Andrew Bird is not one of those people with a shelf (or playlist) full of eclectic holiday music. In fact, when the weather turns cold the singer/songwriter best known for his alluring whistles and violin playing is generally focused on Vince Guaraldi’s classic Peanuts Christmas music and a few assorted classics. And that’s it.
So it makes perfect sense that he’s releasing his first full-length Christmas collection, Hark! on Oct. 30, an eclectic mix of classics, his favorite obscurities and a few originals, including what might just be the first-ever COVID-inspired holiday song, “Christmas in April.” The first taste of the collection dropped earlier this month, Bird’s take on former Velvet Underground member John Cale’s icy 1973 song that is just marginally about winter, but not necessarily the season.
“It’s the lyrical ambiguity speaks to me; I like mysterious lyrics and I don’t really know what … there are references to time and place, but otherwise it’s just mostly mood,” Bird tell Billboard about the song that opens with the lines “Andalucia when can I see you/ When it is snow out again/ Farmer John wants you/ Louder and softer closer and dearer,” later referring to “Andalucia castles and Christians.”
Something about the vulnerability and coolness of the track really grabbed Bird, who said there was never a “master plan” to drop a Christmas album more than 25 years into his career … it just kind of happened. Check out Billboard‘s chat with Bird — who is also in the midst of a killer run as Thurman Smutny on FX’s Fargo — about the album and how his mother’s favorite opera piece ended up in the mix.
Does there come a day in every artist’s life where they say, “Is now the time for my Christmas album?”
I did a couple songs last year because I was getting into the Vince Guaraldi stuff, beyond Peanuts, really diving into his musical world and I thought I’ll get these great players to do [some songs], but really it was just an excuse to jam. In a way it was liberating, like a jazz quartet recording and I thought that was that, just a little EP last year. And then when the lockdown happened, I thought maybe I could fill it out to a full-length? I wrote a few originals, grabbed a few tunes I thought I could refresh the canon with a bit and some covers that have a passing reference to something wintery, which was good enough for me.
“Christmas in April” has your signature whistling and hints at the kind of anxiety we’re all feeling how and hoping we can meet for the holidays again sometime. Where did that come from?
I did sit down to write songs that were so brutally honest about what holidays can be like, and I think I might have crossed the line of “no one wants to hear songs about alcoholism and seasonal depression and overdrinking.” I got well into a song about that and then I ended up writing “Alabaster,” which is a mood thing. I remembered being in Chicago in my 20s and it being dark and cold and I was walking through Edgewater and looking up at old apartment buildings and seeing the warm glow from mysterious-looking apartments and feeling on the outside looking in.
Yeah, I love “Alabaster” and “Greenwine” because they’re my kind of sad-sack Christmas songs.
The old ones are really melancholy and most are minor key. The Nutcracker stuff, “Greensleeves,” “Little Drummer Boy,” all super mournful.
You also pay tribute to John Prine with “Souvenirs,” which has those great opening lines about the snow turning to water, broken toys and faded colors and memories that can’t be “boughten.”
I’ve been doing that one for a few years now and thinking of it as a possible entry into the holiday lexicon, but that opening line about snow turning to water, the broken toys — what a vivid scene. I can just picture that in the rural Midwest somewhere.
There are classics for the more traditional minded in there, like the all-whistling and violin “Oh Holy Night” and “Christmas Is Coming” and your unique twists on “White Christmas” and “Auld Lang Syne.” I always wonder how artists decide which of the big Christmas songs to cover and why. So … why?
The most recognizable one is definitely “White Christmas,” which is a jazz standard, and even when you have the lyrics in your head … [you think,] “If the bones are good, I can do something with that.” That’s as close to the top 10 as I wanted to get. I literally recorded that one when I was so tired and relaxed on my couch and made a voice memo recording with my little parlor guitar late at night while reclining … I’m fully reclined singing that. And it captured something. … If you’re going to do this, it has to offer something new to the universe.
I happen to be looking at two full shelves of Christmas CDs, but listening to this, I wonder which holiday tunes are your go-tos?
The only ones we really listen to are the Peanuts ones by Guaraldi, Bing Crosby and Handel’s Messiah. And [an opera piece included in the collection] “Mille Cherubini in Coro,” which was my mom’s favorite piece by Pavarotti and the Vienna Boys Choir.
Watch a live performance of “Andalucia” below.