Taking the Miller Lite stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival as the dying embers of a dramatic sunset faded from view, Andrew Bird and his three bandmates delivered a set that was as lively and enchanting as it was creative and challenging. Plucked and bowed violin passages looped in and out of guitar solos, intricate rhythms and Bird’s impassioned vocals on songs from his new album “Are You Serious” as well as older material.
Earlier in the afternoon, Bird took a few minutes to talk with us about “Left Handed Kisses,” a duet with Fiona Apple on the new record, as well as his appreciation for Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt and other topics. Bird, who also played an official ACL late-night show on Friday at Stubb’s, was a weekend-one-only performer in his third visit to the festival.
Austin360: You’ve described “Left Handed Kisses” as “a song about how I can’t write a love song.” Are we now through the looking glass on traditional love songs?
Andrew Bird: “Perhaps. When I set out to write that song, I knew where my brain was going to take me on it. I didn’t know I would end up in a duet with Fiona Apple; I didn’t know that my internal voice would turn into another person. But I did know my tendencies, that I would probably have some doubts. … I was like, ‘I’m going to write a simple love song, and just to make things hard for myself, ‘Baby’ is going to be in the chorus.’ So I kind of set myself up to have these doubts. And those doubts became Fiona’s voice.”
“Are You Serious” is your first record of new material in a few years, but you did an instrumental record and an album of Handsome Family songs between. Did you feel like you needed to get back to putting your own songs out there?
“Yeah. I do those inbetween records just to teach myself how to get better at making records. I always loved the Handsome Family, so it made sense I would do a full record of their stuff. But I wanted to nail a certain vocal thing, that big Marty Robbins sound. So I always have some kind of somewhat of an agenda with those other records.”
You’re such an accomplished violinist that I could have envisioned you being just an instrumentalist, perhaps with another band. Did you ever consider that?
“Well, I wrote my first song when I was 18, so I was interested in [songwriting] early on. But I usually come at it where I’ve got this really strong melody that I’ve been working on for awhile. And if I really want that melody to reach people, the human voice is the most personal way to deliver it. And then I go about writing lyrics to fit the shape of the melody.”
You’ve covered Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” at your shows occasionally for a while now. How and when did you first get interested in Townes?
“Maybe six or seven years ago. I think I heard ‘If I Needed You’ first. Towns and John Prine, are the guys I point to that personally I think are underrated in general. You know, another person namechecking Dylan is not really necessary. So I like these guys who really distill potent feeling into just a few words. That should be the goal of most songwriters, I think.”