Whistler's Mother of Invention: Andrew Bird's Palette goes Beyond the Gamut


By Web Behrens

If there’s one thing you really need to know about Andrew Bird, it’s that he’s always whistled, from as far back as he can remember. Perhaps he picked it up from his grandmother, whom he recalls doing the same thing. “I’m pretty much always whistling,” he says.

To be sure, reducing any artist to only one skill (or one passion or, heaven forbid, one gimmick) is unfair. It’s a particularly egregious sin when discussing a musician as smart and complex as Bird. A Chicago native and musical polyglot, he plays multiple instruments—his signature violin, plus guitar, mandolin, and glockenspiel—and he’s also well-versed in a wide range of genres, from classical to jazz, folk to pop, not unlike Ravinia, where he will play for the first time on July 23.

Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that his virtuoso ability to pucker and blow sets him apart. He admits as much: “I wouldn’t have thought, after years [spent learning violin], that the money would be in whistling.”

Although none of his compositions have yet become earworms like “The Fishin’ Hole”—better known as the theme to The Andy Griffith Show—just give him a few more decades. He’s already made a mark in one hallowed sphere of all-ages pop culture: his melancholic-yet-comforting 2011 cover of Kermit’s theme song, “Bein’ Green.” That same year, he composed and performed “The Whistling Caruso” for the plush crew’s silver-screen comeback, The Muppets. “Caruso” provides a perfect example of his whistling talent, which he describes as “operatic and full-bodied. It cuts right through the mid-rangey instruments I play—a completely unique tone that’s part of my palette of sound.

“It’s just the way ideas escape my head,” Bird explains further. “On rare occasions people have objected [to it as an instrument], but it’s a very human way of making sound. It’s just as viable as anything else. I think the fact that it is so casual makes it so potent.” 

Music, in multiple forms, has always been central to Bird’s life. He and his three siblings were raised in the North Shore—first Evanston, then Lake Bluff—and he volunteered as a ticket taker at Ravinia in his early teens, which allowed him to hear a lot of concerts for free. Thanks to his mom’s notion that all her kids should study classical music, young Andrew honed his musical chops early, starting the Suzuki program at age 4. “I was a model Suzuki student,” he explains, “in the sense that it’s all about learning classical music as if it were folk music, as if it were an oral tradition.

“I didn’t learn to read music until I was in high school, and even then I could learn by ear faster than I could read. I was very focused on tone and melody and texture. My teacher would say, ‘You have a great tone and you’re very musical, but you need to practice your scales.’ I was always averse to doing the more mathematical or scientific parts of learning an instrument.”

Even if he skipped out on studies like most youth, he was an unconventional teenager in some noticeable ways. During a time when most kids want desperately to fit in with their peers, Bird eschewed the ubiquitous ’80s pop-rock soundtrack. “It was in the background,” he says, “but I was really uninterested in what my friends in high school were listening to. I found it repetitive and pretty tedious. My goth was Dvořák and Beethoven, and Mozart’s Requiem. That’s a perfect teenage soundtrack right there. You can’t get more dramatic than that.”

Bird’s appreciation for classical music, paired with his considerable aptitude, earned him a conservatory spot at Northwestern University. Although he would ultimately graduate with a bachelor’s degree in violin performance, his resistance to formal study only grew larger. “Early in college, I started going to Irish music sessions on Sundays. Then I got into early jazz,” he reflects. “I was really thirsty for non-Western music. All the while I was playing my concertos, still learning the instrument, but I was a fairly rebellious student. I always wanted to show my teachers what I discovered about gypsy music or jazz. It was good to learn my craft, but I was so ready to break out of it by the time I left.”

By age 18 Bird had already composed his first song, while sitting on the front porch his parents’ farm, and before he graduated Northwestern he’d already recorded his first album, as part of an independent study project. So it wasn’t a surprise when he moved to Chicago and started forging a career that had nothing to do with an orchestra or being a classical soloist. He discovered the indie rock scene, hitting shows at Lounge Ax or Empty Bottle, and he remembers wondering: “Why is everyone so out of tune, yet so compelling?”

After hooking up with the popular roots-swing ensemble Squirrel Nut Zippers in the mid-’90s, he fronted his own band, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire, comprising mostly of fellow Chicagoans. They won acclaim, but some part of Bird still wasn’t ready to embrace the possibility of larger success. “I had a very realistic philosophy when I started touring,” he says. “When I rolled up to a town in my conversion van with my band, I thought, ‘Why on earth should anyone know or care who we are? Why would they know enough to come to the show?’ I probably could’ve used a little more brazen confidence.” The group drifted apart after recording and releasing three albums, and Bird made a momentous decision.

He’d been living in various neighborhoods of Chicago till 2001. And then, he recalls, “at a time when most of my friends were moving to New York or LA, I decided to move to a barn in western Illinois.” It was on his parents’ farm, located near Galena. Perhaps not coincidental to Bird’s artistic or spiritual growth, it’s arguably the most beautiful part of the entire state: near the Mississippi River, a glacier-carved region with hills and bluffs and actual elevation. “It’s got interesting topography,” he acknowledges.

