"I've been learning one of their songs about every six months for the last 15 years," explains the Chicago-born songwriter (and professional violinist-whistler), who'll present both Handsome Family tunes and his own during a Central Park SummerStage gig this week. "It's something to remind myself what to work toward in my own writing. I think they're in a rare category of songwriters like John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. They do what the best songwriters can do, which is distill a whole novel's worth of meaning into three words."
Of course, Andrew Bird is a highly acclaimed songwriter himself, who has released eight solo studio albums, as well as three with his band, Bowl of Fire. Yet Bird is constantly improving and honing his skills, and this LP—recorded in one session with one microphone in his living room—was very much a journey of artistic self-discovery. "I always learn something when I learn one of [the Handsome Family's] songs," he says. "I always glean something from going in deep and pulling out what I think they mean. I like songs—and I hope it's in my own songs, too—where there's a lot of layers. I like how I can sing these songs every night and not quite get to the bottom of it. That's what keeps me singing them."
A Central Park gig isn't necessarily the place for subtlety, so the upcoming show presents unique challenges for a folk-based performer like Bird. "You'd be foolish to try to hang on to your intimacy in those settings," Bird says. "It won't translate. Like any bigger show, the gestures are more physical and broad and epic. I don't want to be someone who writes music for that scene, but I'll adapt what I'm doing and embrace it for what it is."
Andrew Bird plays Central Park SummerStage Mainstage Tue July 8.
Star songwriters honor their lesser-known influences
Marvelous Clouds (2012)
Former Ween frontman Aaron Freeman released an album of covers by Rod McKuen, an Oakland songwriter whose bittersweet tunes found fame in the ’60s and ’70s.
12 Crass Songs (2007)
Jeffrey Lewis, NYC’s most lyrically astute punk-folkie, came to sloppy, acoustic grips with 12 cuts by the defunct English anarcho-punk band Crass.
Mermaid Avenue (1998–2000)
Political-minded U.K. songwriter Billy Bragg teamed with Chicago indie-rock heroes Wilco to set two albums’ worth of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to music.