Page last updated at 05:40 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 06:40 UK

Andrew Bird's high-wire act takes flight

By Sue Wilkinson
BBC News reporter

Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird is part of Edinburgh's Edge festival - a musical accompaniment to the Fringe

Andrew Bird is renowned for his jaw-dropping live shows.

The Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist alternates between vocals, violin, guitar and glockenspiel - with whistling and live violin loops thrown into the musical mix.

Close your eyes and you would think there were six musicians up on stage.

Bird's blend of alt-rock and Americana soars into full flight when he is playing live.

He plays in Edinburgh this week, as part of the Edge Festival - formerly known as T on the Fringe.

On a recent visit to Scotland, Bird told me: "Almost every show I change the arrangement of the songs and mix up the set as much as possible.

"I kind of mix performance with writing. I consider them almost the same thing sometimes."

Bird on a wire

Bird's gigs are a musical high-wire act.

The virtuoso musicianship is impressive, but Bird is most astonishing when he lives dangerously close to the edge.

"I might go as far to say I cultivate it," he said.

"It's that slight flush of embarrassment when things don't quite go well which makes that night special.

"If everything was perfectly comfortable and executed, I'm afraid I would lose some edge."

I got kind of excited, lifted the violin up and it snapped out of my hands and broke into two pieces in front of 3,500 people
Andrew Bird

An edge-of-the-precipice moment came in Chicago recently when the musical juggling act came crashing to the ground when Bird's violin dramatically slipped from his hands and smashed to the floor.

Bird's reaction was surprisingly relaxed.

He said: "It's what could happen every night - and should happen more often.

"It was just kind of funny that it was a hometown show in Chicago and all my friends and family were there. It was pretty high pressure. The violin is connected to multiple wires and I stepped on a cable.

"I got kind of excited, lifted the violin up and it snapped out of my hands and broke into two pieces in front of 3,500 people. It looked pretty bad at the time because it was in two bits.

"But I get strangely calm and philosophical at those moments.

"The sound of the violin breaking got into one of the loops and kept cycling around, and part of me was like - that's really cool.

"I was trying to cue it up as I was finishing the show on guitar."

Smashing styles

Bird likes nothing better than to smash barriers between musical styles.

He is like a mad scientist, tinkering in his laboratory and performing implausible experiments to produce a chemical concoction of musical elements.

Classically-trained, he started playing violin aged four using the Suzuki method.

"I learned completely by ear so I learned like a folk musician," he said.

"I was never a particularly good student. I wouldn't practice my scales. But I absorbed a lot."

So does he use his classical training in his songwriting?

"I guess I do in a way. I grew up listening to it but I have absolutely nothing to do with the classical mind-set and the culture around it," he said.

Scottish roots

After graduating from Northwestern University with a bachelor's degree in Violin Performance he experimented with everything from folk and jazz to swing and alt country.

"Somewhere around the age of 27 something happened where I let the music consume me completely," Bird said.

"Before that I was part music fan, part student, part songwriter. And at some point I just became what I do now and that's when my songs stopped sounding like any style in particular."

One of the songs from his new CD, Noble Beast - Effigy- has a distinctly Scottish sound.

He said: "When I was 20 I was deeply into Scottish and English folk music so it has been an influence.

"For this song I got the shape of a melody in my head and I had the words 'effigy' and 'affable' with a Scottish lilt to them.

"So I had to construct something around them and I thought I'd play a really simple country style - and a fiddle solo - with a Scottish feel to it."

Word play

Bird's songs are full of eccentric words that sound like they've tumbled out of a Scrabble box - radiolarians, dermestids and plecostomus.

He's happiest inventing eccentric word combinations like a musical linguist toying with strange sounds.

"I guess I'm trying to get outside of the everyday vernacular and get interesting words," he said.

"Sometimes I'm drawn in by how the vowels and syllables come together and then struggle to have it all make sense.

"I'm fascinated by that time when things were still being discovered and named. Sometimes I'll take a name no-one knows and reintroduce it. I'll often take an old word that's beautiful like 'sovay' or 'souverian'.

"When I was into old British folk music I'd be fascinated by the words and the archaic expressions.

"I also read a lot of Saul Bellow writing about Chicago in the 1930s and 40s with its street language and colourful expressions."

It is hard to predict where Bird's music will take him and his fans next.

But he provides a few clues.

"I'd like to try to go back to recording with just one microphone - the band gathering around - a really simple live thing," he said.

"I really like to listen to really simple music that's uncorrupted and inherently musical. On the other hand I thought about a wall of sound collage."

Whatever this eccentric musical genius turns his hand to next, it's guaranteed that it won't sound like anybody or anything else.

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