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Andrew Bird: Words As Instruments

Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird relies on violins, guitars and whistling to craft a unique sound that's difficult to describe. On his latest album, Noble Beast, Bird even uses his words as instruments, creating lyrics from archaic and esoteric words that conform to the melodies in his head. The singer discusses his music with Melissa Block.

Bird says that his main focus while working on Noble Beast was to represent texture in his music.

"I think of like, when I was a kid, and I would get my Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and throw myself down in a pile of mulch or something and go in there and pretend that I was microscopic," Bird says. "I wanted to capture that kind of woody, mossy, decaying kind of sound."

That combination of senses — seeing colors and smelling smells with sound — appears throughout Bird's songs. On Noble Beast, he says, those influences have formed a more natural landscape.

"I've always been obsessed with moss and moose's horns. The number eight, the sort of roundness of the number eight," he says. "The last record I made is a much more, like, pointy, toothy, jagged record. This one I wanted to make a more warm, bubbly, steamy record."

The Sound Of Words

Bird's lyrics often feature archaic language — words such as radiolarian, plecostomus, dermestids, coprophagia — which he chooses mainly for their sound, but not at the expense of their meaning. When selecting words for lyrics, Bird says, he's more interested in feel than in exact, specific definitions.

"Honestly, I don't really care about the details," Bird says. "It is the sound. And the meaning, and what kind of path it leads you down in conversations with people, like, 'What could it mean?'

"So if they kind of get under my own skin, then I know I have to use it. I guess I'm attracted to more archaic words because they can be imbued with more meaning, because their definition is elusive. And sometimes my use of words is a bit reckless. I'm aware of that."

Bird says he doesn't choose his words only because of the way they sound.

"I can't seem to go all the way with that and just completely make up a new language," he says. "There's a leap there I can't seem to make.

"The way I work, I'm not a confessional singer-songwriter," Bird says. "I don't write poetry and then strum some chords and then fit the words on top of the chords. I start with a very distinct melody, so my options... If one thing is fixed and then the words then have to then conform to the fixed melodies, then it's like cracking codes. It's like trying to go through a number of options of things that [will] just be exactly the right word."

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