Andrew Bird: Words As Instruments The singer and multi-instrumentalist relies on violins, guitars and whistling to craft a unique sound that's difficult to describe. On his latest album, Noble Beast, Bird even uses his words as instruments, creating lyrics from archaic and esoteric words that conform to the melodies in his head.

Andrew Bird: Words As Instruments

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Andrew Bird says he carries melodies in his head all the time, like companions. He'll come up with a tune, visualize it - he says, crawl inside it.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: That's Andrew Bird whistling and on violin. He's classically trained on the violin. The whistling? He's always whistling.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANDREW BIRD (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) The bells ring, church steeples catching fire, and if you promise spring, then I know you are a liar, because in the spring, tender grasses won't burn easily...

BLOCK: Andrew Bird's moody new CD, titled "Noble Beast," wraps around you with layers of sound and melody lines that won't let you go. He says he wanted to create a specific texture with these songs in a physical way.

Mr. BIRD: I think of like, when I was a kid, and I would get my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and throw myself down in a pile of mulch or something, and go in there and pretend that I was microscopic, and I wanted to capture that kind of woody, mossy, decaying kind of sound. So I was really more focused on texture.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Do you ever think that you have synesthesia? I mean, do you see colors with sounds? Do you smell smells with words? Do your senses sort of combine in that way?

Mr. BIRD: I suppose they do, yeah.

BLOCK: What's an example, maybe?

Mr. BIRD: I've always been obsessed with moss and moose's horns, the number eight, the sort of roundness of the number eight, and so I mean yeah, I think of this, the last record I made is much more, like, pointy, toothy, jagged record, and this one I wanted to make a more warm, bubbly, steamy record.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BIRD: (Singing) (Unintelligible) radiolarian…

BLOCK: What's a radiolarian?

Mr. BIRD: You know, I don't really care.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Oh, that's interesting.

Mr. BIRD: But I do, I do. I like - I was more interested in what could it be. There's some sort of underwater kind of slimy organism, kind of mollusk-like, I think. Honestly, I don't really care about the details.

BLOCK: It's the sound, the sound of the word.

Mr. BIRD: It is the sound and the meaning and what kind of path it leads you down in conversations with people, like what could this mean?

BLOCK: Well there are lots of words like this in this CD: plecostomus, dermestids, coprophagia. I don't know if I'm saying that right. Do you collect them? Do you write them down, or are they just sort of implanted in your mind, and you remember?

Mr. BIRD: Sometimes I write them down, but I'm not very methodical like that. So if they kind of get under my own skin, then I know I have to use it. I guess I'm attracted to more archaic words because they can be imbued with more meaning because their definition is elusive. And sometimes, my use of words is a bit reckless. I'm aware of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BIRD: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

BLOCK: It sounds almost like the words are becoming instruments for you, in a way. If they're stripped from their meaning a lot, it's the sound that's interesting…

Mr. BIRD: Yeah, yeah.

BLOCK: Maybe what it signifies…

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. I can't seem to go all the way with that and just completely make up a new language. That seems - there's a leap there I can't seem to make.

The way I work, I'm not a confessional singer-songwriter. I don't write poetry and then strum some chords and then fit the words over the top of the chords. I start with a very distinct melody, so my options - if one thing is fixed and then the words have to then conform to the fixed melody, then it's like cracking codes. It's like trying to go through a number of options of things that just be exactly the right word, you know.

For instance, the song "Natural Disaster" began as a very distinct melody, it's just like a…

(Soundbite of whistling)

Mr. BIRD: And I was - I didn't have any words for it. So the first thing that came into my head was…

(Singing) I'm the one who sank the Lusitania.

(Speaking) And I was like, oh, man, where do I go from there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRD: I was totally screwed. I just - so it tells you that, you know, it's not completely random, my process of choosing lyrics. I really do need something to make sense and be meaningful and personal, but I knew with that first line, I was just - I couldn't - what is that supposed to mean?

BLOCK: And it became?

Mr. BIRD: It became…

(Soundbite of song, "Natural Disaster")

Mr. BIRD: (Singing) Look upon a field of snow and find the desert sea. Under the ice, the springs will flow to relief for (unintelligible) like a natural disaster, disaster.

BLOCK: I want to listen to the first song on this CD with you. This is "Oh No."

(Soundbite of song, "Oh No")

BLOCK: We're hearing you on violin here.

Mr. BIRD: Yeah. We recorded this live with just two acoustic guitars. The whistling is usually just like a placeholder for a melody you expect to play something else with, but the whistle always wins.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh No")

Mr. BIRD: (Singing) So let's get out of here, past the atmosphere, squint your eyes and no one dies or goes to jail, past the silver bridge, oh the silver bridge, wearing nothing but a onesie and a veil. Oh no. Oh no.

BLOCK: And there's that title line, oh no.

Mr. BIRD: And that's how the song began, was with the sound of a child on an airplane who's sitting behind me, just totally inconsolable. He just kept saying, oh no, oh no. Like he was going home, and his mom kept saying, we're just going home, honey, it's fine. And it wasn't this nails-on-a-chalkboard sound. It was actually really beautiful, a kind of mourning sound, and I was actually kind of envious of this kid, that he could - maybe it's everyone's feeling on an airplane, but it would be total anarchy if we all were as expressive as the average 4-year-old.

BLOCK: Andrew Bird, thanks so much for coming in. It's great to talk to you.

Mr. BIRD: You're welcome. I enjoyed it.

BLOCK: You can hear more songs from Andrew Bird's CD, "Noble Beast," and a full concert, at

(Soundbite of song, "Oh No")

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