Andrew Bird's frog chorus

How did mercurial musician Andrew Bird recover from a case of post-tour burn-out? By writing a song for Kermit

'Sometimes it feels like one song could be a whole record, a whole world unto itself," Andrew Bird says, sitting in his darkened hotel room, wearing two scarves and sniffing at the cold London weather. There are a number of strange and wonderful worlds on the singer-songwriter's most recent album, Break It Yourself: where clouds merge into mountains, where there are holes in the ocean floor, and refrains written for frog puppets – as well as rhythms that carry the flavour of Morocco, the Caribbean and America's deep south.

Building these worlds can take time. After touring his fifth album, 2009's Noble Beast, Bird, a multi-instrumentalist famed for his whistling, sublime violin-playing and the near-jabberwocky of his lyrics, stumbled into a kind of sabbatical. "I was burned out, and I didn't really want to go home to Illinois," he says. "So I stopped on the west coast, on my way back from Asia, and rented a house in Venice Beach, rode my bike around and wrote a bunch of songs for the Muppet movie."

Bird's only previous experience of scoring for film had been on the indie flick Norman. Writing for Jim Henson's menagerie was a different task. "It was all on spec," Bird says. "They have probably 20 writers, and there's no guarantee your songs will be used. But you're writing for the love of the challenge of writing for the Muppets. And there's something satisfying about it, about feeling like a real writer."

Not all of Bird's Muppet compositions made their way into the soundtrack, but he was able to use "little bits and pieces" of those that weren't chosen. "Even if I'm writing about the Muppets, I'm putting my spin on things," he says. "One song in particular, Lazy Projector, is about selective memory, deciding how we remember a certain relationship – who's putting that story together, who's omitting certain things. I had this song I wrote for Kermit about why the Muppets broke up, and I added [Lazy Projector] on to give the song a lift at the end." He smiles faintly. "If it's a slight non sequitur, that's OK with me. I'm not a linear songwriter."

After his California sabbatical, Bird headed home to his barn outside Chicago to run through the new songs with his band. Remarkably, that first ad-hoc try-out provided the meat of the finished record. "They were glorified rehearsals, jam sessions. You hope you'll get something out of that, but I didn't think any of it would be so complete after eight days. And, through the ebb and flow of each day, you get different performances out of yourself. The morning songs are the kind of agitated ones, and then you get the late-night, falling-off-a-chair performances."

This fluid recording environment makes for a record that, while still a little wistful, is strikingly happy. "I was just in a good place in my head after a long time of not being," is how Bird explains it. One imagines his marriage and the birth of his son in the years since Noble Beast may well have been a factor; indeed, on one track, there is a brief sample of his son merrily burbling away.

The most notable difference between the new album and his previous work is the more complex approach to rhythm. He refers to its "polyrhythmic loops" and "really odd basslines", and to a track called Orpheo Looks Back, the only song not recorded live. "It was constructed from two free-jazz solo loops I had worked on and recorded, and which happened to be close enough in tempo to layer. The song sounds a little north African, and that section I wrote in Venice Beach. When I hear something in my head, I hammer away at it for hours and hours until it works."

He thinks the exuberant Danse Caribe is the album's "most stylistically clear song. I've always been interested by music from the American south into the Caribbean, down to Haiti," he says. "And maybe that song didn't go in the direction I was hoping, which would have been more like a stomp – it went more Afropop. But that's fine. It's hard not to have a blast playing that kind of music, because it's only three chords and it's really joyful."

Does this signal a change of direction? He gives a slow shake of his head. "I wouldn't want to make it a direct homage, I just want to feel it under my skin. But [Afropop] is one of the most elusive rhythms to recreate. I can always conjure other types of music, but that requires a state of mind you can't always harness." How does he get himself into the right mindset? "You have to be very open. You stumble upon it. It can't be pieced together by physical memory. Some people find that frustrating, but I like that – one day it's there and the next day it's not. That's what makes me get up in the morning."

• Andrew Bird tours the UK in June and plays the Roundhouse, London NW1, on 8 November.


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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