When he’s not eating, sleeping or talking, celebrated songwriter, Andrew Bird, says he’s often whistling. At first, though, the Suzuki method-trained violinist thought whistling sounded cheap, not classically musical or respectable enough for his nuanced records. But, after dropping a few without his signature high-end sound, Bird relented. Now, he and his whistle are creatively inseparable on his many anticipated releases. It even landed prominently on his forthcoming holiday album, Hark! Bird recorded the new record over two periods of time – one pre-pandemic and one during – and he’s set to unveil the complete 13-track LP on October 30th (with a vinyl release on November 20th).
“I didn’t think to use whistling on any of my records for the first three or four,” Bird says. “Because who would think after all the pain and suffering of learning a difficult instrument like the violin, the money would be in whistling. It just seemed gimmicky or something, it didn’t seem valuable. But the fact is, I just whistle all the time.”
To many, Bird is known for his violin. He can play it perfectly for a pop song or he can compose a baroque, textured, wood-grain piece of music that could last 1,000 years. He also has a sweet, midrange tenor voice that’s more than capable of carrying a tune. But it’s his humming bird-like whistle that tends to cut through any other sound or movement in whatever room or concert hall in which he plays.
“The whistle is just like glass,” he says. “It gets people’s attention. It’s a great way to carry a tune. It can be intense and operatic – like an aria. I just started to realize the power of it, especially when I do more of my solo stuff. I didn’t have the power of the band to get people’s attention. So, I relied on the whistle to get people to stop talking.”
On Hark!, one whistle-rooted song stands out in particular, a beautiful rendition of “Oh Holy Night,” in which Bird powerfully performs the melody with a looming, ominous cadence that recalls the Cathedral-befitting original. His whistle, in a way, is a full choir over his finger-plucked violin strings accompaniment. Another standout track on the new record is “Christmas in April,” which Bird wrote in a more relaxed way than many of his other songs in years previous.
“I’ve always been fantasized about merging recording with my every day life,” Bird says. “There’s always this sense of anticipation when you’re about to make a record. I’ve always wanted to spread out the pressure.”
So, Bird recorded many of the song ideas on Hark! on his phone’s voice memos – at least, to begin with. When the world shut down from the COVID-19 health pandemic, Bird was at home. And, physically isolated, he’s been trying to stay mentally sharp ever since.
“I started doing these daily Instagram songs,” Bird says. “Just doing all this to stay sane. Just trying to give myself something to feel gratification about. The recordings were done at home and I’d send them to my bass player and he’d send them to my drummer. They sounded a lot better than they aught to!”
Normally, about this time, Bird would be preparing for his annual week of holiday shows in his hometown of Chicago at the Fourth Presbyterian Church. It’s something he looks forward to but will be unable to partake in this year. Instead, he plans a live stream for fans. Perhaps, with that string of gigs missing, that helped Bird to complete the charming Hark! Bird, who was nominated for a Grammy for his 2019 LP and played a key role in a recent Fargo television series season, is an artist to the core. He began playing violin at four-years-old and studied it intensely. Later, he taught himself how to play guitar and famously played with the energetic neo-swing band, The Squirrel Nut Zippers.
“When I met the Zippers,” he says, “I was right out of music school, out of college. I was kind of between playing very heady, complicated music and just discovering everything. It was a convergence of stuff I was getting into. What they taught me was more about rock ‘n’ roll, they were such a high-energy band.”
Bird chose a more cerebral, personal direction of music a few years later. In fact, he says, he isolated himself to do so. A marvel of a musician, Bird has the blessing and, as such, the curse of sonic empathy. If he hears a song or melody he likes, he’ll almost immediately dive into it. But that doesn’t mean that specific element is what he should be exploring. So, Bird thought, he needed to be alone and feel what he needed to feel to write originally.
“I had to clear room and isolate myself to find out what kind of language I had on my own,” Bird says. “I had to put my record collection in storage and go out into the country and live by myself and go into extreme isolation to find out what I sounded like.”
Today, Bird, who boasts over two-dozen solo albums, give or take, has certainly found his voice. It’s somber though explosive, bright yet hushed, casual yet learned. It’s music from a person who is inquisitive of both himself and the world.
“When everything is resonating and working and I’m deeply in the music,” Bird says, “there’s a feeling of connectedness with everything that is not really comparable to anything else. That feeling of being connected within yourself and also to the band and to the audience, it’s an extraordinary thing.”