March 5th, 2010 | Interviews

Download: Laura Veirs “July Flame”


(from July Flame out now on Raven Marching Band)

Laura Veirs will be eight months pregnant when she performs at Spaceland. Her July Flame is the latest great folk album to come from the Pacific Northwest. Laura sat down with L.A. RECORD before a soundcheck in Cambridge to discuss how the desolation in Northwest China drove her to songwriting, her current favorite lullaby and her Buddhist connection to Leonard Cohen. This interview by Scott Schultz.

Congratulations on your baby. When is it due?
Laura Veirs: Mid April.
You’re going to be touring pretty much up to your due date. How is your pregnancy affecting your touring?
Laura Veirs: Technically, it’s four weeks out—and most first babies I hear are a little late, so maybe five weeks out. Of course, you never know for sure about these things. I feel a little more tired then normal. I had already been pregnant for three months before this tour, so it’s kind of what I’m used to anyhow. Touring is always tiring anyway, so it kind of meshes into one.
Do you ever feel the baby kicking when you’re on stage?
Laura Veirs: Yeah, I do.
How’s its rhythm?
Laura Veirs: You know, there really isn’t any rhythm to it. That would be cool if there was.
Do you know if it’s going to be a boy or a girl?
Laura Veirs: We don’t know. We’re going to find out the old-fashioned way.
Do you have a good lullaby ready?
Laura Veirs: I’ve been a nanny before, and I’ve taken care of my brother’s kids a lot. I end up singing Beatle songs, and ‘Country Roads,’ and kind of funny old folk songs that I know. It’s funny, though, how sometimes I find it’s surprisingly hard to come up with one that sounds nice that is not about something dark. Because even though they’re sweet-sounding songs, a lot of old folk songs are about someone who is dying. You have to pick and choose the right ones. I’ll probably have to do some woodshedding on that one, and then I’ll see what the baby responds to.
I like the videos that your fans submitted for your last CD a lot. Some of them are really great videos. Are you ever surprised by both the quantity and the quality of the video submissions that you’ve received?
Laura Veirs: To be honest, with this new CD, we’ve had fewer submissions. Although, I really liked the one that won—with the deer. That was really cool. I think we got a little more diversity and quantity the last time around. I think it’s because I was on tour at the time and talking about it and pushing it from the stage. I was asking from the stage, ‘Please help us—it will be a fun thing if you could contribute to our video contest. We’ll put it on our website….’ I think with this one, it was the lack of personal contact. E-mail is not the only way to get in touch with people now. A lot of people don’t even check their e-mails all the time now, especially if they sign up for a lot of lists. I’m even guilty of that myself. Anyway, I think it’s a great way to get fans involved with the band and giving them a sense of ownership over the whole thing. It’s also getting great free videos because videos are expensive! The guy who won our contest for the last CD—Fred Savage, from British Columbia, who made that great stop-animation video for ‘Phantom Mountain’—we actually ended up hiring him to do our video for July Flame and actually paid him. It was very good, and it was kind of neat to meet him with that kind of circumstance—he had already won the band’s first video contest and then we got to hire him to make a real video. That was a great experience.
So you were working in China as an interpreter just prior to launching your singing career?
Laura Veirs: I wasn’t a Mandarin major, but I studied the crap out of it in college. I really got into it. I lived in China for six months, and then I went back to work as an interpreter on a geological field trip. I taught English over there. I also lived in Malaysia for a year before I went to college and that’s where I really piqued my interest in Chinese because I had visited my cousins over there who were studying Buddhism, and I just found the written language to be so beautiful visually. I also loved the musicality of the Mandarin language. The tonal quality of the language is very interesting. I really got into it for a while, but I have to say now I’m almost embarrassed to order in a Chinese restaurant. It’s gone so far back into my brain. It’s very disappointing how language does that. If you don’t use it, it goes away.
Did you check out any bands in Beijing?
Laura Veirs: This was in ‘97, so I was just on the verge of becoming a musician myself. But yeah, I did—I made friends with some punks when I was in Beijing. I’d go to the shows with them. I feel out of touch over there now, but I haven’t been there for over thirteen years, so I don’t really know what’s going on there anymore.
Is Beijing where you started writing songs?
Laura Veirs: That’s a good story for the bio, and there’s some truth to that. But I had written a few songs before that. I began to take my songwriting seriously when I was over there because I was on a really weird trip and I didn’t like being there. I found writing was a way of getting through the days.
Was it due to cultural or geographical isolation?
Laura Veirs: Both. It was the Northern part of the Tibetan plateau, on the southern edge of the Taklamakan desert, which is really close to Uzbekistan and all of the -stan countries, far to the northwest of Mongolia. I was with this group of geologists who were really into geology, and I realized too late that I didn’t really want to do geology.
But I notice a lot of geology references in your song lyrics.
Laura Veirs: There is some, and I like the interaction between art and science in general in life. I play with that a lot with my lyrics. I don’t exactly know why those lyrics come up. It’s not deliberate. They just fit the feeling I’m trying to express at that point.
Here’s a geological reference wrapped in a question. The mainstream appeal of the modern folk scene is a volcano, filled with boiling lava that is one big hit away from a major explosion. Do you feel there is additional pressure for commercial success while the casual fan’s interest in folk music is peaking?
Laura Veirs: I don’t think in terms of hits, because I don’t think my music is mainstream enough for me to even consider that. But you can see a band like the Fleet Foxes—they sold 500,000 records in England, so that’s a hit record in terms of today, where it’s become very unheard of to sell that many records anywhere, much less in a country that’s so small. There’s certainly something big happening with music—in their case group harmonies and great songwriting that’s almost chamber-folk. Melodic music, which is really neat. I’m really glad for that. I’m glad that more people have embraced this album than they have in the past. In particular I am happy about it because I decided after much deliberation and angst to start my own record label. It feels like it is going to work out financially. You never know with these things. It certainly hasn’t broken even yet, but I feel like I’m probably on the right path. That is a good feeling this late in the game. I was on a major label, Nonesuch, which is essentially a major label, and now as an independent label, you’re seeing stuff that we made at my house. That’s a good feeling.
Can you describe some of the differences between being on a major label and being on your own indie label?
Laura Veirs: Nonesuch is a great label, and I was very happy to be a part of them. They really gave me a leg up and cache—a lot of budgeting and marketing and ads in places like New York that I would never be able to afford. And they don’t meddle with the creative process at all, so that hasn’t changed. But now I’m fronting all the cost, and we can keep our costs down because Tucker is my partner and we live in the same house, and he is the producer. We can ask favors of friends, but in general, we want to pay fairly, so there are a lot of start-up costs to this which have made my bank account bleed. So that is certainly a huge difference. But most of all, I feel all losses. I have to make this work. If it works than it is me and my team doing it. It feels very homegrown, and it’s my responsibility to take care of all these huge details in my life—like my business, my creativity and my songwriting. No one is putting pressure on me to write anymore songs except me. I just need to keep doing it. It feels very liberating in a sense, but it’s also scary because there isn’t any backup.
Your first CDs were self-released as well.
Laura Veirs: Yeah, but it was just a website and I would mail out some CDs or sell them at shows. Now I have a distributor and I have a label manager and a radio plugger, a publicist and an assistant—people that are relying on this for their income, too. It’s a bigger endeavor for me, logistically, but I have such a great team and they’re all great friends. The guy who runs the label lives a block away. On the one hand, it’s a lot of logistical thinking and planning for me, which I don’t normally associate myself with because I’m an artist. But I think I get it in a way. I like thinking about strategy and puzzle solving. It’s part of my interest in songwriting. Finding a way to solve a puzzle—when you’re dealing with melody and chords and lyrics versus, ‘OK, how can we keep this tour profitable and keep our expenses low enough so that we can actually come home with some money since we don’t have tour support anymore?’
You’ve worked with the same producer for six consecutive albums. Are the two of you telepathic at this point?
Laura Veirs: I feel that way with Tucker. We’re romantic partners. We’re having a baby together. We’re making records together, and we live together. So it’s a very close relationship. I love making records with him, and it’s a real treat. We don’t get a lot of time together in that kind of intense way because he is a very busy producer, and I am a touring musician. So it’s almost like a treat every couple of years where we get to spend three months together. Not to say that we have this totally blissful time. Things come up. But we made a pact this time to be nice and professional because with your romantic partner you can be a little short-tempered—because you’re allowed to be. But since we’ve made a bunch of records where we weren’t a couple, we already established a professional recording relationship where it’s like, ‘OK—now it’s getting a little heated.’ One of us will always have the wherewithal to say, ‘OK—Let’s take a break. It’s not happening right now. Let’s get back to this in 20 minutes or an hour. Let’s go take a walk or get lunch and try again later.’
