From the outset of the project, Andrew Bird always envisioned Echolocations as a series. The vocalist-songwriter-musician, who has switched back and forth between folk, pop, jazz, classical and blues over 20 years and 14 albums, had decided, on the advice of a friend, to trek out to a remote canyon in Utah and record himself playing violin.
He flew to Salt Lake City, drove six hours, hiked another five and rappelled into the bottom of a canyon. There, he played violin by a bubbling brook, capturing the textures his instrument made bouncing against the rock walls.
“I’ve been on the lookout for other extraordinary outdoor acoustic environments with the idea that each one would have a noticeably different character because of its shape and materials,” Bird said in a call last week.
Andrew Bird released the second in the series, Echolocations: River, last week. This one he recorded while standing in the gushing water of the Los Angeles River, under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge. He settled on the location, which he rides near regularly on his bike, after an initial location proved more difficult to reach. The bridge proved to have a better acoustical quality.
“So I found myself standing in the river, playing,” he said. Like on the previous canyon trek, he dragged an arsenal of recording equipment with him, only to rely on a simple field recorder in the end instead.
“The idea was I’d go in, see what frequencies the space likes to hear and what’s giving me the most feedback about the space as the sound bounces back to me,” he said. “That’s the key of every tonal center that I work in. Often, the kind of decay I get of the echo of the space determines the sort of temporal musical phrase, and I start building it from there.”
Bird had these motifs and ideas in his head as he was getting ready to record his previous album, 2016’s Are You Serious. That album, a more traditional indie pop record, was his most personal. The ensuing conversation focused on his personal stories instead of the music. With Echolocations: River, he was refocusing on the music.
The songs are not specific stories with narratives, but they are his emotional response to the environment around him.
“They’re meant to be a sort of topographical map of that spot on Earth with music,” Bird said. “I think of it as a sonic mapping device.”
Every album he makes is an “antidote” to the last, he said. He wants to keep his skills and instincts sharp and not let one of them atrophy while he focuses on another. Following the lyrically dense Are You Serious, he wanted to follow his experimental and instrumental impulses.
“And really, Echolocations is more of an extreme manifestation of a thread that I’ve been following from early childhood,” Bird said. “Like, a very intense sensitivity to tone and textures in music, instruments, and spaces that I think all children have. My son, whenever we go into a big post office or reverberant space, he’d make these sharp sounds.”
Bird has already recorded his next two albums in the series. The upcoming one, which will be released in a year or more, was recorded in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. He performed near World War II military bunkers in a fog bank. The one after was recorded in an aqueduct in Lisbon, Portugal. All of his Echolocations recordings have involved water in some state, he notes.
“The way that I played in the Marin Headlands is vastly different from the way that I played in the L.A. River and the canyon,” he said. “For some reason, that space in the Headlands is … very active and very aggressive.”
On his upcoming tour, which will see Bird play two shows at the SFJazz Miner Auditorium and at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, he will attempt to recreate some of the magic of recording in the wild. The musician, who famously does not plan out a setlist, will adjust each night based on the acoustics of the venue and play “what I think these rooms want to hear.”
The shows will consist of three parts. The first is a live reinterpretation of Echolocation: River set against a backdrop of projections by filmmaker Tyler Manson. Next, he will improvise live music set to footage from the spaces in which he initially recorded.
“You get a sense of how those records were made,” he said.
The final portion of the show will be as a trio, including drums and bass. Bird will switch between his own instruments.
“I originally wanted … this tour to be my experimental jazz tour, but it’s not going to be that,” he said. “It’s a hybrid.”
On this tour, Bird is playing high-ceilinged rooms like churches and synagogues. He is in his best element when playing these rooms, he said. He is able to gauge which frequencies are best for each room, and tune his instruments to those frequencies. This helps him determine which of his songs will get played and help him fill a space in “the most meaningful way.”
On the current tour, he will attempt to remove the roofs of the rooms, and take his audience outdoors.
“I have this very sensitive relationship, musically, with spaces,” he said. “If I’m trying to record my voice in a small, low-ceilinged room, I don’t know who I am as a singer, and I spiral. But once I get in a room with a high ceiling, optimism returns. There’s all sorts of unconscious psychological feedback going on with our environment.”
But Bird is also not an elitist.
“I like a good, sweaty rock and roll show in a dive bar,” he said. “That has a lot going for it, too. When I’m out with my band, it’s always good for morale to play a small, black box rock club.”