Before he became a world-renowned violinist, whistler and songwriter, Andrew Bird cut his teeth performing in Chicago at small local venues like the Hideout. Though he's since moved away to Los Angeles, Bird has maintained a presence in the city he once called home, launching a tour in support of his new record—the cheekily-titled My Finest Work Yet—with a pair of gigs at a small jazz club in Uptown. Now, Bird is coming back to Chicago for a show in a much larger setting, performing a collection of upbeat songs from an album that deals with weighty topics like climate change and political division. Ahead of his headlining performance at the Chicago Theatre on July 16, Bird spoke to us about his deep ties to Chicago, the challenge of crafting a record that grapples with current events and the chances of the return of his signature Gezelligheid concerts this winter (spoiler alert: It's probably happening).
You played a couple of shows at the Green Mill earlier this year just after the release of your new record. What inspired you to perform in such an intimate venue?
I used to live down the street from there in my 20s and I would ride my bike there in the mornings, because they were actually open in the morning, and I’d play the jukebox, just because it was quiet there. I played there a few times and I would go to shows there all the time. It’s just such an extraordinary room. It’s partially nostalgia and partially because this album has a very intentional small group jazz approach to recording, so I thought that it would be a good place to start off.
You’re still working on your series of Echolocations records that are tracked in outdoor environments. If you were to come back to Chicago to record one of these albums, where would you make it?
I’ve already done the most urban environment that’d I’d want to at the L.A. River, so the idea was to keep it more in nature. One thing that started the idea was when I was playing the first year of Pitchfork Music Festival. I remember riding my bike to Union Park and the sensation of hearing a festival in the city in the distance, the sound getting warped around buildings and through the canyons of an urban environment. It’s kind of beautiful and it doesn’t sound anything like what’s being played when you get to the festival. I’ve always wanted to do something that messes with that idea.
There was a lot of ink spilled about how My Finest Work Yet is a very topical and political album, by virtue of it being written in the wake of the 2016 election. Now that it’s been in the world for a few months, are there any interesting or unexpected reactions you’ve received from listeners?
As far as feedback, I was expecting some blowback or controversy or something uncomfortable, but it really hasn’t happened, even from people that I know don’t agree with me. That was the hope—like the song “Manifest,” if I described to you what that song was about you might think, “well, that’s going to be a hard sell as a piece of music.” The idea was that I’d lay out the whole issue of climate change in a way that we maybe haven’t thought of it before. Like, what’s the afterlife of energy? Where’s it coming from? Things that have died millions of years ago are buried underground and compressed and fossilized—there’s still life energy in that thing and we pull it out of the ground and put it into a combustion engine and it escapes out the tailpipe like a ghost and gets trapped in the atmosphere. It’s taking a subject that’s otherwise that otherwise clunky and hard to get excited about and trying to make it as lyrical and poetic and, hopefully, get beyond the choir and make people that aren’t thinking about it or don’t believe it, think about it in a different way. Maybe that’s my idealistic optimism, but if anything can do it, it’s a song.
This record is about dealing with a world that is facing challenges and racked with division, but your lyrics approach these realities with a real sense of hope. Why was it important for you to maintain a sense of optimism with these songs?
It was more of a practical thing. A delivery system for these ideas has to be as appealing as possible and as satisfying to listen to as possible. As I do interviews and talk about them, I finish describing a song and go “who the hell would want to listen to that?” The album is all of my impulses as a musician. When I sing “Manifest” I get very moved, even though I’m singing about fracking. It’s a bit like I could be singing the phone book, but the songs are designed in such a way that you could interpret them on many different levels. When you’re talking about current events and things we’re dealing with in the present, you have to work really hard to make it have a long shelf life and be different than all the other media we’re consuming.
You’ve written a lot of songs that deal with history, including a reference to the Spanish Civil War on your new song “Bloodless.” Why is looking into the past such a an important tool for you as a lyricist?
There’s all sorts of things that you can pull from history that can help us possibly not repeat it. Beginning with Greek mythology—which I also touch on in this album—these stories persist over the centuries for a reason; they help us make sense of our time and human behavior. Addressing current events with current names and places makes you lose people immediately. It’s interesting how Watergate had this mythology and aura about it and it seemed like this very important thing even though what’s happening now is far more important. But it’s really hard to write a song about current stuff without it being a jokey novelty song. People don’t value the current moment as much as they do 20 or 30 years in the past.
Before I let you go, is there any chance that you'll be bringing your Gezelligheid concerts back to Fourth Presbyterian Church this year?
I think we've worked it out so that I can do it this year. I'm almost 90 percent sure.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrew Bird headlines the Chicago Theatre on July 16 at 7:30pm, with support from Madison Cunningham.