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Interview: Laura Veirs

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on May 13, 2008 5:15PM

Laura VeirsWe were entranced by singer/songwriter Laura Veirs' shimmering, ethereal folk pop the first time we heard her 2005 record, Year of Meteors. Her intricate guitar parts and haunting voice didn't just get hooked into our brains; they burroughed there, refusing to leave. But she had been making her signature music long before we ever heard it. Her self-titled debut was released in 1999 via Raven Marching Band Records, who also put out her follow-up, The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae, in 2001. After another release in 2003 on Bella Union, Troubled by the Fire, Veirs signed to Nonesuch Records for the release of 2004's Carbon Glaciers and has since released two more records on the label.

It's been a year since the release of her last record, Saltbreakers, and response has been so strong Veirs continues to tour. This time, she's hitting the road solo and promoting a new EP, Two Beers Veirs. As she gets ready to hit Chicago for two shows later this week, we caught up with her to talk about the thematic elements of her music, recording in Johnny Cash's cabin, working with a major label, and her college nickname.

Chicagoist: Your music seems to have its greatest effect when your records are listened to as a whole. Is that something that's done intentionally?

Laura Veirs: Well, I do have lyrical themes that run through all of them. I always try to have a concept that focuses me because otherwise it feels overwhelming, like, "What am I going to write about?" But if I find a theme that makes sense in some way, it's compelling, at a deeper level, then I'll use that. The lyrics come and go throughout. I guess, more than that, it's the sequencing of the songs that's important. That's what Tucker [Martine] does. He's the producer, the drummer, and my boyfriend also. He is so good at sequencing and that's an art, I think: putting the songs together in a way that flows and it creates an arc of the record. Like an arc of sound, that's an art that I think is being lost as people start listening to songs one-by-one versus full records, start to finish.

C: Speaking of themes, your most recent record [2007's Saltbreakers] has a lot of references to water, oceans, salt, and mermaids. These references also pop up from time to time on previous records. Is this influenced by living in the Pacific Northwest or is that an intentional thematic element, and specifically THE theme for this new record?

LV: I definitely wanted to write about salt on this album so there's a lot of saltwater, there's crying, there are tears. And saltbreakers are waves, so you have that. I like the ocean as a place to visit and because it's so mysterious to us, so powerful and can be so destructive. But it can be renewing and full of life. The Year of Meteors album has many more references to the air, so I was thinking about it as a space and air record, like wind and birds and airplanes and bees and bats and space, galaxies, and stars. The one before that, Carbon Glacier, is much more water-based; it's ice and water. The one before that [2003's Troubled By The Fire] is fire, and the one before that [2001's The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae] is more earth. I wasn't thinking about the earth when I wrote it, but when I look back at it I can see that it's a record that's really rooted in the earth.

C: Sonically, this is the first time you've had your band provide backing vocals on a song ["Saltbreakers"] and you even use a choir on another song ["To The Country"]. What led you to expand the sound in that direction?

LV: I think it was the songs. "Saltbreakers" was just asking for a back-up singing group and I really like that it's a group of men. It sounds like a group of salty pirates. That's fun for me: to have this girlish voice and this bearded-men background. I think that's a cool contrast. Normally, you would hear a growly man's voice with these beautiful women's background voices and here's it's kind of the opposite. With the choir, that was really fun. The song was just begging for it and Tucker thought of it. He's usually thinking of the larger picture and the instrumentation. He has a friend who knew Johnny Cash's son and runs a studio in Nashville, where Tucker's from. He invited us to come and record there with the choir [the Cedar Hill Choir] so we did that. It was amazing because it was in Johnny and June Carter Cash's cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee. It was just amazing to be able to be in their space and to see the pictures of Maybelle Carter and Johnny and June on the wall. I mean, you're in their house! It was amazing.

C: Sounds like quite an experience. And a little intimidating.

LV: It's one of those feelings, you're like, "Oh my God, I'm in the space of legends of American music. And we're making music in their space!"

C: You're on Nonesuch Records, which is an imprint of a major label, Warner Brothers Records. But looking at the Nonesuch roster, aside from you, there is Jon Brion, The Black Keys, David Byrne, The Magnetic Fields, and Wilco. It seems to be a very artist-friendly label, these career-minded artists who are allowed to do what they want creatively. How has this environment helped you develop as an artist?

LV: Yeah, very much so. They've been great. They've been really hands-off with the record from start to finish. We always appreciate it because the last thing you want, as an artist, is for the label to come in with their greasy paws and go (in evil voice) "No, not that song! You need to do this or that!" They've been very helpful in that way and that's been really nice.

C: So the label has never asked you to do a duet with Sheryl Crow for a new record?

LV: No, no. Nothing of the sort. They give me complete freedom which is really nice.

C: You're playing solo on this tour. How do you approach these solo shows as opposed to the full band shows?

LV: Well, I bring a looping pedal. Some of my songs have repeating parts that really lend themselves to a looping pedal. So I'll be doing some guitar and vocal loops. I do that just a little bit. I try not to overwhelm the show with that, because it can kind of seem like- I don't know, I think people can kind overdo the looping thing. I keep it to a minimum but certain songs really do benefit from it and then other ones really are fine on their own. They're great songs that just need a guitar. I think what happens is that my guitar playing comes out, it really gets highlighted because when the band's there, you're thinking about what they're doing, too, and not listening so much to my guitar parts. I play the songs that are very singer-style-centric, more intricate guitar part songs because I think that's more interesting for the audience then just strumming. I also play the banjo at the solo shows.

C: Can you tell us a bit about the Two Beers Veirs EP that you'll be selling at the shows?

LV: Tucker and I recorded that in our basement in four hours one night, just sort of spontaneously, and it's been a real hit. My dad's name in college was "Two Beers Viers" because he couldn't hold his liquor and neither could I so it was my nickname as well (laughs). I thought was a good name for the EP because of the songs are covers and they're kind of bluesy and Two Beers Veirs had a good ring to it. It's doing great, people are buying it a lot on tour and online. And that's a good feeling, that we can just go downstairs and make some music and people are receptive to it, that they're interested in the next thing.

Laura Veirs with Liam Finn, Thursday May 15, 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., $14, 21+, Schuba's Tavern, 3159 N. Southport Ave., Tickets available via Schuba's website

Photo of Laura Veirs taken by Autumn de Wilde