Singer, songwriter, violinist
Based in the Chicago area, singer, songwriter, and violinist Andrew Bird has attracted a following to his unique blend of swing, jazz, rock, and blues music. Bird performs as a soloist and with his group the Bowl of Fire, as well as with other musicians such as Kristin Hersh and Howe Gelb. Bird got his start with the zany swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers in the 1990s, and then left that band to produce his own CDs. After releasing three albums and playing on the soundtrack of the 1999 film The Cradle Will Rock, Bird turned to recording more accessible, pop-sounding music with his 2001 release The Swimming Hour. Featuring rock drums and electric guitars, this album achieved critical acclaim and brought the composer to a new level of success. He followed this up with the more experimental Weather Systems in 2003.
Bird grew up in a musical household in the Chicago suburbs of Evanston and Lake Bluff. He grew up listening to classical music, which became his music of choice later in life, although he was also influenced by other styles. At the age of four he learned to play his first instrument, the violin. Although he was later to play many other instruments, the violin remained his primary instrument through high school and college, and in his career as a recording artist.
Bird first learned to play music using the Suzuki Method. Under this style of instruction, students learn to play music without learning to read music. It was only when he got to high school that Bird had to learn to play by reading music. He called this a traumatic, although invigorating, experience. In high school he developed a reputation among his teachers for being musically lazy. He worked hard to overcome this impression. "My teachers always said you have a nice tone and you're very musical, but you don't do the work," Bird explained to National Public Radio's John Schaefer. "I just wanted to get in here and play, I wasn't very patient."
Following high school, Bird attended the music school at Northwestern University in Chicago. There he received rigorous training and developed a strong foundation to his work that was to serve him well in his later career. But he also felt confined by the strict adherence to classical music that marked his training at Northwestern, and he began to seek out other styles of music, including jazz and music from around the world. Bird graduated from Northwestern in 1995.
After his graduation from college, Bird continued his musical explorations, picking up jobs playing in musical theater, in studio sessions, and at renaissance fairs. For a brief time he played with the rock band Charlie Nobody. This period of Bird's musical development culminated with his joining the avant-garde jazz and swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers. After playing on the Squirrel Nut Zippers' second and third albums, and playing with them in concert, he self-produced and released his first solo CD, Music of Hair.
Bird then teamed up with a couple of his Charlie Nobody band mates, drummer Kevin O'Donnell and bass player Josh Hirsch, to create his own band called Bowl of Fire. The trio was soon joined by two other musicians, guitar player James Mathus and singer Katharine Whalen of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. After cutting some demo tracks, later released as the album Thrills, Bird and his band mates were signed by the Rykodisc record label.
While his new band still focused on the same pre-1940s jazz and swing inspirations of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Bird soon began to branch out in other directions. Much of this new music was inspired by pop music, and culminated in his 2001 album The Swimming Hour. He later explained that the reason he waited so long before turning to pop music for inspiration was because he had never listened to it before. He told Mark Guarino in the Arlington Heights, Illinois, Daily Herald, that until his stint with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, "I was as much in a vacuum as I could have been."
Bird left Rykodisc in 2001, after cutting The Swimming Hour, citing their diverging interests as the reason for the break. Rykodisc sought to appeal to a wide audience, while Bird was more interested in continuing his genre-defying musical explorations. He opted to move to another, smaller label, where this would be more possible.
In 2002 Bird moved from his apartment on the North Side of Chicago to a farm in rural Illinois, near the town of Elizabeth. There, not far from where his parents made their home, he set up his studio in a converted barn, spending the majority of his time letting inspiration come to him from his surroundings. He farmed crops such as soybeans and corn, and raised chickens and cows. His daily routine during this time consisted of getting up in the morning, gathering eggs for his breakfast, and then letting ideas for musical compositions slowly grow like the crops all around him, until they took strong enough hold in his mind for him to commit them to recordings.
It was at the barn that he conceived his 2003 album, Weather Systems. Although each piece on Weather Systems is a complete composition in itself, the nine songs on the album blend thematically to create a whole, in which Bird's violins, voice, and other instruments evoke the Midwestern farmlands surrounding his barn. This music follows no conventional musical form; the music is pure artistic creation. "I'm getting away from style now," he told Schaefer in 2003. Just as Bird's compositions defy convention, they also leave interpretation up to the individual listener. With surreal, poetic lyrics, Bird enjoys making his audiences think about what they are listening to, rather than giving them answers.
In addition to his familiar violins, Bird plays the glockenspiel on Weather Systems, and also sings and whistles. Adding a high tech element to his work, he plays an electronic violin that records melodies as he plays them. At key points he has the violin repeat what it has recorded. The effect is as if a small orchestra were playing the music, and not just Bird. He is able to create this effect even while playing the music in concert.
For the Record . . .
Born in 1973 near Chicago, IL. Education: Northwestern University, bachelor's degree in music, 1995.
Learned to play violin at age four, 1977; played in musical theater, a rock band, and in studio sessions immediately after college; joined avant-garde swing band the Squirrel Nut Zippers and recorded with them, 1990s; self-produced and released first solo album, Music of Hair, 1996; formed band called Bowl of Fire, signed with Rykodisc, released Thrills, 1998; released Oh! The Grandeur, 1999; played on soundtrack of film The Cradle Will Rock, 1999; released pop-inspired album The Swimming Hour, 2001; left Rykodisc, released self-produced live album Fingerlings, 2002; released Weather Systems, on Righteous Babe, 2003.
Addresses: Management— Andrea Troolin, Ekonomisk Management, P.O. Box 249, Buffalo, NY 14205. Web-site— Andrew Bird Official Website: http://www.bowloffire.com.
In addition to recording and performing his own music, Bird continues to collaborate in the work of other artists, including Kevin O'Donnell, Kristin Hersh and Howe Gelb, both in concert and in the studio.
Music of Hair, Andrew Bird, 1996.
Thrills, Rykodisc, 1998.
Oh! The Grandeur, Rykodisc, 1999.
(Contributor) The Cradle Will Rock (soundtrack), RCA, 1999.
The Swimming Hour, Rykodisc, 2001.
Fingerlings (live EP), Andrew Bird, 2002.
Weather Systems, Righteous Babe, 2003.
With Squirrel Nut Zippers
Hot, Mammoth, 1997.
Perennial Favorites, Mammoth, 1998.
Christmas Caravan, Mammoth, 1998.
Bedlam Ballroom, Hollywood, 2000.
Best of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Hollywood, 2002.
Albuquerque Journal, October 26, 2001, p. 18.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 13, 2001, p. 4; April 4, 2003, p. 5.
"Andrew Bird," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 8, 2003).
"Andrew Bird," Centerstage Chicago, http://www.centerstage.net/music/whoswho/andrewbird.html (November 11, 2003).
"Andrew Bird," Ekonomisk Management, http://www.ekonomiskmgmt.com/pages/art_ab.html (December 8, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from an interview on National Public Radio's Soundcheck with John Schaefer, August 19, 2003.
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