Thus began a period of extreme isolation for the artist. “At that time, my folks weren’t living on the farm. They were a few miles away, but I would go for days without talking to anyone,” he recalls. 

A drastic lifestyle change for anyone accustomed to the urban sprawl, the move led to introspection and, ultimately, fervent creativity. Bird released his first professional solo record, Weather Systems, in 2003; his reputation, along with his fan base, has only grown since. Four years later, when he released Armchair Apocrypha, he made his TV debut on David Letterman’s show, later performing for Conan O’Brien as well, and NPR broadcast a live Andrew Bird concert.

While constantly playing with his sound and compositions, his career plowed forward, not always in an expected manner. In addition to recording his own songs, he released cover albums and also veered further into experimental instrumentals, the peak of which is 2015’s Echolocations: Canyon, recorded in Utah’s great outdoors. 

While justly renowned for his violin chops and whistling, there’s a third piece to Bird’s creative gestalt: his literary stylings. Bird’s discography could fuel a college course. Consider the advanced vocabulary evident in song titles alone—“Nomenclature,” “Tenuousness,” “Fake Palindromes,” “Scythian Empires”—then dive into the wordplay (“Saints Preservus”) and the complex subject matter of his lyrics. Bird examines life through any number of lenses, including history, biology, philosophy, and religion. It’s not hard to imagine rarified honors—a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant—being accrued by the intellectual poet in the future.

By the time Bird released Are You Serious in 2016, a few key years had elapsed since he’d laid his own songs to track. His most personal album to date, Serious reflects the experiences of a man who’d gotten married, had a child, and moved the family from a New York apartment to a house in LA. (The release earned Bird a Grammy nomination, although he lost to the toughest of competition, David Bowie’s swan song, Blackstar.) The songs’ subject matter reflects the album title, even as the melodies captivate with great rock riffs (“Capsized”) and, of course, infectious whistling and fiddling (“Roma Fade”). Having just turned 44 years old prior to this summer’s Ravinia show, he’s in a place in life to write songs such as “Valleys of the Young,” an ode to parenting that wonders, “Do you need a reason / That we should commit treason / And bring into this world a son? / And leave the valleys of the young / Valleys of the young / Valleys of brunch and tedium.”

And then there’s “Puma,” which Bird was driven to compose even though it felt too revealing. At first blush, it’s a catchy pop song with a fun title; the lyrics open with standard philosophical/scientific Bird musings (“Do you see particles in the air?”). Then the driving chorus seems to deal metaphorically with matters of love: “She was radioactive for seven days / How I wanted to be holding her anyways.” But it turns out, he was being chillingly literal. His wife, fashion designer Katherine Tsina, had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer when their son was a toddler; her treatment led to a seven-day quarantine while she was literally radioactive.

“Yeah, ‘radioactivity’ in an Andrew Bird song, you’d assume it was metaphor,” he admits. “I do that a lot. But I was very aware that it was very matter-of-fact. When you’re dealing with something that visceral and real and scary, you do it a disservice by cloaking it in too much metaphor.”

Although other patients and their loved ones who’ve been through the experience have found succor in the song, Bird admits, “I’ve had some regret about it. It had a certain cost. I did what I always do: I filter what I see in the world though songwriting. But I’m not a big sharer. You expect singer-songwriters to confess it all to you and lay it all bare. I’ve always had an issue with that. It’s just not how I was raised, you know? I’m a Midwestern kid; that’s not how our people do things.”

Still, the song is a triumph: an upbeat ode to his wife’s humor and courage while dealing with the diagnosis. (And the title, at least, is a metaphor—with a sense of humor: “Don’t try to tell her … she’s a girl and not a puma.”) And it has a happy ending: Tsina is cancer-free today.

With that period of struggle behind his family, Bird has energy to devote to a relatively new passion: a web series, recorded in his home, called Live from the Great Room. He invites over other musicians—such as Jackson Browne, Chris Thile, Randy Newman—but also people not known for playing an instrument or composing music. Broadcast on Facebook Live and archived, at least for a short while, on Bird’s own website, Great Room segments include conversations with anyone who sparks Bird’s own creativity. Past guests include Tony- and Oscar- nominated actor John C. Reilly and Chicago visual and performance artist and cultural preservationist Theaster Gates.

“Sometimes 20,000 are people watching,” Bird says, “but no one’s in the room—it’s a very strange thing. It’s enough to make you want to stand up and perform, but not enough to make you uptight about it. … The main thing I want to do is learn. I want the combination of these two people—myself and someone else—to create something that didn’t exist before.”

To that end, he says he’s pondering inviting a “really dynamic” string quartet to appear. He also booked Zach Galifianakis for an episode that aired May 23, although having a comedian on Great Room pushes him out of his comfort zone. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Bird says, a week out from the broadcast, “and that’s really exciting.”

Web Behrens covers arts, culture, and travel for the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business. He’s also worked as an editor and contributor for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader.