Andrew Bird Gives Glory to Old-Time Sounds

At times on Andrew Bird’s new roots-infused album, Hands of Glory, it’s hard to tell if you’re listening to a modern piece of music or an experiment recorded and discarded in the early 1900s.

“I kind of like that era right up through the ‘20s,” Bird tells CMT Edge. “Like, my dad has a Chevy from ’27, and it still feels like a carriage. The fixtures are still kind of Victorian, yet it’s got this world-of-tomorrow aesthetic.”

That contrast extends to Bird’s latest project, where the classically-trained violinist gathered his small band around a single microphone in a Western Illinois barn and worked to make the past feel forward-thinking.

Inspired by the old-time breakdowns in Bird’s thoroughly-modern live performances, Hands of Glory features covers of country classics like Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” a new version of his much-revised “Orpheo Looks Back” and new songs like the traditionally-themed “Three White Horses.” It’s a companion disc to Bird’s critically-acclaimed Break It Yourself, showing off the progressive musician’s creativity in a new format.

The Chicago-based virtuoso will be in his hometown raising money for the Rock for Kids Andrew Bird Scholarship Fund on Dec. 22, and he took some time recently to call in to CMT Edge about his inspiration for Hands of Glory. He also explained the relaxed feeling in his barn and that it’s hard to find a song on par with “If I Needed You.”

There is a distinct sound on Hands of Glory. How would you describe it?

Strictly musically, it’s more raw and performance-oriented. Break It Yourself was headed in that direction. Onstage, we were doing this old-time section of the show where we get around one microphone and do it kind of Bill Monroe style. That really took off and was feeling especially good. It’s just the kind of music I have been playing for 20 years. It’s the kind of music I play to get warmed up for a show — basic elemental stuff. It tends to be the old gospel tunes that help me find my voice to sing. It’s from the gut, so I thought that should be captured on a record.

Your music sounds very sophisticated to me, so did switching over to this roots-based style feel like a bit of a relief?

No, I’ve been playing in rock clubs since I was 19 and breaking a lot of hairs on my bow. I’ve got a lot of technical facility from years of practice, but I have never been precious about my violin playing. I just abuse it for whatever I need. So I have been playing in that kind of raw style for a long time. I used to play old-timey music and Irish music when I was 19 or 20, and with that, you get to play your own backbeat with the bow. So I broke out of the classical phrasing a long time ago.

When did country music become a big influence in your life?

I remember family vacations going through the Smoky Mountains and hearing ‘70s country with a lot of pedal steel. To this day, I associate it with being car sick. (laughs) My dad liked the Oak Ridge Boys, so my dad was the country music fan, and my mom was the classical music fan, and that made sense with their personalities. I got into the early jug band stuff and early jazz stuff, and at some point when jazz diverged into bebop, the stuff I was into turned into rock ‘n’ roll/country. So I am more into it these days than I ever was.

Is this sound something you think you’ll continue experimenting with?

I think I am going to continue taking it into a live realm and tearing the band down into maybe a trio, which seems to be ideal for the one-microphone thing. I have been playing with Tift Merritt, so she is likely to be involved next year. But I don’t know what I’m going to do next, honestly. Maybe I have exorcised this thing and maybe it’s time to do something else. I could see myself getting back into more of a controlled thing.

You said this started from gathering around one microphone onstage. What made you want to start doing that?

The first records I made were done that way — back then it was kind of a religion, like I was a little more religious about the old way of doing things. Now it is not driven by that, it’s just that we play and sing better when we do it this way. It’s tricky when you get in the studio and there is no one to play for, and this seems to really get around that problem. There is no disconnect.

You reworked a few of your own songs. That’s something of a theme for you. Why do they keep changing?

I think it’s playing live night after night and trying to keep things fresh and close to where they were conceived. That kind of drives the reworking. Songs go through these cycles where they are fresh and you’re excited to share it with the world, and there is nothing like that first time with an audience. Then it kind of goes through a dip in favor, and you’ve got to dig deeper and find what made the song special to start with.

When you make a record, there are so many states of mind that you are in throughout the day. So in each song, you only capture one of those. In the morning, your tempos are pretty fast because you just had your coffee, and then it kind of dips with the low blood sugar. And then late at night, they get back on the beat. That’s what happened with “Orpheo.” There were multiple versions of that throughout a three-year period. It was the one song on Break It Yourself that was done completely by myself. That was just me working out of my own head, and that led to a cool version, but I thought the song had more of a yearning version in it, too.

You also cover Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” on this album. Were you at all overwhelmed trying to take on that song?

No, I kind of came to his music just in the last couple years, and that song was new and fresh to me. I was not really aware of the other pretty high-profile covers of that song. I sang it with Tift just like a year ago, and she was like, “Oh, that was my dad’s favorite song. I grew up singing that.” But it was very new to me. It’s almost like since I have started doing that song, I’m having trouble finding other songs that are that good.