For the last few years, Andrew Bird hasn’t been doing exactly what you might expect from Andrew Bird. You can get a taste of the changes when Bird plays Nitefall on the River this week.
The whistling, violin playing Illinois singer-songwriter wrote the score for one film, “Norman,” and wrote the song “The Whistling Caruso” for “The Muppets,” as well as providing the Muppet Walter’s whistling. In fact, Bird wrote several songs for the film, including his own version of the Oscar- winning “Man or Muppet,” but “Caruso” was the only version that made it to the screen.
“They would come to us and say something like ‘We need a song about Kermit working through this, and it should sound like Harry Nielsen,’ ” Bird said during a phone interview. “Then they would say ‘This song needs to be over-the- top earnest,’ then come back and say ‘too earnest, it needs to have over-the-top virtuosity.’ As a Muppet fan, it was very gratifying.”
Bird’s other big change came with the making of his newest album, “Break It Yourself.” The multi-instrumentalist Bird is something of a perfectionist, and the kind of musician who would normally record a good portion of the album himself. But with “Break It Yourself,” he brought the members of his band to his rural Illinois farm, just on the other side of the Mississippi River from Iowa.
There, rather than setting out to record an album Bird and his band just set about jamming for a few weeks. The result was more freewheeling than Bird normally gets.
“I wasn’t as controlling as I normally am,” Bird said. “I kind of made it feel like we weren’t there to make a record, but to just learn some new songs and roll the tape. After a few days it became apparent we were starting to nail things that would be impossible to replicate anywhere else.
“I think we knew we were going for it, but we made it seem casual and like we were just playing what comes to mind and hoping for the best. The lack of pressure was key.”
Pressure is something Bird has felt musically pretty much since the start of his music career. He studied classical music in school, but didn’t feel he was cut out to be a worker bee in an orchestra. He hadn’t grown up with any great affection for rock music, so when he started performing in bands he found it to be a liberating and new experience, without any of the nostalgia some musicians feel for rock. Rather than feeling beholden to the typical structure of rock, Bird said he found it liberating, feeling “like a free agent.”
The freedom lead him to experiment with things like live looping, which has long been a staple of Bird’s live shows. The looping let Bird create a full sound, even when it was just him on stage. Now that he has a much larger band backing him, Bird said looping serves different purposes in his shows.
“I don’t know if I do it as much as the last time I played Des Moines (2009). For some of the old songs we’re trying out eliminating the loop and playing it as a band. That’s breathed new life into them,” Bird said. “But loops help ensure we don’t just sound like a four piece band. Since the last show in Des Moines we are doing more old-timey stuff, where we’re all playing around one microphone with no electric instruments whatsoever. It’s like being on an old radio show.
“When all four of us are making loops, I like that you almost can’t tell where the sound is coming from, and then suddenly the music will be down to earth and us just straight ahead jamming. That’s a new development.”
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Simon Estes Amphitheater, Robert D Ray Drive and East Locust Street