On the song 'Chemical Switches', Andrew Bird sings, "Chemical switches thrown in the dark/ all it takes is a spark/ to begin" - and for him, there seems to have been several sparks throughout his life.

The song is off of his upcoming album, Are You Serious? It drops on April 1st and has been generating buzz for a while. I was lucky enough to get the album for review some time ago and have been listening to it non-stop - so when I was presented with the opportunity to interview him, I pounced.

So, prepare to go 'Under the Influence' with Andrew Bird. Get a better understanding of his music's inner workings and a bit how he became to be the musician be is today. And who knows, maybe if you catch him on a good day, he can show you some of his sweet breakdancing moves.

What was life like growing up in Illinois?

We had a lot of freedom to run wild in the ravines that cut through this small town and emptied into Lake Michigan. Otherwise a fairly suburban and uptight place. I credit my mom with my artistic education and my dad with getting us out to the country.

What was your introduction to music? What are some of your earliest memories of music being played around the house?

My mom liked classical and my dad liked country. But it was all about the violin from age 4.

As you got older, what were the bands and musicians you gravitated towards? Do any of them still resonate with you today?

In the 6th grade I got pretty serious about breakdancing. Had a manual on how to talk street. i.e "wack" as in "yo that girl is wack". Skateboarding. Listening to the Police. Friday night videos. That was my brief brush with mainstream youth culture. In high school I got serious about the violin and pop music was just peripheral. My friends were into 4AD bands, I was into Dvorak. Though I did get into Donovan and Dylan and British Folk for a while.

You have a somewhat unique background when compared to other musicians in the "industry" in that you studied music in college, specifically your work with the violin. How has that shaped you into the musician you are today?

Despite being "trained" I always had a more experimental, improv, unmethodical approach to music. I did my time mastering my instrument but struggled to not feel obligated to it. I learned everything by ear.

Have you found that "classical music" affects the way you approach composing your music?

Not really. The melodies from classical music are part of my collective experiences along with early jazz, old-time folk, country blues, gospel. It just boils down to melody and rhythm. I've had nothing to do with classical culture for over 20 years.

One beloved Andrew Bird-ism is your gift for whistling. Was that something you've always been able to do? What led you to add it as a compositional point in many of your songs?

I whistle constantly so it would be strange to stop whistling when I step on stage or into the studio.

While Chicago is a diverse music hub, how is the overall music scene in Illinois? How has that played a role in the musical journey?

Chicago has such a magnetic pull that it leaves the rest of Illinois a bit drained. Whereas Wisconsin and Minnesota are somewhat healthier scenes. That being said Chicago was a cheap place to start out with a nurturing club scene. If you were doing something good and different you could find your people.

Other than music, do you look to any other forms of art and literature for inspiration? Do you have any favorite authors, poets, artists?

My mother is a print artist and many of my friends are print artists in Chicago. Jay Ryan, Diana Sudyka, Chris Ware, Audrey Niffenager. They often work with text and narrative and it was cool to collaborate with them to illustrate the songs. Saul Bellow, Galway Kinnell, Primo Levi have been big for me.

Your music has always been soulful. But, your upcoming album, Are You Serious, expands out of a comfort zone of the folk stylings you are most famous for. Many of the songs have guitar licks and bass lines you can really wiggle your hips to. Did anything significant prompt this expansion of soundscapes?

I like social music that is useful. Something that can play at the skating rink or the public pool. I'm obsessed with rhythm sections in groove based music - how basslines lock with drums. I don't listen to much acoustic singer-songwriter stuff.

Is there perhaps any music that influences you that fans may find surprising?

Whenever I'm on hold or in an elevator and they're playing smooth jazz I just picture people dancing on a soundstage and I actually enjoy it. The grooves can be pretty sick. But I'm talking George Benson / Earl Klugh not Kenny G.

How has being a husband and father affected your approach to music?

Makes me less patient with semantics. I just want to get to the heart of the matter.

Being an established and well-respected artist, there are troves of musicians and producers who would love to work with you. Are there any musicians/ bands (who, you haven't already collaborated with) that pique your interest and you would like to work with?

John Cale, Brian Eno, and Kelly Reichardt (filmmaker).

What advice would you give to musicians who are honing their craft and pursuing music as a career?

After you've soaked up enough from the world put yourself in a vacuum. Isolate yourself and find out what's really inside you.


Andrew Bird's new album, Are You Serious, is out on April 1st via Loma Vista Recordings/Decca.