Laura Veirs performs at the Bella Union bus, July 2008. Photograph by Rich Thane.
Peter Broderick, the Portland based multi-instrumentalist, gets a chance to interview one of his favourite artists, Laura Veirs. They discuss her newest record, but also play a random word game just to spice things up…
First of all, I was lucky enough to hear your new album a few weeks ago. Simon Raymonde had an advance copy, and we listened to it in his car driving through London one day. I was really blown away. I love your records, and even after just one listen, I got the feeling that this might be your best one yet. It seemed to me to have a little bit of a different feel. Perhaps a little more rootsy? A little more relaxed in a way, yet still perfectly energized and fresh. I wanted to ask if you had a certain aim when you made the album?
Yes, I wanted the songs to stand up on their own, just an instrument and a voice. I made a special effort to limit myself to 4 tracks on my computer so as not to become distracted with overdubs. No sense in polishing a turd, you know?
Did you want to try something different? Or did you not think about it and just let the songs come out of you?
I definitely was having a hard time surprising myself initially. I wrote probably 50 songs over a year and really wasn’t finding anything ‘new’ in them. Finally I started uncovering/discovering/finding/ writing some songs that surprised me and I was off and running and feeling like I had my confidence back. It was shaky there for a while and I wasn’t sure if I was going to come up with an album of material I loved. I guess this is bound to happen at some point — this is record #7 afterall. I’m so glad I persevered past the plateau because I definitely found myself in a new, exciting place.
I assume that Tucker produced your new record, which always results in a very special sound. Do you have anything special to say about how and where and when the album was made?
Yes, we made it in our house, mostly in the living room. We put blankets on the windows and doors and lived in a cave for about three months.
Did you work on it mostly in Tucker’s studio in the house, or did you go elsewhere? Did you spend a long time on it or was it made in a more condensed period of time?
We recorded and mixed feb/march/april 2009. Pretty condensed, really. We made sure we had the songs ready and a lot of the arrangement decisions made before we started recording. We asked the whole old crew to come in (Karl Blau, Steve Moore, Tucker and Evyind Kang) as well as some great new people: Jim James, Chris Funk, Jon Neufeld, Annalisa Tornfelt and others. It was a fun mix of new and old collaborators. It was amazing to have Stephen Barber write the quartet string arrangements (performed by the Tosca Strings in Austin) — his parts are some of my favorite moments on the record.
I demoed and wrote songs for two years and tucker and I kept an A list and a B list. He listened to all the songs as I wrote them, and helped me decide on which ones to record. He has a lot of patience and interest in the process, so I’m really lucky for that. He also has great ideas about instrumentation — some of them really surprise me (like the jaw harp at the end of ‘Make Something Good’, for example). Tucker’s also great at seeing what’s strong about a song and what isn’t, and encouraging me to work on them longer than i normally would to make the whole song good. it’s wonderful to have someone so trusted acting as my editor as i go along. I have a slash and burn mentality with songs and can cut them too easily, and he’s able to convince me to work harder and have faith in them. Sometimes just a little tweak in the structure or lyrics can rescue them from the trash heap.
What is your favorite instrument to play?
My nylon string goya guitar. It was hanging around the house growing up and I hung onto it. It’s a beater but sure has a lot of songs in it!
And your favorite instrument to listen to?
Ooh that’s hard to say. Viola?
What comes first for you — a song and the melody, or the lyrics?
Usually the chords and the melody come out together. I have a harder time with the words and always feel lucky when I write something that I like and that feels true. Occasionally I’ll free write to have material lying around so I don’t have to start writing a song from a blank page. Sometimes a line from a book or poem can get me going, too.
Does it sometimes feel like music is your entire life, or do you think about and do many other things? What do you like to do that doesn’t involve music?
I do a lot of non-music stuff. I like wholesome stuff like making quilts, making dinner with friends/family, hiking, swimming in lakes and rivers and the ocean, reading, camping and canning. Since my non-touring/non-recording work is pretty solitary I like to be social as much as I can. I love recording and touring because by nature they’re collaborative. I wouldn’t make much of a straight-up writer; I love having time to myself but I’m not a loner. I also enjoy gardening in bursts, but i’m never consistent with it.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
David Foster Wallace’s book of essays called ‘Consider The Lobster’. He was such a damned brilliant genius.
You moved to Portland, Oregon shortly before I left. How do you like it there? Do you get to spend much time there?
Yes, I’ve spent a lot of time in Portland since I’ve been taking a break from touring in the last year. It’s been so nice to get rooted in this community. I have a lot of friends and family in the area now and it’s very grounding. For a while when I was touring a lot I started to feel uncomfortably unrooted. Some musicians are happiest out on the road, but I like to strike a balance between being gone and being home.
What’s the first word or phrase that comes to your mind when you hear the name Rachel Blumberg?
Do you like to cook? If so, what are your favorite things to make?
I like to make interesting salads, and simple stuff where you can taste the actual food, like roasting corn on the grill. I’m mostly vegetarian, so I make enchiladas and pastas and soups. I like making pies with other people, but I never make pies on my own. Making a pie and eating it with a friend is a really satisfying experience, especially if you picked or grew the fruit. Sometimes my friend and I will can things together — we canned ‘July Flame’ peaches last summer (still have a jar left) and this year we picked raspberries and made jam.
What’s your favorite way to listen to music? On a turntable at home, from laptop speakers, in your headphones, at a live concert, at the studio right after it’s been recorded, in the car?
Turntable, with me lying on the couch in the living room.
Do you have any dogs or cats or other pets?
Carlos and Earl, the 2 year old black cat brothers, and Francine Hopper, the new pond frog.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee is heavenly, but I’m trying to drink less. Tea does the job but never as well.
How often do you really look at the stars?
Not often. I used to as a kid much more because my Dad was obsessed and we’d camp high in the Colorado mountains and we’d get the clearest view of the most dazzling night skies and Dad would explain the constellations. I miss the Colorado sky. but sometimes I’ll go camping in the NW and take a gander up there and try to remember all the stuff Dad taught me…
I’m going to list some letters, and I would like you to answer with words using those letters, from the top of your head, or you can think about it if you like (for example — C and G — cat good)
H and K?
R and W?
P and U?
A and S?
W and M?
L and T?
Laura and Tucker.
Too cutesy, how about Lutes Terrific?
And finally, please tell me one simple thing that you love, and one simple thing that really drives you crazy.
Love a purring cat. Pompousness drives me crazy.
Thanks Laura! I look forward to hear the new record some more when it’s out!!