December 7th, 2020

The New Yorker

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Andrew Bird’s Cozy Melancholy

The singer-songwriter-whistler-violinist adapts his “Gezelligheid” holiday concerts for the pandemic age.

For the past several holiday seasons, Andrew Bird, the warmly tuneful singer-songwriter-whistler-violinist, has performed a concert series called “Gezelligheid”—meaning “coziness,” or kind of a Dutch hygge—often at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. The holiday concerts are “about creating an atmosphere,” Bird said recently. “That’s what seasonal music is to me—how do we get through the dark, cold months?” The Gothic Revival church is made cozier by Bird’s stagecraft, including colored lights and a mesmerizing red-and-white contraption: a two-headed rotating speaker called a Janus Spinning Horn, made by the Chicago luthier Ian Schneller. “It’s like a cross between a flower and a Victrola horn,” Bird said, on a Zoom from a sunny hilltop in Ojai, California. This holiday season, he and his family are staying put in California, and, on December 13th, he will live-stream “Gezelligheid” from Ojai. “I’m going to string up some café lights and do it at sunset,” he said. Otherwise, “it’s probably exactly what you’re looking at”: Oriental rug, Janus Spinning Horn, oak tree, orange groves, Topatopa Mountains. As Bird picked up his violin to play, the Janus Horn began to spin, like an amaryllis sending out an alarm signal.

Bird, forty-seven, is tall and lean, with dark hair and a serious expression. He tends to dress in a gently old-fashioned style—button-down shirts, the occasional fedora or vest—and when he, a non-actor, was recruited to play an earnest mortician in the current season of “Fargo,” set in mid-century Kansas City, it made intuitive sense. (His character, Thurman Smutny, whistles when he’s happy, is naïve about the criminal underworld, and says things like “It’s sigh-o-relief o’clock around here at the ol’ Smutny household.”) Bird grew up in Lake Bluff, outside Chicago, and began playing the violin at age four. “I’m very close with my mom”—Beth Bird, a print artist—“and she’s the one who started me on violin,” he said. “She tried to learn to play herself, out of solidarity.” Later, he got a bachelor’s in violin performance at Northwestern, and played with the jazz-swing combo Squirrel Nut Zippers, and with his own group, Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire; since 2003, as a solo artist, he’s excelled at doing his own thing.

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