Starting out on Salem’s Rykodisc label in the late 1990s, indie-folk singer-songwriter Andrew Bird spent a lot of time in Boston during the early days of his career.
Boston was “a good music community,” said the 2020 Grammy nominee, recalling early gigs at spots like Green Street, T.T. the Bear’s Place, and Somerville’s Johnny D’s.
“For years, we kept playing The Middle East upstairs. It was like, ‘When are we going to get downstairs?’ That was more of a career milestone for me than playing the Orpheum — going from upstairs to downstairs at the Middle East,” recalled Bird, 47, in a recent phone interview.
A Newport Folk Fest fave — the multi-instrumentalist was on the bill for the 2020 fest, now tentatively slated for 2021 — Bird last played Boston in September 2019, just before “Fargo” started filming.
But ask how he landed a role on season four of the hit FX series, and — what can he say? — he’s just as surprised as his fans might be.
“Noah Hawley, the show creator, saw me play a show in Austin where he lives, and I think right there on the spot he decided I was Thurman Smutny,” Bird said, naming his character on the show. “There was no audition. I just went and met with him for half an hour and he said, ‘Do you want the part?’ And I said, ‘How do you know I can do this?’”
Growing up in Lake Forest, Ill., Bird started playing violin at age 4. “I was always very reserved and shy in school, but any time I had to get in front of the class to do a book report, all my anxiety would evaporate,” he said.
Still, he admitted, on the set of his first acting gig, with such a heavyweight cast, “I was a nervous wreck. I was pretty terrified.”
We caught up with the old Middle East regular to talk “Fargo” and his forthcoming holiday album, “Hark!,” due for release Oct. 30.
Q. So before “Fargo,” you’d never done any acting?
Q. Did it come naturally?
A. I definitely felt outside my comfort zone. [Hawley] made it seem like, Oh there’s nothing to it. I tell you to walk over and look out the window, and you do that. It was all very matter-of-fact. Don’t overthink it. And it helped that I was cast as a nervous man.
Q. And you had a scene with Chris Rock.
A. I had a whole day of shooting with him. He doesn’t claim to be an actor, either. He’s very self-deprecating about the whole thing — he’s cracking jokes right up until you’re shooting.
Q. Do you think you’ll do more acting?
A. Touring’s on the back-burner for a while, [so] I’ll take any work I can get right now. But yeah, I’m curious to see how far my range can go beyond this character.
Q. Tell me about the inspiration for “Hark!”
A. I started getting into Vince Guaraldi, the Peanuts records, and I thought, “This is such a great sensibility, such a great sound.” So we organized a small group jazz session, and knocked out Guaraldi covers. ... and I wrote a couple originals that I thought captured, in a vague, impressionistic way, what I felt about that time of year. I tried to write some songs about family dysfunction and alcoholism, but I finished and thought, No one needs to hear this right now.
Q. Did Hawley ever tell you why he saw the Thurman Smutny character in you?
A. He said something to the effect of, the character — compared to all the depraved dog-eat-dog people in “Fargo” — is more of a moral compass. Not an alpha. A beatnik — he’s not too far off with that, I guess.
10 p.m. Sundays on FX (available the next day on Hulu)