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Laura Veirs - The Triste Interview
|Now based in Seattle, Laura Veirs first came to the attention of astute UK music lovers with her 2003 album "Troubled By Fire" and a later a tour supporting Jesse Sykes, where her own brand of leftfield, country-folk-blues was greatly appreciated. However, this was only preparation for the wave of ecstatic critical praise she received in early 2004 with the release of her latest album, "Carbon Glacier" after which Veirs launched herself on an extended series of gigs around Europe. Triste caught up with her briefly in Manchester and then later in Leeds.
Triste: Can I start by asking you a few questions at the beginning. Did you learn Colorado before you moved out West? Is that right?
Laura Veirs: No actually, I didn't. I actually learned in college in Minnesota - I learned a little bit then. Well I started learning there a little at the beginning of school and then I got into punk rock and I started learning that style. Then I moved to Seattle and got more into learning the older country blues and American styles of music. So from like 19-24 I was learning a lot about other kinds of music and then starting to write my own songs. So it was like folk and the beginning then punk, then I moved back out of that.
Triste: So what kind of music did you listen to as a teenager?
Laura Veirs: As a teenager I wasn’t obsessed with music as a lot of kids were. Like my boyfriend was totally obsessed for years and spent his entire high school/growing up period listening to music in the basement? I wasn't like that. I was doing photography and sports and stuff. So I wasn't that engaged in music although I listened to whatever pop music was going on. Another thing is that in Colorado where I grew up, there isn't an all-ages music scene. So kids didn't really go to shows, whereas now in The North-West, there's a real active all ages community and people that are as young as 12 start bands - both girls and boys. I didn't have any role models for that In Colorado where I grew up, so it didn't occur to me that I could do it do. It wasn't until college that I really got inspired to start working on my music.
Triste: You might have started late but you're quite an accomplished old-timey picker, aren't you? Were you self-taught?
Laura Veirs: It's mostly self-taught, but I've learned an awful lot from bandmates over the years, but I did take lessons for six months from this guy in Seattle and I learned tons about country blues styles and that alternating thumb on the bass note and then using the fingers to pick the melody. That's the style I've tried to make my own. And I've come up with a lot of stuff using that folk style at its base. I definitely feel that the country-blues stuff I learned from that teacher is influential.
Triste: What's the story about being in China with nothing to do and picking up the guitar to entertain yourself? Is that true?
Laura Veirs: Yes. I went on a geology trip and I was a field assistant, a geology major, and I also speak Chinese so I was the translator. But I didn't really enjoy going around with this group of geologists, one of them I didn't like s much, and so I opted out of being very engaged and so ending up becoming the camp tender out in the middle of the desert in China near Pakistan. I was supposed to stay by the camp and watch over it as I didn't want to go out and look at the rocks. So I played my guitar and although I wasn't writing a ton of songs, but I was writing a number of songs and coming up with ideas by myself in the desert.
Triste: So I presume it looked like you were heading towards being a geologist as a career, so when did you decide to move away from that and try and make it as a musician?
Laura Veirs: When I graduated from college I knew then that I didn't want to be a geologist. It was pretty clear, your options were to be a teacher or be involved in something like oil research. I don't know, I wasn't that excited about it and was excited about music. I thought I'd try and take my punk band and see if I could make it work in Seattle and then it didn't work there, so I did my own stuff and it started to work. I definitely thought that when I graduated in 1997 that I was on the path to music. It's really hard to get your feet running and to start to make some money from music, so I did all kinds of odd jobs for years.
Triste: I believe you were a teacher of English as a foreign language?
Laura Veirs: Yeh, people are so warm and eager to learn - in a way they're desperate to learn and get some more vocabulary and communicate with people. It was nice to teach people who really want to learn.
Triste: So what was Seattle like in that post-grunge phase? I suppose it was a little like the morning afterwards? Was there a scene still hanging on?
Laura Veirs: I don't really know. I was kind of an outsider there at first. When I got there in 1997 it took me like four or five years to find the people I'm playing with now. To try and find my community there. I went through a lot of different bands and projects until I found them. It's like that in the North-West where the people are like in a clique and there’s a tiny bit of reserve. Americans supposedly have this stereotype of being friendly and outgoing, but in the North-West it's not really like that; it's a little more reserved, so it took time to find these people and get accepted into the right groups, or actually form our own new group in a way, which is actually what we've kind of done. I hope were not exclusive or stuck-up; that's one of my pet peeves. But as far s the post grunge thing goes, I think what happened was that people were uninterested in that as it was so played out.
Triste: That's what I meant before about a hangover period.
Laura Veirs: A lot of big corporations came in and different kinds of sharks and wanted to sign bands and then mess them up, so people were more wary and more focussing inward and thinking what does our community have to offer now that's new? It's kind of where we are now and there's a lot of cross-collaboration happening and cross genres that, although I said there are cliques, I do feel there is an openness that wasn't there before. So people are now thinking "Okay I can ask this jazz musician to play with me or I can play with that punk band although I come form a country background". It just seems that there is a lot of mixing happening which is generating so much unique sounding music in the North West in general. Portland in particular has a vibrant scene.
Triste: So was there no record company interest for the first two albums which you self-released?
Laura Veirs: I still don't have a record deal for Carbon Glacier. It's not out in The States.
Triste: But I'm sure it will be - if you look at the press cuttings only form this side of the Atlantic you can't fail to be impressed.
Laura Veirs: I don't know. There are some tiny labels that want to do it, but they have only limited distribution and I don't need to be on a major label by any means, but I would like to be on one like Bella Union in England where that's like four or five people working in an office and they've got an infrastructure there. It's more difficult to find that in The States, I don't why that is, but in general, there are so many good bands and their release schedules are filled up for a year and they're like "I don't think we can put this out till February 2006" and I just can't wait that long. I'm in a funny state of writing right now, but I'm sure it will come out soon.
Triste: So in 1999-2000-2001 there was no interest from local record companies?
Laura Veirs: No. Just move on and get it out there!
Triste: Tucker Martine is one of the key figures on the last two records. When did you first meet him?
Laura Veirs: I first met him in 2000 when we recorded that CD the red one - The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae - I guess that was pretty soon after I first became interested in recording and doing music at a serious level. He's such a dear friend. He's just such a good person and he's got such a good heart. He also has a real genius for sound and a real sensitivity in the studio and the ability to draw out people's strengths and I feel so lucky that I've been able to work with him. Cos he's such a good person - he's becoming well-known in his own right and that's so great as he's so good at wheat he does. He deservers to make a good go at it and he deserves to make a good income.
Triste: On the last two records there are many common musicians did they tend to coalesce around the period of these records?
Laura Veirs: It's more that people were out there and Tucker asked who I wanted to play on those records and he knew these people. Like Eyvind Kang the violist, who’s an important player on these records, so I got to know them through these recordings and now were all friends and it's really easy to play together and make records. We come from different backgrounds as far as aesthetics go, but that's why it works. You've got all these people coming from different angles and you've got their own input.
Triste: What's the development from the second album to Troubled by Fire? There seems to be many more story songs on The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae album. You seemed to become looser in your structures and more elliptical in your lyrics. Was that conscious or something you developed?
Laura Veirs: It's conscious, yes. I'm more interested in the slightly more open-ended lyrics now, as far as music I listen to, and as far as The Triumphs and Travails... I was interested in real narrative lay it out on the line folk lyrics which tell particular story and so I'm kind of moving away from that now. Because I right now enjoy lyrics now that have a little more left to the imagination and have a little bit more open ended in terms of interpretation and also song structure wise I've moved away from more traditional forms into trying to open it up a little although there’s still pretty precise. I feel they're still compact little songs, I still want to put twists in there to make it that little bit unexpected.
Triste: So how do you go about writing the songs? Do you put the lyrics down first? Or do you work something out on the guitar?
Laura Veirs: Sort of both at the same time. Either writing some words down and then the music will come, but mostly I'm just sat with my guitar noodling around and then some lyrics will come.
Triste: Do you keep a journal around and jot down ideas?
Laura Veirs: All the time.
Triste: So the current album Carbon Glacier was written one winter?
Laura Veirs: Yes, last winter.
Triste: What inspired you to write the album, there's a definite theme throughout the record? Which came first, the theme or did you have a few songs with similar subject matter and then decide to incorporate a theme into the record/
Laura Veirs: It was coincidence. It was like, "Write, write, write... oh? What's this coming out?" Then flesh it out and finished the album rather than decide on the theme and then write the album - which I actually did on the red album "Triumphs into Veils". I wanted to write a country concept album about a girl travelling around.
Triste: So can you try and outline some of the themes on this the album.
Laura Veirs: Hmmm. Well I guess there's an underlying layer of hopefulness with this album. I don't think that people might get on first listen as many of them are in minor keys. There’s a lot of angst on there, there's this layer that the world is really a good place to be, and that it's not all shit. And I feel that that's where I was trying to go. Even though there's a lot in the world right now which is total crap. Like the US government and what they're doing right now. It's about trying to find out new ways of making our lives better on this planet right now. That's one of a musician's roles - to try and make things better, somehow more vital, somehow more essential or somehow richer. It can be a dirty mess this life. The album has a lot of mixed feelings on it - a lot of contradictions.
