest of The Swimming Hour continues to veer across genre lines, darting from the pastoral chamber pop of "11:11" to the sunny Dixieland stroll of "Too Long," then moving to electric blues on "Satisfied" and finishing up with the gospel-flavored "Dear Old Greenland." Though far from a cohesive listen, it is an entertaining album.
A year later, Andrew Bird issued the first of his Fingerlings (2002 Grimsey) albums. Named for young salmon on the verge of adulthood, these discs are mostly collections of live recordings. This first disc in the series compiles early solo tracks and duets with Bowl of Fire guitarist Nora O'Connor. Also that year, Bird collaborated with his printmaker mother, Beth, on The Ballad of the Red Shoes (2002 self-released), a sweet and tuneful EP of brief, classical instrumentals, all of which are comprised of two overdubbed violin tracks: one pizzicato and one bowed.
Next up for Andrew Bird was Weather Systems (2003 Righteous Babe), his first studio album after disbanding the Bowl of Fire. It has been largely dismissed by its creator as merely a collection of out-takes and song sketches — an estimation supported by tracks that are named for Roman numerals and symbols, as if Bird decided that the working titles for his B-list material would suffice. A brooding and searching album, it nonetheless points the way toward Bird's indie pop/rock style of the latter half of the 2000s. First, Bird would release Fingerlings 2 (2004 Grimsey), another odds 'n' sods live compilation featuring early solo versions of songs from his next album, as well as collaborations with O'Connor and My Morning Jacket.
Andrew Bird truly and finally came into his own on his third studio full-length, The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005 Righteous Babe). Here, he settles comfortably into his role as a contemporary, eclectic indie pop artist. His deep schooling in old acoustic music surfaces only as an influence on this otherwise modern singer-songwriter record. Bird even rocks out on the Camper Van-esque "Fake Palindromes," a slice of gritty indie Americana adorned with Baltic fiddle breaks. Most of the album, however, is sunny-yet-pensive acoustic alt-pop, with Bird's increasingly assured vocals taking center stage. Of course, his talents as a violinist and whistler make themselves well known, too. Receiving positive press across the board, Pitchfork would later include the album on their list of the 200 best of the decade.
The following year, Andrew Bird issued his third (and, so far, final) collection of extras, Fingerlings 3 (2006 Grimsey), which runs the gamut from studio leftovers to live songs recorded at Lollapalooza. One year later, Bird returned with another proper studio album, Armchair Apocrypha (2007 Fat Possum). Here, the electric guitar is considerably more prominent, and most tracks also feature a standard bass-and-drums rhythm section. This all lends the album a straightforward indie rock feel. Bird succeeds in undermining this staid structure with plenty of clever twists in his songwriting and via chamber pop instrumentation, such as glockenspiel, clarinet, and, naturally, violin. The album was a hit with the critics and, for the first time in Bird's career, the mass public: Armchair Apocrypha debuted at #76 on the Billboard charts.
Another two years on, Andrew Bird released his fifth studio LP, Noble Beast (2009 Fat Possum). The album largely maintains the feel of its predecessor, matching mellow acoustic pop with catchy indie rock. Album highlight "Fitz & Dizzyspells" captures Bird at his best, as melancholy verses are lifted by violin and whistles into bouncy, sunny choruses. Though more quietly alluring, a moody cut like "Tenuousness" displays Bird's maturation as a songwriter. Critical appraisal was almost as strong for this album, while public appeal mounted, sending Noble Beast to #12 on the Billboard 200 and to #1 on its Independent Albums chart.
Andrew Bird emerged as one of the most creative and consistently rewarding forces in indie music during the last half of the 2000s, setting expectations high for the decade to come.