Among the modest breakthroughs in the unobvious pop career of Andrew Bird was a journey to New Orleans to record with the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band for its 2010 benefit album, Preservation.
It was a homecoming for Bird on several levels. Now an established and stylistically indefinable artist (but we will use tags like "classically trained," "pop-bred" and "folk-informed," for now), he was returning to a city and sound he knew well. Bird cut one of his first albums, 1996's Thrills, there with his then-band Bowl of Fire at a time when he was infatuated with the vintage jazz that has come to define Preservation Hall.
"I went back there thinking they were going to be these grumpy old jazz guys," Bird, 39, recalled. "I was explaining to one of them I used to play this kind of music and he just smiles and goes, 'Oh, we know who you is."
These days, a lot of people have come to know Bird, thanks to a sizeable indie fan base that has latched onto a folk-pop sound rooted somewhere between tradition and psychedelia with instrumentation built around violin and animated human whistling and stage shows that blend band interplay with looped melodies and orchestrations.
These are fruits of a career Bird built from scratch. A Chicago native, he began classical music studies at Northwestern University before branching out into music he found more spontaneous and challenging. Touring relentlessly (he was playing shows with Bowl of Fire in Lexington clubs as far back as the '90s), Bird developed an audience for a patchwork pop sound that grew steadily with the release of solo albums including 2007's Armchair Apocrypha, 2009's Noble Beast and especially 2012's Break It Yourself.
"I think I now see the benefits of sticking to my guns, enjoying slow growth and not having obvious radio hits that would create expectations. The only expectations I have right now would be that I am always expected to go off the map a little bit, which is great. That's my impulse. I tend to be restless. I don't feel satisfied after a show unless I've done something that has pushed me, something that is a little new or a little precarious.
"The first eight to 10 years were lean. It felt like I was kind of seeing the same 150 to 200 people wherever I played. I wasn't really growing exponentially. I was like, 'Man, I could really see the benefit of being associated with some kind of movement.' I'm so glad now that never happened, because those things come and go."
The songs for Break It Yourself began coming to Bird as he was composing the score for the 2011 indie film Norman. While the resulting soundtrack album stands as one of his most inviting and atmospheric works, bridging the film's fleeting sense of innocence with his own darker musical impulses wasn't always an easy process.
"I was adapting songs to certain scenes and even shifting some lyrics around just to have the music make more sense within that scene. Some of the scenes are these sort of tender coming-of-age, first-love situations. And my lyrics can maybe be a little more, well, cryptic than what would be appropriate for this type of thing. So there was that part of it. The music for the score — for me, anyway — tended to be more dreamy. With Break It Yourself, I wasn't so into doing that. I was more into a no-production, no-overdubs sort of realism — you know, just four guys in a room playing these songs together."
That four-guys-in-a-room feel will be expanded upon with an upcoming EP disc, Hands of Glory. It's a grab-bag of country work tunes (Railroad Bill), covers (Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You), rootsy revisions of songs from Break It Yourself (Orpheo Looks Back) and a psychedelic slant on Ryan Adams-style Americana (Three White Horses).
But what constitutes two of Bird's most enjoyable and unexpected projects were a pair of 2011 Muppets-related records: an all-star tribute set called The Green Album, where he covered It's Not Easy Being Green, and the subsequent film soundtrack recording to The Muppets, where Bird whistled madly while he worked on an original piece, The Whistling Caruso.
"They sent me some YouTube clips of a professional whistler with an orchestra. I went, 'OK. I get it.' Then they heard what I wrote and said, 'That's too sincere. It needs to be over the top. It needs to go to a point where people say, 'Boy, he's good,' and then just keeps going.' And I'm like, 'Whoa. This is ridiculous.' But it was fun."