Unconventional wisdom

Miki Johnson

While studying music at Northwestern, Chicago musician and Evanston native Andrew Bird felt limited by the usual route to a violin degree, so he did what has become a trademark for him — he traced his own path. Bird graduated with a Bachelors in Music in 1995 and what he calls an ad hoc major that included violin (which he has played since age 4), smatterings of film and literature, lots of independent studies and a senior project composing music for silent movies.

“I wasn’t totally satisfied with simply doing the classic music thing at that time,” he says. “I was thirsty for things outside the traditional repertoire.”

That quest for the unusual and urge for experimentation has led Bird from Charlie Nobody (the band he helped start his sophomore year that Centerstage describes as “funk on speed”) to accompanying the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire to two solo albums picked up by Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label and a tour opening for and occasionally playing with DiFranco. Bird will open both of DiFranco’s Chicago shows, Saturday at the Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress Parkway, and Sunday at The Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield Avenue.

Bird is now well-known (and liked) for his continuous pursuit of “sounds you don’t usually hear.” Reviewers of his ineffable work will often attempt a few esoteric comparisons (one describes him as “Beck meets Itzhak Pearlman,” another has him channeling Paganini and Fred Astaire) before degenerating into a series of descriptors combining any of the following: Gypsy music, jazz, blues, folk-pop, atmospheric, moody, delicate, densely textured, subdued, haunting and pastoral.

“The Mysterious Production of Eggs,” his latest solo effort, stemmed from a kind of fairy tale narrative, but it is still uneasily categorized, despite its cohesive themes. For it is mystery and imagination themselves that Bird feels are under attack from forces that would explain, measure and commodify the world.

“I had in mind, visually anyway, this like ‘Muppet Show’ meets ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ meets ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends,'” Bird explains, as if these references will somehow make things clear. But Bird isn’t here to make things clear or easy for us. To do so would be to quantify and delineate the magical world of (in this case) music — something his songs like “Measuring Cups” and “Banking on a Myth” consciously eschew.

If Bird were forced to pick a thesis, it would seem to be this ending line from “Banking on a Myth.” “Deals in commodities of the abstract sort / buys them in bulk but sells them short / talent, genius, love even sighs of affection / he floods the market there’s no price protection.”

Considering his reverence for childhood and his pride at having made it to adulthood “with my imagination intact,” we’re inclined to wonder what in Bird’s early years put him on such a musical road not taken. His mother, an artist, first set him to the violin, but his parents were careful to shelter him from the highly competitive world of child musicians as long as possible.

And then there is his self-renovated family barn-turned-studio in rural Illinois that tempts us to set Bird’s childhood in the pastoral countryside that his first album, “Weather Systems,” especially invokes. But no. Bird portrays the farm, which his parents bought when he was 12, as simply a conveniently isolated place for him to write and his creation of the studio as an obvious eventuality.

“I think it’s just inevitable at some point that any sort of artist needs to create their studio space, a separate place to work,” he says.

Which is not to say Bird wanted to draw a line between his work and non-work time. On the contrary, he describes the creation process as constant, perpetual — to such a degree, in fact, that “The Mysterious Production of Eggs'” release was postponed by his reluctance to commit to a static form of any one song. After rewriting “Measuring Cups” 25 times and recording 10 different versions, he says with an only half-joking tone, “I think, I think I got it.”

At least after so much polishing, Bird is happy enough with his new album to stick a little more closely to the script on stage now, where he is notorious for “reinventing” his pieces for each audience anew. But this effect can only be mediated so much when his live show consists of recording, looping and layering violin, guitar, glockenspiel, whistling and vocals, effectively constructing the song before his awestruck onlookers’ eyes.

“I feel like now I can create more of an interesting, dynamic show with less people on stage,” he says of his performances, which are usually solo, sometimes accompanied by drummer Kevin O’Donnell, who Bird met at NU and played with in Charlie Nobody.

This weekend’s Chicago stops will mark the near end of Bird’s tour with DiFranco. He says he is looking forward to some recovery time (he started the tour with a 102-degree temperature), but is always a little nervous about playing the “precious territory” of his hometown.

“It’s a strange thing, I get more anxiety over playing Chicago than I do playing on national TV,” he says. “But people are really, really supportive and always have been, so I have nothing to justify that.”

Bird also will show up at The Metro, 3730 N. Clark St., on April 16, his first time headlining a Chicago show in more than a year.

“I’m sure to be a complete wreck,” he says. 4

Medill senior Miki Johnson is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].