Andrew Bird Just Needs Some Space

From synagogues to the Guggenheim, Bird’s dogged hunt for dazzling acoustics continues.

When a musician releases an album entitled My Finest Work Yet, it’s not difficult to predict where the public’s focus will go.

The question of where musician Andrew Bird would actually rank his latest record within his own discography is appealing — but only to a certain extent. Bird’s not terribly interested in quantifying what the title means to him, noting that he often invents “silly” names for his albums as he’s making them. In some cases, like with My Finest Work Yet, the name simply sticks (as was also the case for 2016’s Are You Serious).

As fun as it is to prod at the cryptic boast that serves as the namesake for Bird’s new record, dwelling too long on the subject misses the larger point.

When Bird plays Oakland’s Fox Theater on Oct. 22, he will be there not only as a performer, but as a researcher of sorts.

Released in March, My Finest Work Yet is an impressively cohesive and honest collection of songs recorded in the period between the 2016 election and the Unite the Right March in Charlottesville. For Bird — who plays a number of instruments but is best known for his skills as a violinist, singer, and superb whistler — that did not mean smearing his lyrics with headline fodder.

“When you’re dealing with current topics,” Bird tells SF Weekly, “you can give your songs a shelf life if you’re too explicit about the present tense.  You don’t want people to hear the intent behind it so much. The decisions being made just have to feel like a purely musical thing.”

Making decisions in service of the music is arguably the defining trait of Andrew Bird’s career.

Over the course of numerous albums and EPs — all said, Bird’s output equates to something like 20 records — he’s always prioritized acoustic diversity and warmth of different buildings and spaces. This passion is what led Bird to initiate his annual Gezelligheid shows, which take place at churches and synagogues in various cities (Chicago is usually one) during the winter months.

Bird has also explored this concept through what he’s dubbed his “Echo Locations” project.

“I go into different environments and see what those spaces want to hear before I come in with the music,” he says. “I just let them open up to it and then echolocate a space.”

Beyond his deep interest in the sonic connection that occurs between a musician, a location, and, in most cases, an audience, Bird reveals that his focus most acutely lies in discovering how to translate the sounds he conjures in unique, unusual settings into his studio recordings.

“My whole thing, the code I’ve been trying to crack all these years, is why can’t I get my albums to have that same extraordinary feeling that I get on stage,” he says. “It’s a common thread I’m drawn to in all of my projects. It’s that sound I’m talking about. It’s about responding to your environment.”

Part of the philosophy at play for Bird is a rejection of the idea that being a touring musician means just having twelve or so songs you’ve rehearsed and a standard sound system set to EQ. Rather than using equipment that allows the room to bend to the music, why not create music that can bend to the room?

Bird has applied this practice to his Bay Area performances before. In 2013, he played at San Francisco’s Sheriff Synagogue. Bird recalls the room “was one of the most extraordinary sounding rooms, to me, I’ve ever played.” He further explains that domed buildings can often be problematic in this regard, citing a performance he gave at the Guggenheim that he bluntly describes as “a mess.”

One way in which My Finest Work Yet reflects Bird’s ongoing focus on acoustics is the method by which it was recorded.

“Sometimes it’s a reaction to what you did the time before,” he says. “Are You Serious was, comparatively, an album where we did everything top shelf. A lot of that was live as well, but nonetheless, it was a little more obsessed over. This one was a little scrappier.”

As part of his preparations for the recording sessions, Bird researched the work of Rudy van Gelder and his room sound techniques.

He says that he was interested in capturing the interplay of musicians and the room itself as represented in jazz records from the 1950s and ’60s. It is yet another example of the power Bird perceives in spaces and structures — a power that may be imperceptible to some, but one that drives him all the same.

“These are little things that are just important to me and my philosophy and my whole ethos of people playing together,” Bird says. “And whether it translates or if it really matters? Who cares?”

Andrew Bird, Thursday, Oct. 22, 8 p.m., at the Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.


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