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Andrew Bird navigates a ‘Serious’ change in sound and approach

Andrew Bird performs Thursday night at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Dawn of Midi opens. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45.
Andrew Bird performs Thursday night at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Dawn of Midi opens. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45. From the artist

An impromptu meeting with Randy Newman inspired Andrew Bird to change the way he made his brand-new album, “Are You Serious.”

“I didn’t know (Newman), but his daughter is a fan (of Bird) and he wanted to see what I was working on,” Bird told The Star recently. “He dropped by while I was mixing my previous record. So he sat and listened to a song and said, ‘That’s cool, very cool. But it sounds like two different songs right there.’ And I thought, ‘Well, you would know wouldn’t you?’ He was right, it was two different songs that I thought had something to say to each other.

“I stood by what I did, but later I thought, ‘How great would it be to have a peer group with Randy Newman and Aimee Mann and John Prine, and we all get together and play each other’s songs and get constructive criticism?’ I was eager for something like that, where in the past I wouldn’t have been.”

“Serious,” which was released April 1, is Bird’s most personal and accessible album. It’s also the first of his 13 albums to be produced in its entirety by someone else, a choice that suited his intent to have someone else critique his songs and open them to new ideas.

“I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “Making records is such a private and internal process, at least for me, and I wanted to go the extra mile and get it out of my head and get it scrutinized more. I wanted to put the songs through more of a vetting.”

When it came time to choose a producer, Bird went with Tony Berg, someone he’s known for a while.

“I had some trust issues when it came to deciding who to go with, so I went with someone I really respect,” Bird said. “People have had production credits on my records and people have helped me make my records before, but I’ve never had an old-school producer sit down with me and turn over songs and work on nuts-and-bolts things like bridges and voice leadings. Not so much the content of the songs but how to construct them. (Berg) was great at it.”

Content also was a priority. Bird wanted to make a record that was more accessible, especially lyrically.

“I wanted it to be useful to people, a record where people would think, ‘He’s singing about what I’m going through,’ ” he said. “The past four or five years have been pretty heavy, and more than usual I felt I had things to say. I had a handful of songs that were fairly pointed, and I wanted to make something more universal, without dumbing it down. I wanted to do it on my terms.”

His favorite lyricists are those who can “nail something extraordinary, distill volumes into a few words.” He lists Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family, Townes Van Zandt and Prine as his favorite lyricists.

“They can write a line that might be slightly ambiguous or vague, but you know exactly what they mean,” he said. “They can break your heart in a few words.”

The songs on “Serious” address a variety of personal and universal issues, including “Left-Handed Kisses,” his duet with Fiona Apple about the politics and dynamics of relationships, and “Valleys of the Young,” a song about parenthood.

Berg and Bird spent a month before production working on songs, then went into the studio.

“We spent 10 days at Sound City, which was great,” Bird said. “We had the best musicians we could find in one room together and really didn’t let anything fly that wasn’t exceptional.”

Several songs went in directions that Bird didn’t anticipate.

“I definitely got pushed out of my comfort zone,” he said. “The song ‘Capsized’ came out sounding pretty masculine. I liked it but I would think, ‘It’s not like me to put a drum beat like this into a song.’ It’s definitely a lot more physical and assertive. So there were some ‘Can I do this?’ moments. But whenever I have those doubts, they tend to be a good sign.”

Bird has taken the new material out on the road with a band. The sound they create live is more assertive, too.

“They’re pretty mighty,” he said. “Our last show was in Atlanta. The crowd was great, a young crowd. The songs had a kind of fervor to them, a different physicality. It’s definitely groovier than ever. The rhythm section has a great feel.”

▪ Andrew Bird performs Thursday night at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland, 1228 Main St. Dawn of Midi opens. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25-$45.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain