artist | BILL BAIRD

billbillbillbillbill.com

Bill Baird is an anomaly, an enigma, a unique talent. He is a burgeoning American great who seems destined for worldwide cult status. And - dare we say it? - a possible genius.

A self-described professional weirdo and confessional renaissance man cut from the same cloth as key influences such as Robert Johnson and Daniel Johnston, Bill Baird’s talents encompass songwriting, storytelling, poetry, his own public access TV show, letterpress printing, film-making, instrument building, sound installation, teaching, journalism, academic study and everyday existential crises. 

His new album Earth Into Aether Parts I and Part II is a freewheeling two-disc, nineteen-track work of magnificence, a spontaneous-sounding series of musical postcards sent direct from the heart of a fertile mind in response to all that modern America has to offer. Comparisons might be drawn in spirit, if not necessarily in sound and style, with Devendra Banhart, Beck, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, Anton Newcombe and John Grant. 

Baird’s vision is singular, his work rate prodigious. There’s no messiah complex here though – just a vast out-pouring of words, music, images and ideas. “The artists who interest me are those for who the work just flows out of them, continuously,” he explains. “My skirmishes with the mainstream music industry have taught me that freedom to create is what really matters,  and everything I do connects to form an ever-evolving life-time’s work.”

In his career to date (and ‘career’ seems a woefully inappropriate adjective) Baird has toured the world, scored films and recorded music for labels including Capitol, Parlophone and more besides – all on his own terms, and each work resolutely, defiantly identifiable as the product of this most technicolour imaginations. He has also held various jobs, including being a taxi driver in San Francisco which has allowed him to see the sunrise every morning, giving him a perspective far beyond the walls of the recording studio.

Earth Into Aether Parts I and II offer a rich and diverse tapestry of sound – from the klezmer pop of ‘Dear Friend (Failling Domino)’ to the swirling new-psych of ‘Your Dark Sunglasses Won’t Make You Lou Reed’; from the elegiac, pastoral string-laden beauty of ‘Silence’ to the polyrhythmic, percussive overload of ‘Spring Break Of The Soul’ and the odd sun-kissed pop swing of ‘World Gone Deaf’. If this is folk music, then it is future-facing folk that embraces and incorporates electronica, garage pop, reverb-drenched psychedelia, prog rock complexities, country and a thousand varied sonic flavours. Baird is the guy at the party who will pick up the sitar that’s sitting in the corner and casually flip everyone’s wigs simply because he can.

His is very loosely truth-seeking folk music shot through with pockets of liminal space. “For those unfamiliar with the term, 'liminal space' refers to a place of uncertainty,” explains Baird. “A liminal space is the place in between moments. For me, these moments of uncertainty comprise the most exciting moments of life.  New ideas are born. Classifications become irrelevant.”

In practical terms this means repeated chords, delicate arrangements, wry observations, poetic turns of phrase (“You only notice paint when it is peeling” he sings on ‘Caroline’), lo-fi recording techniques, a pathological inability to remain creatively static and no shortage of humour. Humour, he says, is transcendental and key to his process. 

Bill Baird’s journey to this point is as feral and meandering as his wealth of recorded output. This restless polymath grew up in San Antonio. “Texas is built on an obnoxious mythology,” he explains. “It’s still a cowboy place where hunting is big. Growing up you are taught that the very word Texas is a Native American word for “friends” – but then you look around and wonder where all the Natives went. But creatively it was good to have something to react against. In more conservative places at least the enemy is easily identifiable.”

He began making four-track recordings, inspired by musicians in Texas hill country and other local greats such as Butthole Surfers and 13th Floor Elevators, and often jamming with his Dad who passed on a love of old blues (Robert Johnson, Hound Dog Taylor, Mance Lipscomb,) folk (Guthrie,  Dylan, Townes), and 60's pop. “Like many people my parents dug The Beatles but at the same time were very anti-drugs,” he laughs, “so all I heard was the ‘ I Want To Hold Your Hand’ side of things”.

Baird then formed Sound Team in Austin, Texas with Matt Oliver, before they relocated to Portland, Oregon. Sound Team screen printed their own posters and self-released cassettes and CDs that explored “old-folk, silly hip-hop, droning electronics and psychedelic pop”. They were a lo-fi band who toured with Arcade Fire and The Walkmen and signed to Parlophone – an ultimately demoralising experience for such a free spirit. “I once told Megadeth's manager that they ‘fucking sucked’ he wrote in an article about his time in the corporate belly of the beast. “That's probably the highlight of my entire time on Capitol Records. I thought that I could be the guy from the lo-fi underground who could change things from the inside, but found out that it doesn’t work like that.”

After leaving Sound Team bloodied but unbowed, Bill Baird recorded a series of pop songs as {{{SUNSET}}} and an album ofinstrumental ambient soundscapes entitled SILENCE! He made a DVD Candlelit Television Eye, which applied the DIY spirit of fanzines and self releasing to the Youtube age, and he toured America relentlessly, playing parking lots, Taco stands, sheet metal factories, historic statue plazas.  He also moved to the Bay Area to study experimental music at the famed Mills College, whose alumni include Laurie Anderson, Joanna Newsome, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, and where he was an award-winning scholar. He also taught at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur (“’You can't teach songwriting!’  I kept telling the students,” he laughs) and invented a new musical instrument, the magnetetractys.

A series of boldly experimental home-recordings followed and Baird also collaborated on a forthcoming film Origin Of Sound, shot in India over five weeks, and which explores his love of the Hindustani drone music of north India.   

And now comes Earth Into Aether Part I and Part II, perhaps Baird’s most cohesive collection of recordings yet - the calling card of a true outsider artist for the 21st century.

 

Words: Ben Myers October 2015