~ The Secret Language Of Birds ~



An introduction to
The Secret Language Of Birds"

The album is already completely recorded since January 1999. For marketing reasons the release was postponed till March 7th 2000. This third Ian Anderson solo album might be the acoustic one the fans have been waiting for for so long. In the press release, issued on January 29, Anderson introduces the album as follows:

"For 31 years, I've been the unplugged guy in a rock and roll band, but I always like to come back to the simple and essential elements of singer/songwriter music. Although I wasn't very brave at the beginning of Tull, by the time we made the 'Aqualung' album I had included 3 or 4 genuine acoustic pieces, which were predominantly me playing alone in the studio with acoustic guitar, usually with a live vocal and maybe embellished with piano or a string quartet."

"For that reason I've always felt that the kind of acoustic album that I would make would probably sound like at least a part of Jethro Tull's history so I avoided it. But this time round I thought I'd do what I believe the fans expected of me; so I guess I'm doing the personal, sometimes introverted, sometimes humorous and sometimes quite revealing kind of music that wouldn't really work for me in the context of Jethro Tull. This is just me in the studio doing my rather private little thing with a few musicians who kindly came along to adorn the product."

Anderson resides in the South West of England, a rural setting that provided part of the inspiration behind the record. "I don't get out and wander the countryside as much as I'd like to, for me it's more a state of mind. I tour the biggest and busiest cities of the world and when I come home I like the contrast and the peace, I'm eternally grateful that I can work from home."
"There are several tracks on this record which make considerable reference to visual images, often specific images by specific artists. Like many people of my generation, I began not as a musician but actually studying painting, therefore everything I write does have a visual reference. Indeed the track 'The Little Flower Girl' comes from the painting of that name by Sir William Russell Flint, 'A Better Moon' refers to a work by Balraker while L.S.Lowry, who is famous for his townscapes peopled by matchstick-like figures, was somewhere in the back of my head while I was writing the song 'Circular Breathing'. Even the songs not directly connected to a painting or artist start from pictures, when I go on tour or holiday it is always visual references that are the genesis of the lyrics to my songs. I tend to be an illustrator in that sense, I use lyrics to substitute for the paintings I don't paint, it's my stock in trade."

"The favourite over-asked question is whether I write the music or lyrics first. It's never the same thing sometimes it's a title, a line of melody or a chord progression, or it can be more cerebral an intellectual proposition or a gut feeling that I want to express in words."
"Sometimes the music comes and already has a degree of completeness and doesn't require to be developed necessarily with lyrics. Equally there are occasions when I think, I really like this lyric, what a shame I have to ruin it by putting it to music,  but I'm not a poet and never wanted to be, so I end up having to find some music to go with them. Then again I can just have a nice little tune, but just scratch my head for hours and still not come up with a title I'm comfortable with. It often helps to have a title in the first place and a picture in my head,  that's the ideal. It doesn't have to be a big colour glossy image, it could be a simple black & white, but the form, line and tone are just the same tools of expression that the visual artist uses, they all cross over very neatly in to the musical domain. The semantics are the same, but the end results are poles apart, yet in some ways irrevocably linked."

* Ian Anderson; from the Papillon Press Release "The Secret Language Of Birds"

Ian's comments in the album booklet are added to each track. He warns us not to take it all too seriously: "Don't be upset with the above. It's just the quick crossword puzzle, with monkeys in hiding".
* Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

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The Secret Language Of Birds

  • "The big dawn chorus. Morning after a night before. Could turn out to be the special person. Everything's riding on this one".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • As I interpret them, the call to "learn the secret language of birds" is a call to a loved one to escape with the singer of these lines from the hustle and bustle of every day life. After all, it takes extensive periods of quiet listening to learn that secret language of birds. Take the first verse for example:
    "This sparkling wine is all but empty", (too much to drink so one can't drive anywhere), "Too late for trains and no taxis", (can't leave by those means either),
    "I know the feeling, seems all too contrived" (did the singer of these lines purposely arrange things that way?),
    "There was no master-plan, but the fact is" (no he didn't, but...)
    "You must stay me, and learn the secret language of birds". (no choice but stay, forget about the outside world, enjoy quiet time together).
    * RBofC

  • I would agree for the better part, but still interpret the lyrics just slightly differently. To me the situation seems like this: the protagonist had a lady over for dinner. After that they had a cosy evening and drank some  wine (like in Norwegian Wood). Then the lady says: 'Oh my, is that the time? I must go home now!' (like ladies do). The host then tries to convince her to stay over for the night, the last train already went, too late for taxi's, etc. Of course, she heared that all before, and he realises that. He assures her he didn't plan it that way ("there was no master-plan"). But he just wants her to stay the night, until the next morning when the first birds begin to whistle. He tries to seduce here by (jokingly?) implying that he could learn her the secret language of birds when she's stay until the next morning, which, regarding the lateness of the hour, isn't all that far away ("attend to the dawn about to be breaking"). He knows women like that kind of poetic language. This 'charmeur' even tries to impress her with his mentioning of a famous French painter. Secretly, he already has a vision (he's really a wicked, smooth talking casanova, the one your mother warned you about, ladies) of her hair on the pillow in his bed. A vision of this woman lying in his bed carelessly, after a romantic and fulfilling night with him, lying down now, together  listening to the chorus of the birds. It's obvious to me: this song is a lesson in seduction.
    * Jeroen Louis

  • ".... on a Rousseau garden with monkeys in hiding". The reference is to the French painter Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), on whose style the cover-art for 'The Secret Language Of Birds' is based. Here is an extract from Anderson's press conference in Santiago, April 18th 1993: "I don't really like classical orchestras and the people who have learnt music by reading books. I am a naive musician. I make music like the naive painter Henri Rousseau. It may look pretty and have nice colours, but the images are naive and childlike -- like my soul [exaggerated waggling of eyebrows]." Anyone unfamiliar with his works can see some fine examples at The Artchive.
    Andy Jackson

  • "If you're lucky enough to live in the country, and wake up in the morning to the sound of birds, you may wonder sometimes what it is those birds actually see as the not so silent witnesses to bedroom shenanigans.  In 'The Secret Language Of Birds' I'm imagining the ultimate in corny chat up lines, where the guy says to the girl 'Hey, come home with me and learn the secret language of birds!"
    * Ian Anderson; from the Papillon Press Release "The Secret Language Of Birds"

  • In medieval times in the arcane occult world of the alchemists and philosophers there was a quest almost important as turning lead into gold and fortelling the future - learning the secret language of birds!  It appears it was believed that the answers to the great mysteries of life and the universe etc were known by birds and that all would be revealed if the language could be learned. However the quest to learn the language was difficult an obtainable by only the most learned and pure of heart (or something). There is an E-book on this subject, written by William Henry: "The language of birds, our angelic connection", available at: Knowing there is actually a secret language of birds changes the complexion of the song a bit.  The protagonist is actually offering his lady insight into the great mysteries of life if she stays!  To me it gives, what is still a frivilous song, extra depth.
    * Matthew Korn

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The Little Flower Girl

  • "Sir William Russell Flint's fully clad but coquettish flower girl. Was it his favourite model Cecilia? Just showing up for anotherday's work. Hats off to one of the greatest technical watercolourists of all time".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • The song was probably inspired by William Russell Flint's painting 'The Little Flower Girl, Senlis':

* Courtesy: David Tatham, source: The Sir William Russell Flint site:

  • "Laying down washes": This is a water-colour technique. To lay down a wash is to cover the paper in a single watery colour, as a background on which the rest of the painting is built up.
    * Andy Jackson

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  • "Been there. Between eruptions. Last gasp of colonial betrayal. Heart goes out. Dwarf Poincianas still growing strong, here at home. Ashfall wasteland where I picked them".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • "The island has a profound degree of Irish heritage attached to it. The shamrock is a sort of national emblem of Montserrat, and the colour green, and it all struck me, again the artist in me was struck by the optical opposites of colours. The luminous reds and oranges against the pastel shades of green, growing together.  In the 'Habanero Reel' I made reference to "Orange order in a field of green" because the Habanero is usually orange . . . ."
    * Ian Anderson in "A New Day",March 2000

  • Montserrat is an island in the Caribbean Sea. The Soufrière Hills under Chances Peak are situated on the southern part of the island:

  • The song is about a period of volcanic activity, that started in 1995 and reached its peak in 1997, eventually leading to the evacuation of the island's population. There is more and detailed information, including pictures, maps and animations at Soufrière Hills, from which the above map is borrowed.
    * Jan Voorbij

  • The "Lost & Found" is generally the office in railway stations or airports were all the lost items are collected in case anyone comes back to claim them.
    * Andy Jackson 

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Postcard Day

  • "Holiday guilt. Having a simply wonderful time. Wish you were here, but sort of glad you're not".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • "The song 'Postcard Day' is really about the point in mid-holiday when that sense of guilt comes upon you and you think 'God, I'd better send some postcards home, cos if I leave it to the end, we'll get home before they do' - which rather negates the point."
    * Ian Anderson; from the Papillon Press Release "The Secret Language Of Birds"

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The Water Carrier

  • "H2O at any price. No Delhi Belly. No regrets. No small change left. The best earthenware pots by Sir W.R.F. and Walter Langley. Would they have as lovingly executed the form and colour of the 1.5 litre plastic bottle? Of course".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • "... lush on a Naïn carpet". Nain is a small town in the province of Isfahan, and it is situated on the edge of the desert uplands of central Iran. Until the beginning of this century, the main craft in Nain was the weaving of costly woollen cloth. The import of textiles from the west lead to the decline of this craft, and the Nain craftsmen switched to carpet making. They were soon to gain a place among the quality carpet producers of Iran. There is more detailed and technical information on this site.
    * Koen Wynkoop

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  • "Pointless and undignified prevarication".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • 'Set Aside' probably doesn't mean a lot to our friends in North America, but the agricultural policies that are necessary, it would appear, in this day and age are to literally set aside areas of agricultural land in rotation, in order NOT to produce crops. The ridiculous irony is that although there are millions of starving people throughout the world. In richer Western countries farmers are actually being paid not to grow anything. This song dwells on the dereliction that attaches itself to farms and farmers from this policy, because it becomes a sadly infectious, depressive state of mind which visits itself upon those farmers who are intrinsically paid not to grow crops.  It's a sad world, make the best of it."
    * Ian Anderson; from the Papillon Press Release "The Secret Language Of Birds"

  • "Set-Aside" is the (British) name of the agricultural policy within the European Union, whereby a farmer is paid a government subsidy NOT to cultivate part of a farm. I've never really understood WHY this is, but I presume it's to regulate agricultural productivity and the market prices of commodities on n ational and international levels. I can quite imaging Ian having a view on the subject....
    * Neil Thomason

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A Better Moon

  • "Sultry and sub-tropical images of a Foweraker fantasy five thousand miles from home".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • 'A Better Moon' refers to a work by Foweraker.
    * Ian Anderson; from the Papillon Press Release "The Secret Language Of Birds"

  • The song was inspired by the painting "Moonlight" by Arthur Moulton Foweraker (1873-1942). Apparently there are two paintings: "Moonlight, Newton St Cyres" (Devon), sold at auction in May 1998 for £1725.00 and "Moonlight, a courtyard, Grenada", sold in June for £ 3450.00.
    Arthur Moulton Foweraker:  Born 1873, the son of the bishop (?) of Exeter Cathedral. Graduated from Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1893 with a general science degree. Perhaps he intended specialising in the scientific field, but his love of painting gradually gained more importance for him? By 1898 he was still living in Exeter, and had begun to exhibithis paintings in various British galleries. By 1901 he had made his home in Carbis Bay, St Ives, Cornwall, and in 1902 he was made a member of the Royal Society of British Artists (RSBA). He was known as a flower and landscape painter primarily, and, during his travels, seems to have been attracted to Spanish landscapes. He specialised in water colour and must have travelled and painted extensively in Spain.. Many of his paintings appear to have been night-scenes. The bulk of his work was exhibited between 1898 and 1912, mostly at the RSBA (52 exhibits), with a handful scattered around the regional galleries in Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.  Perhaps his particular style became less popular after this date. If he was a 'traditional', amateur painter, the arrival of Modernism in the early 1920s would have made his work obsolete in critical circles. He died 14th January 1942.
    * Andy Jackson, Emil Ingelund, Koen Wynkoop, Maureen Algar

  • I have a feeling that this painting is something Ian has seen relatively recently, perhaps in the past five years. Something which caught his eye. So there is a good possibility that he owns this painting himself, or that Jeffrey Hammond owns it. Maybe Ian spotted it during a visit. I can only suggest that this painting is in private hands, and within Ian's regular field of vision somehow. Here are the only two examples of Foweraker's work that I've foond on the internet:
    * Andy Jackson

  • You mention on your site that you can only find 2 examples of Albert Moulton Foweraker paintings so I thought I'd send you this link to many, many more at: The Albert Moulton Foweraker Gallery.  From a happy owner of a beautiful Foweraker. *  *Alison Stenning

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Foweraker: Santa Maria, Antequera

Foweraker: Convent of the Trinity, Antequera


  • "Last haven of zoo rejects and children wasted. Tricky one to try. Made me cry".
    * Ian Anderson in the album booklet.

  • "That song came when Prince Charles was in Nepal. He was deeply moved by the plight of child prostitutes in India. A charity organization repatriated these girls and brought them home to die in their own country. [Many of them had AIDs.] There was a sadness or dignity to the organization and what they were doing that moved our Prince Charles. The reports moved me too. I also visited a sanctuary in the UK which brings unwanted zoo animals into a safe haven. These are unwanted sick animals that are unwanted by the zoos because they don't pull the crowds. They don't look so good. Many of these animals will just be killed. Some are brought into the UK where they can end their lives with some dignity and some compassionate care, untainted by the hordes of children jabbing their fingers and the macho parents who try to scare the animals to show off to their wretched children."
    * Ian Anderson in the Emusic interview, February 2000
  • "Dear uncle sold her into, into the purest kind of slavery": Here Ian refers to the very sad and real situation.Young girls are trafficked from Nepal by underworld gangs with police consent. They are held in a slave market and brothelers visit the slave auction to buy the girls. Most of them become child prostitutes, others are sold to spend their days toiling in workshops. One of these "Streets Of Shame" is 14th Street in Bombay's red light district, where caged naked children are for sale and where young girls sold to the brothels must work to pay off their debt. This debt bondage keeps them in virtual slavery. I found the shocking story of one of this girls - Gitta - at the site of Jubilee Campaign and I'm sure Ian drew the inspiration for this song from a story like Gitta's. There are more facts to be found on this site about child prostitution and its relation with poverty and economic underdevelopment. In the same story incidental police raids to free these girls are mentioned as well as the efforts of church workers to help these girls. Are these the "Good angels brought her back to a last Nepal summer"?
    I'm pretty sure that Ian refers here specifically to the situation in Bombay: we should bear in mind that the confrontation with poverty inspired him to write the song "Beside Myself" for the Roots To Branches album.
    * Jan Voorbij

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* Continuation


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The Secret Language Of Birds" lyrics page

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The Secret Language Of Birds" annotations page 2


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Last update: October 12 2003

© Jan Voorbij (1998-2009)

March 14 2000