more nerve-wracking”: But we predict the gifted singer-songwriter from Portland’s gonna work it
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Lush, natural, organic – you might think that Laura Veirs’ July Flame, her seventh full-length, came
easily to the Portland
songwriter. Its melodies are caressingly warm, the images of plant life and
summertime, the mood tranquil and unhurried. Still, let other musicians sit
patiently and wait for inspiration. Veirs works at her music, in a methodical, disciplined way. She is, for instance, the only
musician we know who keeps a practice chart in her studio and grades herself on
a one-to-five scale for her efforts.
That work ethic becomes particularly useful when she’s
writing a new album. Every day, she heads back to a free-standing studio and
works for several hours. “If I’m just piddling around the house, the whole day
can go by, or a week, without me writing anything. So I have to be disciplined
about it. I’ve learned that over the years,” says Veirs.
If Veirs starts a song, she’ll keep at it until she’s
finished at least a demo. “I don’t like unfinished things. They make me
uncomfortable. Once I start to write a song, I’ll just push through and finish
it,” says Veirs. “Most of the time it’s not good. But then, I guess, one out of
ten times or whatever, it is good.”
The next day, she’ll come back to the studio, listen to the
new song and see if it works. “I can’t judge a song the day I write it at all,”
she admits. “But the next day it’s always clear whether it has something that
resonates with me or with others.”
For July Flame,
Veirs wrote a total of 80 songs, then pared them down to 13 before recording. The very first song, however, was the title
track, named after a variety of heritage peach she tasted at a farmer’s market.
“It wasn’t really the peaches, so much as the name that evoked something for
me,” says Veirs. “Sometimes I’ll struggle with a song, with the words or the
melody, but this fell right out. “
“I had been feeling a little bit bored by myself, kind of
like, oh, I’ve written so many songs in my life. How am I going to make this
one interesting?” she added. “That one kind of set me off on a new path.”
Veirs’ has always drawn on natural imagery in her lyrics. Trained
as a geologist and coming from a family of scientists, however, she brings an
unusual precision to her lyrics. Geological concepts like meteors and the ice
age have figured in her songs, as well as forest fires and ocean waves. But
with July Flame, the palette has
shifted to warmer tones. “I think this album does have more pastoral themes. More
like summer – bees, pollinators, flowers, wildfire, smoke, buffalo…it’s almost
out of ‘Home on the Range’ or something,” says Veirs. “Maybe it’s because that
theme embodies the summer for me, which is what this album focuses on.”
But though it distills summer into music, for business
reasons, the album had to come out in the dead of winter. She says that she
thought about the seasonality, but decided not to worry about it. “One of my
friends told me I was lighting up the winter months,” Veirs jokes.
Veirs worked with long-time and new collaborators on the
album. Regional fixture Tucker Martine, her producer for all her previous albums
and her live-in partner for the last two, recorded the album. Martine, who has
worked with the Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens and Bill Frisell, brings a strong,
subtle sense of rhythm and an encyclopedic knowledge of music, says Veirs.
“Tucker has an insatiable appetite for learning about music
— what everyone’s doing and what everyone has done, across all genres,” she adds.
“That’s one of the reasons I like working with him, because it’s not going to
be normal. It’ll be normal enough if you want it to be, but there will be
something weird underneath.”
Eyvind Kang, the celebrated jazz violist, contributed to
this album, as he has for all the rest. “He’s a brilliant guy,” says Veirs. “All
of his viola playing on all of my albums is improvised. He just plays things as
he goes and it’s wonderful to watch him work in the studio. It’s like his mind
is working on another level.”
Kang is not the only string player on Veirs’ album this time.
She also reached beyond her established circle to bring in Samuel Barber and
the Tosca String Quartet for two cuts (“Little Deschutes” and “Make Something
Good”). Other guests include My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on “I Can See Your
Tracks,” “Sun Is King” and “Silo Song.”
Even French romantic poet Arthur Rimbaud makes a cameo (of
sorts) in the lyrics to “Sleeper in the Valley”, a gorgeous ballad with a
strong anti-war sentiment.
“I actually was struggling to write about the war and
feeling like, I can’t do this, it’s too big,” says Veirs. “So I thought, well,
‘What does Rimbaud say?’ And then I
found his poem [“The Sleeper in the Valley”] and I thought, ‘that’s perfect.'” The poem “Sleeper in the Valley”, like the
song, considers a young soldier lying dead, an image that is, unfortunately, as
relevant now as it was in Rimbaud’s day.
“Sleeper in the Valley” is one of the album’s more serious
moments. Another song, “Carole Kaye,” about the famous funk bass player, is a
“It was fun learning about her, because she’s this white
girl from Everett Washington, close to where we live, and
somehow got mixed up with Motown Records and Stax and was the person to call in
the 1960s for funk bass playing,” Veirs explains. “I researched her a little
bit and realized, listening to her, how creative and amazing her bass playing
was. And then there’s this thing that she’s the most recorded bass player of
all time. I was like, okay, I’ve got to write a song about her.” Veirs’ song
incorporates a long list of the songs Kaye played on in its lyrics: “Smile,”
“Good Vibrations,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Homeward Bound,” “I’m a Believer,” “Come
Together”, “Mission Impossible” and others. In the song, Veirs says she hopes
to meet Kaye one day, and although that hasn’t happened yet, she has a signed
photo of the bass player on her mantle and hopes to connect one day.
Meanwhile, Veirs is getting preparing for another tour to
promote her new album. She’ll be traveling this time with a four piece band:
violist Alex Guy, and multi-instrumentalists Eric Anderson and Nelson Kempf.
Veirs will also be promoting the album herself. Her last
several albums came out on Nonesuch,
but with her contract up, she decided to try self-releasing (the album is
released by her own Raven Marching Band Records in the U.S. and Bella Union in Europe).
“I have a reasonable audience now. It’s not like I’m
starting from scratch,” she concludes. “I have a label manager and a publicist
and a radio person and all these people helping me get this out. I’m investing
a lot of time and money into it.
“It is more nerve-wracking, but I just feel in my gut that
it’s going to work out.”
[Photo Credit: David Belisle]