Triste: It seems on this record that you have a greater affinity with nature than with the technological heavy 21st century world we now love in. You seem to be talking about finding eternal truths through flowers, ice, rivers and the sea.
Laura Veirs: There is an attempt to get beyond everyday chaos and try and that is why I like playing with Karl [Blau]. It's very raw but it's very natural and I think people miss that. The world's so technological now that we sometimes miss out on basic communication that can happen through music. They’re either watching TV, on their computer or driving around. I think that when musicians present themselves as ordinary people playing music that they wrote, then it strikes a chord with people right now.
Triste: There have been some criticisms that your lyrics are a little free associative. You don't set out to be deliberately obscure, do you? The most obvious example is the opening phrase about "My wooden vibrating mouth".
Laura Veirs: I think that's very UNobscure actually.
Triste: Rob Hughes, the guy from Uncut, wrote a great review of the album, but when he actually quoted those opening lyrics of the album, he put brackets around the word "guitar" afterwards to explain what this actually meant.
Laura Veirs: He had to ask what that actually meant.
Triste: But that doesn't bother you, does it?
Laura Veirs: What?
Triste: That some people think that your lyrics are arty-farty or pretentious. In other words, why can't she say something simply or say something clearly?
Laura Veirs: Man, that's so interesting. I get the opposite most of the time!
Laura Veirs: Too simple. Your lyrics are too obvious. They're the kind of things that they say in The States. I just got to sing what I sing and the whole criticism thing I take with a grain of salt. If it's good, then great, but if it's bad, then... whatever. If I listen to too much criticism then I find can't write.
Triste: You'd be paralysed.
Laura Veirs: I think artists have to be careful about criticism and keep a wall up. It's your work and in the end when you go down in your grave you've got to think about what you did and whether you liked it or not. Whether it meant anything to you, because that's what finally matters.
Triste: Do you think there's been a progression from Troubled by Fire to Carbon Glacier at all?
Laura Veirs: I think I found something new on this one. I think I drew less from other people's influences on this one.
Triste: In reviews people have compared you to a list of people such as Cat Power, Polly Harvey, Patti Smith, but while you can hear some common elements it's rather a futile game, but as the length of the list of people grows you see how meaningless this becomes. Does this desire to pigeonhole you bother you at all?
Laura Veirs: Each person is their own person, so it's silly to use labels, but have to use language to get around that and navigate around that and give people information. If people namedrop people like that then I'm fine with that
Triste: But as the list of people you've been compared to also includes Lucinda Williams, Jane Siberry, Suzanne Vega then you can see how meaningless this becomes. You're basically compared to half the female singer-songwriters around at the moment. The only thing in common is that they're female.
Laura Veirs: I think it's kind of neat though. It maybe reflects on something which I'm doing of my own and they have to draw on so many people because they can't easily put it in a box.
Triste: How do you find playing live compares to the writing and recording aspects of your music?
Laura Veirs: I don't know. You kind of caught me on a tough day. We're really exhausted, we haven't been sleeping enough and we've been driving on the wrong side of the road! But other days I fell that this is really it. What else would I want to be doing with my life? It's a totally mixed bag. Sometimes I feel totally nervous up there and out of sorts but other times I feel really powerful and on top of the world.
Triste: Do you find it difficult playing live because the arrangements are such an integral part of the song. I saw you play last year with Steve [Moore] on keyboards when you supported Jesse Sykes and this year you're with Karl. You're trying to replicate cello and keyboards using loops and such like. Do you not feel it would be easier to go out there and just play acoustic?
Laura Veirs: That's fun for us. If we played them straight, it would be anti-climatic for us. When we add another element like a loop with the pedal or the beat box or overdrive on the guitar then it makes it more creative to us. Cos there are only two of us and we can add more colours that way.
Triste: But typically things will go wrong on stage - the guitar will cut out or the loop won't work. I suppose you could always drop back to the bare acoustic arrangement. I do presume you wrote the songs on acoustic?
Laura Veirs: Sometime with electric, but mainly acoustic by myself. I don't write with other people.
Triste: How often do you play in a band when you're in the States? Tucker was saying that it's quite loose and basically you grab whoever's available and wing it.
Laura Veirs: Yes. It's as loose as that.
Triste: Any chance of the band coming over here?
Laura Veirs: I don't know. It's so hard as the label's so small. So it would be really hard to get them over here financially. I doubt it, but I would really love to bring them over.