Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird played an inspired set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival last weekend, full of both old-time charm and new-age sounds — and, of course, whistling. He played a show packed with songs from 2012’s Hands of Glory, as well as jam-heavy songs like “Imitosis” from 2007’s Armchair Apocrypha and the lighter “Eyeoneye” off Break it Yourself. EW caught up with Bird before his show at the legendary music hall Tipitina’s and talked about New Orleans, his ties to classical music, and how he connects to his growing worldwide fan base.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans. What’s special about this city and playing here?
ANDREW BIRD: This is my first time at Jazz Fest. I never really lived here but I almost did. I spent a lot of time here in the late ’90s working at Kingsway [Studios]. It always felt like I got out just in time. It is just such a heavy place. Just touring in the south, you always have more stories to come back with.
I used to run around and play with a lot of street musicians. [New Orleans] attracts a lot of people from all over that have an ear for that old country blues, traditional music, and these guys just run around and play on street corners and at bars for tips, and I kind of fell into that scene a bit. That was when I was deeply into it; the guys here really knew the field.
What was it like playing at the fairgrounds [where Jazz Fest is held]?
It was important to me to have a really good show. What I really felt was a sense of respect at the festival. Everyone was working the stage, they weren’t just punching in. And then there were other musicians that I used to listen to that came to the side of the stage, watching the set. I was really, really happy with the show.
It’s been a little while since your companion albums Break it Yourself and Hands of Glory came out last year. What are you working on now and are you playing any new songs at your recent performances?
I’m in a retrospective mood that I often get into when I finish a record cycle. I’m kind of done with pushing those songs. And we’re still doing them but it’s been so long. Songs come in and out of favor over the years. It’s been long enough and it feels like you’re almost covering someone else’s song when it’s your own song. And it’s kind of a nice thing at that point.
I saw Billy Joel play at the fairgrounds and I thought he must feel something like that when he plays a song like “Piano Man.”
It probably comes in and out of favor every couple years. It happens to everybody. You do it long enough, you get past a decade, and you start to experience that cycle. Randy Newman came by when we were working on this last record and he was listening to some stuff like,”Yeah, man, I’m trying to figure out how the hell I did what I used to do.” He was trying to write, write his songs. He was having his own crisis.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a lot. It’s usually this lull after you finish something, a vacuum until you get a creative burst. I’m working on a film score I’m excited about, possibly playing with symphony orchestras in the fall. My rule is that if I can learn something from it, I’ll do it.
The symphony seems like a logical fit with your background.
It seems a little obvious that it should happen, but I’ve been reluctant because I come from classical, that world, and I didn’t have the best experiences with it, so I’m a little apprehensive about getting in there with an orchestra. The only [recent symphony collaboration] I think was successful was Joanna Newsom. The others I’ve seen sound cinematic. I only want to do it if I do something new.
I read about a crowdfunded tour you launched in South America. How did that come about?
They keep calling it that and they make it sound like fans paid for the tour and that’s totally not the case. They just bought tickets in a competitive sort of way. It seemed like a good idea, it brought us to some of the expected big cosmopolitan giant cities, but it also brought us to Lima, Peru.
The Internet has helped grow your fanbase. Do you think fans abroad understand what you’re about even if they haven’t seen you live?
It was interesting to do it [in South America] because I have a reputation, but I hadn’t been there yet. I think at some point probably with the Internet, no matter where I would go, everything went up 50 percent or something. Any cosmopolitan place could draw a decent number of people. That went counter to my original ethic that you just have to hit the road and play to win over fans live. I still have that mindset that the real proving ground is at the show, not through digital content — and I prefer that.
Jazz Fest continues through Sunday in New Orleans