November 8, 2008 / 2:50 AM / 11 years ago

Indie rocker Andrew Bird soars on new label

NEW YORK (Billboard) - For almost eight years, Andrew Bird bounced around the margins of indie rock, selling between 15,000 and 25,000 copies of albums on the small Rykodisc and Righteous Babe labels. It seemed unlikely that he’d ever find a bigger audience.

That all changed with his 2007 debut for Mississippi-based blues label Fat Possum, “Armchair Apocrypha,” which sold almost as many units in its first week (11,000) as his second solo album, “Oh! The Grandeur,” has in nine years (14,000). “Armchair” is now past the 100,000 mark, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while 2005’s Righteous Babe swan song “Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs” is at 80,000.

Fat Possum will try to keep the momentum going with “Noble Beast,” due January 27. “We’ve doubled everything from what we did on the last record,” label president Matthew Johnson says. “We’re going to have this in more stores than we ever had Andrew in before. We’re even getting into Target with this record.”

Bird chose to sign with Fat Possum because of that ambition. “I’ve had other labels in the past line up excuses as to why we weren’t selling many copies,” Bird says. “Fat Possum approached me, and I saw immediately that they knew their stuff and were very savvy. It seemed like an odd fit at first, because most of their catalog is country and blues stuff, but it proved to be the right decision.”

“Noble Beast” is by far the most accessible of Bird’s efforts, with some songs sounding like they could fit right in on a triple A radio playlist. “Anonanimal,” which will be released as the soundtrack to a stop-motion video by Lisa Barcy, is a simple, lilting pop song, while “Natural Disaster” sounds like a fuller Fleet Foxes track. Die-hard fans take note: Bird unleashes his well-known whistle throughout the record.

And while Bird makes compelling recordings, everyone agrees that the cornerstone of the “Noble Beast” campaign will be his live performances.

When Bird took the stage last month at New York’s Hiro Ballroom (in a three-piece suit), he was greeted by loud cheers and a few women who almost swooned. Though he has performed solo backed by loops in the past, Bird was supported by a full band while he focused on playing the violin, singing and his trademark whistling.

“For me, the live show is where it’s at,” he says. “I’ve been touring for more than half the year for the past 13 years. At this point, the live show is almost more meaningful than making the record.”

Bird adds that his live shows often influence what tracks make it onto his albums. “I show stuff to the audience to gauge their reaction, and that informs the recording process,” he says. “The most thrilling thing for me to do is to test out a song on a live audience.”

Bird will have plenty of opportunities to do that in 2009. “He’s on tour starting at the end of January and will be touring the U.S. until South by Southwest in March,” manager Andrea Troolin says. “Our goal is really to get him to the next level in terms of the markets and venues he plays. In New York, for instance, we want to get him in to Radio City Music Hall.

“Andrew’s live show is the best sales pitch for his records we can think of,” she adds. “I’d say 99% of the people that come to the show leave as true believers.”


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