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Andrew Bird's World Of Wit, Whimsy And Whistling

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Andrew Bird's World Of Wit, Whimsy And Whistling

Andrew Bird's World Of Wit, Whimsy And Whistling

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Violinist Andrew Bird plays his instruments with metal strings - thank you very much. He also sings, he whistles, writes lyrics, composes film scores. He may even leap tall buildings with a single bound. And he creates songs that can sometimes hover between the ethereal and pop.


ANDREW BIRD: (Singing) Could you give it away? Could you give it away for free? Don't you give it away. Just try to keep it in the family. I know you know destination, coming home with your pockets full of sand. I know it's no vacation, oh, now you've found your tiny patch of land...

WERTHEIMER: That's "Give it Away" off of Andrew Bird's latest CD - just out. It's called "Break it Yourself." We should also tell you that Andrew Bird is an NPR Music headliner at the South by Southwest Festival, which is currently underway in Austin. But for the moment he joins us from our bureau in New York City. Welcome.

BIRD: Thanks for having me.

WERTHEIMER: I guess I should say welcome back, because I realize that I interviewed you from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED back in 1998.

BIRD: I know. I remember vividly, yes.

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's go back to yesteryear. You were a 20-something violinist back then, and you were playing your version of old-time jazz. It's sort of a swingy music. Do we hear any of those influences in this piece of work or your current work?

BIRD: You'd hear very little of it in a stylistic way. But I think it's more in the spirit myself and the people I play with, have kind of the spirit of jazz music in the sense that we're a bit restless and everyone's kind of loose and plays by ear and feel.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the things that is fun about your music is that you're an amazing whistler. That's a sort of an old-fashioned thing, I think. We have a little piece of your whistling on a track called "Lusitania."


BIRD: (Whistling)

WERTHEIMER: This is sort of a, it's a lovely kind of loose mood you create there with the whistling. Why do you suppose people don't do that much anymore?

BIRD: I don't know. I do hear it, but it tends to be, you know, like, sort of a whimsical, you know, in the tradition of "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay," which I think I avoided it at first because I'm used to things being hard. Violin is hard. Whistling is too easy. And then I started using it and I realized it was more powerful than I thought. When I started playing solo shows, I would fill my lungs with air and hold a note. And by the time my lungs were empty, people would be paying attention.

WERTHEIMER: There are a lot of layers of very high-pitched sounds, musical sounds, in that particular track. You're whistling, but there's also the violin and there's some sounds that something that sounds like steel drums to me.


BIRD: (Singing) Oh, ooh, my heart is (unintelligible)...

Actually, there's no actual steel drums. That's my pizzicato made to sound...

WERTHEIMER: That's all violin?

BIRD: Yeah. When I whistle in the same thing that I'm playing with pzzicato, it tends to create those kind of multi-phonics that you hear in a steel drum.

WERTHEIMER: Do you remember when you learned to whistle?

BIRD: I seem to remember an exchange with my grandmother, who whistled, when I was five or six. And at some point I actually eked out a whistle. And then from that point on I did it incessantly. Like, I would even chew my food to music. So, if you spend a day with me it would probably drive you nuts.


WERTHEIMER: So, "Dance Caribe," your violin is making a noise that totally fooled me. I really did think it was steel drums.


WERTHEIMER: So, how does all this come together? Do you work on a sort of a general theme with the music or do you write a whole bunch of songs and then try to decide which are the best ones, or which ones will go together? How do you do it?

BIRD: I just take what comes to the surface. I'm working on music every waking moment. But, you know, the first splurge of creative activities gets maybe 80 percent of the song there and the last is 20 is percent hard labor. And, you know, these songs have been coalescing over a course of five or six years it seems.

WERTHEIMER: Tell me about the tune "Near Death Experience Experience." There are some amazing lyrics in there. One piece of it is: So, you dare the plane to crash, redeem the miles for cash. When it starts to dive and we'll dance like cancer survivors, like you're grateful simply to be alive.

BIRD: Yeah. This started - I was at a dance party in Chicago and no one was dancing yet. And, you know, someone's always got to break the ice and it wasn't me. It was a woman who was in this, like, very tight tie-dyed dress and she was older than most of everyone else in the room and she was just going for it. And I felt a little guilty that I missed - but the first thing that crossed my mind is like, man, she's dancing like she just survived cancer. And that was a long time ago that that occurred to me. And then it came up in this song. I didn't find a way to work this into the song, but I imagined, like, if you could take a pill that kind of makes you feel like you're going close to death, the point is what if you could take this pill that would make you appreciate every waking moment as if you had just survived a near-death experience? And that's what I'm kind of puzzling through in this song.


BIRD: (Singing) So, you dare the plane to crash, redeem the miles for cash. When it starts to dive, and we'll dance like cancer survivors. Like you're grateful simply to be alive. Dare the plane to crash, redeem the miles for cash. And we'll dance like cancer survivors. Like the prognosis was that you should've died...

WERTHEIMER: The notion though that you'd be talking about crashing a plane, surviving cancer, sort of dancing around at the same time.

BIRD: That's - I've been playing with that from before I started making records, like the lightness and dark. And I think that dark on dark is just kind of boring, but the juxtaposition is that's what we call melancholy. That's the basis of most music really. I realize and become self-conscious about how dark my lyrics are getting sometimes, and I stop myself in the middle of a song in the lyric, and be, like, OK, come on. Let's - I need a joke here and a little levity.

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Bird. His new CD is called "Break It Yourself." Thank you very much for speaking with us.

BIRD: Thanks for having me.


BIRD: (Singing) There's nothing wrong, there's nothing wrong with the (unintelligible). And we'll dance like cancer survivors...

WERTHEIMER: You can watch Andrew Bird perform live from South by Southwest this Wednesday night at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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