I think all the elements for “My Finest Work Yet” are absolutely fantastic. I saw the press release and I was like one, it’s called “My Finest Work Yet.” I love that little bit. I love the album artwork and I love “Sisyphus” being a song. I was like these are all things that are absolutely perfect. How did you pick the album artwork for it?
Well I had the title first, so I needed something that would play off that in just the right way. It’s tricky when you start with a title and work towards an image. It’s referring to this painting by Jacque-Louis David. If you don’t know the history of the painting you just say, “Oh that’s just suffering poet on his deathbed painting his final words.”
The history has to do with the French Revolution and this guy had been assassinated and he’s in this bathtub and it’s very dramatic. I thought something dramatic and the suffering poet would make sense with “My Finest Work Yet,” just kind of to take it over the top. But we recreated that painting as a photograph very painstakingly in every detail.
Wow, where did you take the photograph?
In a studio not too far from my house. Amanda Demme shot it, who’s an amazing photographer out here and she wanted me to wax my chest to get the texture of the painting because this guy is in a bathtub. I was trying to figure out for a few days before whether she was testing my commitment to the whole concept. I honestly couldn’t find anyone to wax my chest at the last minute. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t go through with it. But you know, it was that kind of, "How far do we take this?"
You tried to find someone at the last second to wax your chest?
You know I’m glad we’re talking about this because yeah [laughs]. I did go into several spas and asked if they had someone on site who can do it quick, but it didn’t pan out.
[Laughs] So, we’ve been playing “Sisyphus” and when I put the song on, it came across the wire or Twitter as I was about to jump onto a plane and I went onto it and I was like, “This is absolutely fantastic.”
Recently, I got the chance to talk to Andrew Bird about his new song “Sisyphus,” his love of classical artwork and how his dedication to it almost lead him to wax his chest for his newest album cover.
Read our whole conversation below.
I saw that you had mentioned the intimacy with an opponent when you’re locked in a struggle and I love the thought of, “If we could just walk away, would our enemies miss us?” There is an inherent two sides of that, like would our enemies miss us? But also do you think we would miss our enemies?
Would you miss your enemy?
There might be a temporary void but I think it would be filled by more rewarding things. That’s in an ideal world, but I think the algorithm that’s got us into this scary – that’s a human nature thing over centuries, but something about social media has amplified that to a scary degree. So, it’s just taking that part of human nature and making it even more destructive.
It’s something that comes up in several different songs in different ways, suggesting how we can reverse that course. A lot of songs go from, a macro level and we can talk about North Korea or our newsfeed or our relationship between two people. It’s important to keep it somewhat malleable and vague, but you still get the idea.
Your last album was “Are You Serious” and around the time of the release there was a plane that flew over Milwaukee that had a banner that said “Are you serious?” It was on the day of a primary. Was that intentional? Was that you?
I forgot that we did that!
I forgot that you did that until just now, honestly.
Yeah, that was my manager’s idea. Andrea said, “Why don’t we do a skywriting campaign?” and with the timing of the primaries, it was too good to pass up.
I remember it was so great. I couldn’t believe it, you know?
This is the only feedback we’ve ever gotten from that whole idea.
Oh my god! Okay let me give you proper feedback then, because it was everywhere. I mean it was the entire talk of the entire day [laughs]. News people were like, “What is this?” And of course I knew because it’s my world to know this. But to see everybody figure it out, it was incredibly effective and also incredibly creative and clever. It was excellent.
That’s good to hear [laughs].
Also, you had Baldessari on the last album. True artists, like proper fine artists are influencing your album titles and kind of the imaging around your albums. Where did that love of art come from?
Well my mother is an artist and she is a print artist. I never really took to visual art myself. She had this romantic notion over her kids playing music, so that’s where she put her energy. But she would take all the neighborhood kids down to The Art Institute down in Chicago and we all would sketch the masterworks. I do that with my own son now, take him to the museums and we bring a sketchpad. It’s so cool, you know? It’s that easy. You just grab some kids and go to the museum.
Especially print art, working with text and narrative [...] was interesting to me as a songwriter.
Do you remember a specific painting that you drew a picture of at The Art Institute?
I remember there was a Rembrandt. There was one like a father sort of… that had been shot at a hunting expedition or something like that. I remember also going up to the oil painting and actually touching it and getting in big trouble [laughs].
Kind of tempting as a kid, you see the texture of all glops of oil and you just want to reach out and touch it. That was obviously frowned upon. When I was a little bit older, she introduced me to all these other artists in her studio and I starting working with artists like Audrey Niffenegger and Jay Ryan and Chris Ware and all these great Chicago print artists.
Something about these old industrial cities with old printing press infrastructure that the younger took them over and used all that equipment and created their own stuff with that. You know, especially print art, working with text and narrative and that was interesting to me as a songwriter too.