Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.
Musician and songwriter Andrew Bird is an ideal candidate for a discussion of literature. The multi-instrumentalist, who recently released his first film score for indie flick Norman, draws inspiration from the written word, though not always directly. From his roots in indie-folk band Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire in the late ‘90s to the five solo album he’s released since 2003, Bird pens quirky, intelligent songs that balance intense introspection with skipping indie-rock melodies. His last record, 2009’s Noble Beast, featured song titles like “Tenuousness” while the hit from 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha, “Imitosis,” rhymed “closeness” with “mitosis.” Clearly he’s more thoughtful — at least, lyrically — than the average musician. Bird, who will release a new record next spring, talked to Hive about his history with literature, how writing influences his songwriting and why storytelling sometimes belongs on the page rather than in the song.
What was your experience with books like when you were young?
I read quite a bit. I wasn’t a total bookworm or anything — I liked to run around outside more than anything. I think the first novels that grabbed me were the Russians, Dostoyevsky and those. That was when I was about 14 or 15. I liked the romantic doomed-ness of it all. I also liked — and still like — novels of a historical angle, something from a different time when people spoke differently and had different concerns and manners … I think what started to influence me in what I write was — and I still read books with this in mind, I just got into Saul Bellow in the last couple years — the street language and turns of phrases and odd, colorful language. In my 20s it was Graham Greene and now it’s Saul Bellow.
Do you find that the books you read influence the songs you write?
Sure. Rarely in a direct way, but I’m sure the cadence of a writer and their phrasing could have some subliminal influence on my lyrics. Like from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. I don’t have a solid example for you, but there could have a colorful phrase that made it into a song [from that]. Nothing concrete that I’ve pulled from a novel though.
Isn’t “First Song” from Weather Systems taken from a poem?
Yeah, it’s a Galway Kinnell poem. That’s another writer/poet that I got attached to when I was 18 or 19 and he was always someone I would come back to when I needed to feel grounded. You know when you get a little distracted and you feel a little off base? You need to be reminded of what it’s like to be musical, so I’ll listen to old gospel music. Things that seems to be untainted. Same thing with literature. For a long time Galway Kinnell was that for me. Not everything he’s written. That song was when I was first cutting my teeth as a songwriter and you just want to take something of quality and turn it into a song. I did another one later called “Wait.”
Has literature influenced the language you use in song and album titles, like “Tenuousness” or “Nomenclature”?
That’s coming from my general curiosity. It’s not like I know what this word means and you probably don’t, it’s like I also don’t know what this word means. It piques my curiosity and leads to a bunch of conversations with friends of mine. “What do you think ‘Apocrypha’ means?” And then you find out it’s discarded books of the Bible. Why are they discarded? Are they naughty? The implication is that they are so I read them of course. I read the Apocrypha more closely than I have the rest of the Bible, actually. They’re tales of dragons and murder and betrayal — like the rest of the Bible. Well, not the dragon part. So it starts with a word and it takes me on a string of tangential conversations. And I like raising questions in songs more than I like answering them.
Is important for you to create a narrative when you write songs?
I’m rarely focused on narrative. I don’t feel like songwriting is the medium for me to do narratives. If I want to tell a story I’ll just tell a story between songs. I have no problem talking about the song I’ve written. Each one of those verses can be a very long story — so many things are packed into one song. I think the human voice telling a story in front of people is the more ideal medium, whereas songwriting is there for more abstraction. There’s a fine tradition of narrative songwriting and balladry, but it’s too restrictive I think.
When do you plan to release your next record?
March 6, barring any delays. It is done, as of like two days ago.
Now you just sit and wait?
I’m totally idle. No, I’m really busy. I’m working on an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I might do another film score this next month, but it’s too soon to say. You have long lead times for records these days so I’m already doing interviews for it. And I’m still touring.