Andrew Bird: Feeling like you're covering your own song is the best

In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, a conversation with Andrew Bird before his performance at Target Field's Skyline Music Festival on Friday.

Andrew Bird's latest album, Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of... is an elegant selection of material by country darlings the Handsome Family. But why would a master of his craft such as Bird release an entire album of cover songs? And furthermore, why all songs by the same artist? I was excited to finally meet the Minotaur running loose around Andrew's labyrinth brain.


Mark Mallman: There's a John Cale song called "Broken Bird" that constantly humbles me. I could listen to it a hundred times, and I still wouldn't know it. I don't feel that I would ever be good enough to write that song. So, the way to become closest is to learn it, to perform it. I suppose for you, it's the Handsome Family?

Andrew Bird: I perform a lot of these songs every night to remind myself what's good. Take a song like, "Don't Be Scared," there's a whole novel in there and it's a short song. I hope in my life I can write a line as potent as "The sky was a woman's arms," as in "Giant of Illinois."

That's the appeal of covering someone else's songs. It touches us in a way, and enlightens us to a place that we couldn't get to on our own.

Handsome Family does in their songs what I hope to do in my songs, which is give the listener credit for having an imagination. There is also an ambiguity that I certainly appreciate. In my opinion, there's not enough time in a three-minute song to have a beginning, middle, end, and a full narrative. Some people do it, but I don't think it's the best medium for that. You've got time to do a scene, like a sequence out of a movie. Maybe. I always find that there's enough time to bring up some interesting questions, but not enough time to answer them.

Haha, that sounds like the totality of existence! There's a successful place for ambiguity in songwriting. It's the a poetic element of keeping things vague, of keeping things slight.

Yes, just enough room to move around in. That's what makes it fresh every night to perform, and hopefully on the other end, to hear.

Did you make this record because you feel like the Handsome Family deserves more than just being a critic's darling, or was it that this material deeply spoke to you?

More the latter, but I've had moments of ambition where I've felt, "This song is a classic. This song could be huge." Years ago, one of their tunes, "Don't Be Scared," popped into my head and I couldn't place where it was coming from. For a second I thought it was the Radiohead ballad, "Fake Plastic Trees." So I thought, to make the cover as best I could, I would put this type of emotional sweep to it. It's like a sequence from a film. But then, there's no production on this record. We set up two microphones and went straight into a tape machine. It's a performance. There was no ambition to make it a Top 40 song.

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is an example of a song that started out deep in an obscure catalog, but eventually did go Top 40. Enough mainstream arists covered it over 30 years, that it's now became a part of our popular songbook -- Rolling Stone 500 greatest songs list, etc. As a songwriter, why do you think we even cover songs to begin with?

It's therapeutic. It gets you out of your own head. Part of the impetus for laying this album down, was I was feeling congested. I was kind of starting to default to Handsome Family songs, maybe more than was healthy for my own songwriting. I felt like I needed to get them all down in one place so that I could clear out the pathways and start writing my own stuff again. [page]

I can see that, the idea of wanting to record other peoples songs as a catharsis.

Yeah, I was a little backed up. I'd just accumulated so many of their songs, I had to get them recorded. I thought while I was at it, I'd learn something about how to make my next record too. I was in pursuit of a certain vocal sound, a big vocal. Like on those early '50s and '60s Nashville records, there's this huge-throated vocal performance.

In a cultural context, I find it interesting how someone like Elvis never wrote any of his own material. You don't ever hear people saying, "'In the Ghetto,' that's an Elvis cover song." Pop marketing doesn't concern itself with writing credits, I suppose.

I feel that's more of a product of the last 40 years. I think Carole King was kind of the bridge from Brill Building to confessional first-person, "This happened to me." There's a reality to it that people respond to. What's cool about the Handsome Family is that they have a Tin Pan Alley, kind of Vaudeville thing about them. That division of labor is appealing. She writes the lyrics. He writes the melody. It's a division of labor like a classic songwriting team. When I'm doing my own songs, I have that internal conversation in my own brain. It's really hard to bring it to the stage and have that freedom that you feel when doing a cover song. Now what we are doing on stage is I'll do four or five Handsome Family tunes, then I'll take songs of mine that are old enough where I feel that I'm covering myself.

Wow. Covering yourself. I can see that, because over the years we grow and change so much.

With your own songs, you've brought them into existence and lived with them for years, and sometimes they can be a burden. When they feel the best is when you feel like you're covering your own song. Five years after you wrote it, when you have distance around it, that's when I feel like I get it. That's when I sing it better.

And with a Handsome Family song?

I like the way I sing a cover song, like I chose it for it's singability. Also, when I do a cover, I never do it faithful. The more familiar it is with people, the more I want to twist it around. If it's less familiar, then it's exciting to bring it to people, which is mostly the motivation behind doing the Handsome Family stuff. A lot of times I'll try to turn people on to them and they'll be like "ehhh, I don't know." This is a rich, deep, well of great songwriting that deserves to be up there with Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, some of the best. With Handsome Family, you gotta spend some time with it, or even just play it yourself.

Skyline Music Festival: Indie Night. Andrew Bird, the New Pornographers, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, S. Carey, and Dosh. $29/$49, gates at 4:30 p.m., music at 5:30 p.m., Friday, August 8, at Target Field. Tickets.

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