Andrew Bird on Songwriting, Biking, and Melodies

In about a week I will load up my car with amplifiers and guitars and drive to Nashville to begin recording my next record. I don’t drive much anymore and I’m glad for that except that I used to write a lot while on the road. Solitude, boredom, and the desperate need to entertain oneself are ideal stimuli for songwriting.

I’ve spent most of the last year inside a tour bus. I’ve spoken more words to journalists than I have to my friends and family. All of this has kept me from what I realize now is my job, and that’s to daydream. Now I bring my bike on tour and ride every day. Wandering in an unfamiliar town, the rhythm of walking or riding and a few hours to kill is nearly the perfect recipe for a new idea.

I’ve got 11 songs mostly written and several dozen distinct melodies. I never worry about the melodies drying up. Since I can remember, I’ve had melodies in my head. I chew my food to them.

Almost every breath contains some fragments of an escaping melody. If I shape my lips so as to whistle, my breath will take on a musical shape like sonic vapor. Words are much trickier. I would forgo words altogether if I didn’t love singing them so much. My choice of words and my voice betray so much and that’s what’s so terrifying and attractive about it.

I’m not the most forthcoming person — I only speak when I have something to say. What is becoming more challenging of late is dealing with so many fully formed melodies that are unwilling to change their shape for any word. So writing lyrics becomes like running multiple code-breaking programs in your head until just the right word with just the right number of syllables, tone of vowel and finally some semblance of meaning all snap into place.

I’m kind of the opposite of the confessional singer-songwriter who fills notebooks full of poetry and intones them over a bed of chords. Meaning or “the truth that’s in my heart” usually reveals itself well after the record is released. I’m often surprised that the things I care about actually end up in my songs. Until then I’m mostly concerned with shape, tone and texture. I’m really an instrumentalist who sings words and if you care to pay attention you might enjoy them. So in this post, I will begin reporting on the progress of an as of yet unfinished song, with all my doubts and insecurities laid bare.

The song in question is called (for now) “Oh No.” It began, as do most of my songs, with a sound. It could be a creaking door or a delivery truck or the sound of multiple stereos wafting out of bedroom windows. For the last four years the same dancehall beat has been has been rattling the foundation of my Chicago apartment. When I stay at my farm, sparrows, coyotes, chickens and frogs find their way into my songs as well.

In the instance of this song I was on a flight from New York back to Chicago and a young mother and her 3-year-old son sat in front of me and it was looking to be the classic scenario of the child screaming bloody murder. However, I was struck by the mournfulness of this kid’s wail. He just kept crying “oh no” in a way that only someone who is certain of their demise could. Pure terror. Completely inconsolable. It was more moving than annoying.

So when I got home I picked up my guitar and tried to capture the slowly descending arc of that kid’s cry. It fit nicely over a violin loop that I had been toying with which moves from C-major to A-major.

I’ll spend days at my farm creating loops with my violin where I record a phrase and layer on top of it, often starting with pizzicato followed by multiple string lines. This is a handy compositional tool I also use in performance. I can follow any whim and instantly hear how it works in counterpoint with other ideas. It’s perfect for someone who plays by ear and improvises as I do and who is too impatient for notation. This helps keep ideas fluid and ephemeral but with an instant gratification playback option. I’ve found that I can be completely satisfied for weeks by the simplest four-bar phrase repeating over and over again. It’s a fragile thing where your perception of it can change it completely. You can reconstruct all the elements the following day, note for note and go by physical memory but the feel can be elusive.

Back to “Oh No.” All this child knows is that he needs to get off this plane and I can empathize. I often find myself in a crowded room and all I know is “I need to get out of here.” So begins the song with a child’s half-dream of climbing out a window and venturing into the ravines around Lake Bluff, where I grew up.

let’s get out of here
past the atmosphere
squint your eyes and no one dies or goes to jail
past the silver bridge
oh the silver bridge wearing nothing but a one-sie and a veil.

When I was little the “silver bridge” spanned the ravine and marked the boundary of my known world.

Words get under my skin the same way melodies do. Something catches my attention and I file it subconsciously. It often begins with an archaic or obscure word I have not defined. I just like the sound of it and its elusive meaning gives it a mysterious shine. On the menu of a local cafe is an item called “salsify.” Before I reach for the dictionary I let my imagination run wild and decide that salsify is a burrowing bronchial root like a rickety old mine that burrows deep into something. It turns out that’s mostly correct which encourages me further. All I know is “salsify mains” sounds good to me.

Then I might think of what I want to say, what have I been fixated on of late? I have been thinking about how as adults we bury our emotions and I almost envied that kid on the plane who had license to express what we all were probably feeling. And how I have felt frozen and numb of late. (The process may seem more deliberate than it actually is — it’s only because I’m breaking it down for this article and have hindsight that it appears that I know what I’m doing).

In the salsify mains of what was thought but unsaid
the calcified charismatists were doing the math
It would take a calculated blow to the head
to light the eyes of all the harmless sociopaths

What does it take to wake us up, we who feel so little? Aren’t we almost like sociopaths, only the kind that don’t kill people?

The only thing I don’t care for in this lyric is the “calcified charismatist” — it just feels too clever. I’m known to make up words but this is too heavy-handed. So I’m still searching for the right words. For a while it was “unemployed ex-physicists,” but that’s too typical of something I would write. Lately I’m considering “calcified arhythmitist” or just “arithmatist” — something that conveys a physicist’s sketch or formula for what will revive our harmless sociopath. Then the cheerful refrain of “arm in arm we are the harmless sociopaths/in the calcium mines buried deep in our chests.” Followed by the chorus which has only taken shape in the last day, which is “Oh no, we’re deep in a mine/Oh no, a calcium mine.” Sounds a bit bleak as I break it down, but it should be a rousing little number.

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