I notice you include a lot of interesting instruments yet you also maintain a clean and uncluttered sound. Do you write with a particular instrument in mind? Or write on your guitar and confer with Tucker to determine what would mesh best with the basic song?
Laura Veirs: It’s typically more of the latter. I’ll spend a lot of time writing songs, and get a big batch of them ready. In this case it was maybe 80. And that doesn’t mean that each song is totally different from the next. Maybe I’ll use the same lyrics from song to song, and I’ll keep changing the melody because I know that the melody isn’t right. In general, I’ll write a ton of songs, and then I’ll play them for him, and he’ll go, ‘This is great—we have five songs. Let take them to the studio.’ So then we can book some studio time—because we have to book his time. We know if we have five now, in six months we’ll have ten. That’s enough for a record. I’m sitting there with my guitar noodling and come up with stuff. If I get bored with my guitar, which has happened—I had a lot of creative anxiety on this album cycle because I felt like I wasn’t writing good songs, and I was getting frustrated. I was losing heart, so I would switch instruments a lot. Try it on the banjo, try changing the tuning it on the guitar, try an electric guitar, play it on the piano—just to get myself out of this head space of ‘here is a G chord.’ I played a thousand G chords. ‘How many songs have I written with this kind of a lyric?’ I need to surprise myself. It took more work to get to that place of surprise on this record than normal. But I’m seven records in, so maybe that is to be expected at this point. So changing those little things like the instrument or the tuning helped, but once I have the core of the melody, structure and the chords, maybe I’ll do one or two overdubs with harmonies or another guitar part. We’ll then have a meeting before we set up our sessions and say, ‘On this one, I hear drums’ and things like that. Mostly Tucker is leading the charge of those things. He came up with using Stephen Barber on the string arrangements on ‘Little Deschutes’ and ‘Make Something Good.’ He’s a great arranger living in Austin. We just e-mailed him the tracks and he wrote these amazing string quartet parts, and I’d never had strings on an album before—then he e-mailed them back, and I was like. ‘This is cool! Sounds great!’
When I was listening to your new CD, I would listen to each song, and then I’d afterward I would take a look at the liner notes to see what instruments were used on that track.
Laura Veirs: That’s good! I think that’s so important. A lot of the reviews I get—I usually don’t read them, but I confess that I have been a little lately—people get the musician credits wrong all the time. I’m so glad you’re looking at that. The other musicians are so important. This is one of the issues that I have with the download era. It’s my name on it, but there are so many amazing musicians on there that are contributing amazing brilliant stuff, and when somebody downloads it, they’ll never know who it is.
I read in your bio that you composed the songs on your new album in your barn. Can you describe the barn?
Laura Veirs: It’s not a barn. It’s a converted garage. It has a barn-like feel. It’s plywood. We painted it white, and there’s old funky windows, French doors and a garden with trees and stuff. It feels very rural in our backyard, even though we’re in the middle of Portland. It’s a great retreat space for me to write in. I’ve got a pellet stove. It burns condensed compressed sawdust pellets. It’s a great stove. I can hear the rain in there. It deserves a skylight. It’s a wonderful space—12 feet by 20 feet. It’s just the right size. We use it as a guest space when people come over. It’s a great retreat for me, and I fell really lucky to have it. And there’s no Internet back there. That’s one of the biggest challenges for me co-running the label with my friend. There’s always something to be done. That’s the big challenge for me after I have the baby—making time to write songs.
The album has a summer theme and summer-themed titles, so why did you release it in the winter?
Laura Veirs: I wrote the songs a year and a half ago, and we finished it in May which is too soon to release it in the summer… but then the business part kicked in and we had to release it. As I looked at it, I began to notice the themes: ‘Oh, the sun is in here a lot! A lot of pollenator references.’
Now that you are running your own label and are a respected figure in the folk scene, do you see yourself releasing any material by other artists that you like?
Laura Veirs: I’d like to do that. I think that would be a fun thing to do. I feel like I do that already with who I choose to take out on tour as band members or opening the shows. I enjoy that role sometimes of being a mentor and I certainly like feeling I have a mentor. In fact Carol Kaye—the lady who has played bass [and then some!—ed.]—there’s a song about her on the new CD. She’s kind of taken me under her wing a little bit in e-mail land. She’s 74, and has done some pioneering groundbreaking stuff in music as a woman. I love the feeling of being a part of that continuity of community of musicians. I feel like the label could help with that. But since we don’t know if this album is going to break even or sink us, I need to be sure I’m protecting a certain amount of funds for the future so I have enough funds for my next record. I bet we’ll be able to do some collaborating in the future. I look forward to that. Tucker is a producer primarily, so he is constantly exposed to and seeking out musicians, so maybe we’ll find some good stuff to put out in the future.
Do you have a preference between the smaller venues and the larger venues you’ve played when opening for bands like the Decemberists?
Laura Veirs: I like all the opportunities that come my way. I mean, I think it’s really fun to play house shows where there are only ten or twenty people. It’s so nice. This is how I started. Then again, being on stage in front of 4,000 people opening for the Decemberists, in a classic space where it’s very reverberant—it’s a great feeling. Originally, I thought I would be nervous about playing those venues—like we got to play the Ryman in Nashville. That was a huge thing for me. Just to play in this place where all my heroes have played or even met each other backstage before—wow! In my case, I’m usually headlining 300-capacity venues and I feel that is a good size where I can interact with the audiences and it’s not very distant. They’re mostly standing room, and I can see them and make eye contact while I’m playing. I can make a connection with them, and I feel that is very sweet. I like to go to the merch table after the show and sign stuff and I’m fine with that. I have friends that are more famous than I am and they kind of retreat from that, and I can see why because it’s kind of overwhelming for them. In a way, not having as much success for them is kind of nice because I enjoy the personal interaction with my fans in a normal way.
Do you feel that the intimacy gives the fans a tighter personal connection to you?
Laura Veirs: I think there is probably something to that. And I also have a personable stage presence where I’m asking the crowds to ask me questions and a lot of back-and-forth banter. Asking them to clap and provide backup vocals with the songs. So they feel that I am very approachable—which I am.
What musicians did you most admire when you were starting out?
Laura Veirs: Anybody in the Riot Grrrl movement or the DIY movement was very influential, especially in the early days. I wrote a letter to Bikini Kill in 1997 asking them how to start a band and Tobi Vail—their drummer at the time—wrote me back! I couldn’t believe that she would actually take the time out of her life to write me a letter about how to start a band. That to me was huge—that one small thing. There were times in my life where I felt totally overwhelmed with fan mail, and I just didn’t get back to people. Then I stopped recording for three years and all the fan mail stopped coming. and I realized, this is fleeting. I’ve got to get back to people and make a connection. Now I keep my letters and take them with me on the road. I don’t get a ton of letters. It’s a task that I feel needs to be taken care of. I remember her and how important it was to me that she wrote that letter. I can do that too. People write me a lot of letters asking me how to start. I think it’s a part of that continuum. The Riot Grrl movement, the Do-It-Yourself scene, the punk forefathers, the folk pioneers who showed that anyone can do this. If you have tenacity, you will be fine, and if you work hard to create great music, it will find its audience.
Are people bringing you baby gifts on tour?
Laura Veirs: I’ve gotten a few. People are starting to know—not all of them. Some of them see me walk up on stage, and they go, ‘I didn’t know you were pregnant until you walked up there!’ Some people have given me some cute stuff. A hair brush kit, a cute little book. Not much, which is cool, because we barely have room in our van with six people and equipment. We still haven’t fit everyone into the van yet since we got back from Europe. We don’t know if it all fits.
Who do you consider a perfect songwriter?
Laura Veirs: I don’t know that I consider anyone a perfect songwriter. I love the songs of Leonard Cohen, Joanna Newsom, Joni Mitchell—people who have that emotional delivery. It’s such a gift.
Did you catch Cohen on his tour last year?
Laura Veirs: I did. I got free tickets from my cousin. He’s friends with him, because he studied Zen-Buddhism with him at this monastery north of L.A. at Mount Baldy Zen Center. So my cousin got us all in on the list! We felt really cool.