Andrew Bird remembers exactly where he was and how he felt when he first heard the music of the Handsome Family 16 years ago in Chicago. It set him on a path from which there was no turning back, culminating in Bird's latest album, a collection of Handsome Family covers, "Things are Really Great Here, Sort Of …" (Wegawam Music).
"I was at Screwball Press in '98 hanging out with (artist) Jay Ryan," Bird says, as if talking about something that happened yesterday. "He played (the track) 'Giant of Illinois,' with that line, 'The sky was a woman's arms.' It's basically a narrative of a boy who is freakishly tall. I loved how the song switched from narrative to this ambiguous but heavy line. I never get tired of that line because you never quite know what it means. They do what the best songs can do: Condense all this meaning into the fewest possible words. That line is so subtle and strange, it gives the listener credit for having imagination. That was my intro to them."
Bird later forged a relationship with the couple at the core of the Handsome Family, Brett and Rennie Sparks. For two decades, Brett's music and vocals and Rennie's lyrics have produced albums that draw on American folk and country traditions, and then give them a haunting twist. The duo has had a good year – besides the Bird tribute album, their song "Far From Any Road" became the theme for the acclaimed HBO series "True Detective."
For Bird, the couple's music and friendship have been an ongoing inspiration. He's become an indie-music success story as a violinist, singer, whistler, songwriter and producer who routinely tours to packed theaters around the country. But after his 2012 studio album, "Hands of Glory," he found himself stuck on where to go next. The Handsome Family helped pulled him out of the creative rut.
"The Handsome Family are like a default thing for me," he says. "They've always been a touchstone to remind myself what strong writing is. Every six months I learn one of their songs just to remind myself how good they are, and I wanted to get them (the songs) all in one place. My loftier goal is to make more people realize how strong they are. I didn't put them on the cover. I wanted it to be like this discovery. What if you haven't heard of the Handsome Family, and these songs came out of nowhere, what would your perception be? I wanted to present their songs in a stripped down way, with the aim that people would look at these songs as being up there with the best of Townes Van Zandt or Leonard Cohen. I wanted more people to recognize them in that sort of way."
Bird's interpretations aren't slavishly faithful to the originals, while serving as a strong introduction for Handsome Family novices. He underlines the beauty of the melodies with some of the more open-hearted singing of his career.
"I'm on a production kick after 12 records, producing everything honestly, with no studio trickery," he says. "With this record, we did it all in one place (his home studio in Los Angeles). There was no big strategy. That's when I have the most fun — with no industry cycle, no touring cycle, a chance to use the experience to learn something for making the next record. I wanted to nail this vocal sound that I've found elusive in the studio: big, full-throated, from-the-stomach singing, the inspiration being old '60s country vocalists. In a song like (the Handsome Family's) 'Cathedral in the Dell,' I got more of the full range of what I can do by limiting options and taking away any possible crutch. I wanted real singing like in the live show on record. So we used one microphone and mixed the record by where you stand and how you sing. I wasn't doing this out of nostalgia. But I didn't want the voice translated into an electronic signal, turned into zeroes and ones, or an analog sine wave. The less you have between the voice and the finished product the better."
In the same way, Bird aims to bring listeners to a more intimate understanding of what makes the Handsome Family's music so potent and moving.
"I remember doing a tour with them in 2000 in the UK, where I opened for them," he says. "That's when their songs really got under my skin. I try to turn people on to them, but if they pick up the wrong record they might not go back to them. It took me a little while too. If they hadn't been there in Chicago at the time I was, I don't know if I would've picked up on them. But once you do, you realize there is all this magical imagery in the songs, a real wonder, an amazing-to-be-alive feeling. They're dark and unsettling, but at the same time really comforting. That's hard to pull off."
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 16
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $39.50, $49.50; jamusa.com
Also worth hearing:
Drake and Lil Wayne: In 2008, Lil Wayne was at the top of his game when he reached out to a young, relatively obscure rapper and invited him to tour and record. Now Drake is a star himself and doesn't need Wayne's help, but the two have remained friendly, and this tour provides a setting for the two to perform some of their numerous collaborations. Will we get "Right Above It," "She Will," "Believe Me," "The Motto"? 7 p.m. Sunday at First Midwest Bank Amphitheater, 19100 S. Ridgeland Ave., Tinley Park, Ill., $35 and $125; livenation.com
Greg Kot cohosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBEZ (FM-91.5).