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Off the Beaten Tracks: Tell Laura we love her

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AMONG the many things I admire about Laura Veirs is that she is the polar opposite of a rock chick. A Mandarin Chinese-speaking geology graduate, she considered working as a linguist, diplomat or scientist before striking out in a musical career. Her songs are for grown-ups and often refer to the natural world and literature. Her voice is clear and unaffected. She has never, to my knowledge, adopted a provocative pose. She is hugely talented. And she is getting better all the time.

Laura Pauline Veirs (pronounced Veers) was born on October 24, 1973 in Colorado Springs. Her parents were teachers and she was an academic child while keener on sports than music, although she fondly recalls her dad singing her to sleep with old US folk songs. While studying at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, she started playing guitar in her late teens and formed a punk band with three girl friends.

Her first songwriting efforts coincided with a research trip to a remote desert in north-west China. She later told Carleton’s yearbook that she was left to look after the camp while other geologists went off looking for interesting rocks. It reports: ‘Veirs fended off yaks and their curious herders while obsessively tinkering with her crappy five-dollar Chinese guitar. “The desert was called the Takalamakan, which in the local language means you can get in but you can never get out,” says Veirs. “That’s how I feel about songwriting now. I’ve started and I’ll never be able to stop.”

‘Veirs tried to bribe the group’s Chinese guide to take her out of the desert but the man refused her offer. Eventually she was escorted out on a ten-hour donkey ride during which she had dysentery. Veirs returned to finish her degree later that year.’

After college, Laura moved to Seattle where she played in folk clubs and at festivals before making her first, eponymous album in 1999. Recorded live in three hours with just her acoustic guitar for accompaniment, it was self-released and became an instant collector’s item. I have never seen a copy but was able to track down this sample song, Outside Bud’s Jazz Records. 

In 2001 came The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae, recorded with a band including drummer Tucker Martine, who produced the album and would become Laura’s husband. By far my favourite track is the lovely, wistful Through December

Troubled by the Fire came out in 2003 and is a huge step forward. Far more sophisticated than its predecessors, it establishes Laura’s style as a sort of chamber folk music and includes some fabulous arrangements such as the strings on the opener, Lost at Seaflower Cove. This is followed by the excellent and sexy Bedroom Eyes. 

Song My Friends Taught Me is an ethereal beauty. Cannon Fodder starts with a moody electric piano motif with voice on top before crashing into a powerful anti-war diatribe.

Further highlights include Tiger Tattoos ‘Will you come down to the river and take a swim with me?’ and the rousing Devil’s Hootenanny in which Veirs finds herself playing to an audience of demons. Again Martine is the producer, and he does a damn good job. This is a magical record.

The first LV album to achieve significant sales was 2004’s Carbon Glacier. Its third track, Rapture, benefited from featuring in the TV drama Grey’s Anatomy while the best song might well be the catchy, drum-led The Cloud Room. Carbon Glacier itself is a geological feature on the north slope of Mount Rainier in Washington State and the whole album, typified by the track Snow Camping, has a glacial feel thanks again to the talented Tucker. It was given five stars by Uncut magazine which described it as Veirs’s ‘first masterpiece . . . the unmistakable sound of a songwriter hitting her stride, pouring herself into each syllable’.

Her fifth album, Year of Meteors, was released in 2005 and is the first to feature her bespectacled fizzog on the cover. Fire Snakes is a gentle opener and then we have the brilliant Galaxies, which sets out with peaceful vocals and then blasts into one of the rockiest spells of her recorded career. This is the beginning of an inspired set of songs comprising Secret Someones Magnetised and Parisian Dream.  

I’m prepared to bet good money that there is no other song in the rock canon named Spelunking – a US synonym for what we call caving.

‘If I took you darling
To the caverns of my heart
Would you light the lamp dear?
And see fish without eyes
Bats with their heads
Hanging down towards the ground
Would you still come around?’

Lake Swimming  is another delight, not that I’ve ever swum in a lake. It was hard enough managing a length at the municipal pool, although there is a certificate somewhere attesting to the fact that, puffing and panting, I completed 25 yards. Yay!

Incidentally, those of you who know your way round a guitar might be interested in Laura’s YouTube instructions on how to play the above songs and many more. Just search for Veirs Tutorials.

I must say I’m having a great time going through these albums. And there are still half a dozen to go.

The year 2007 brought Saltbreakers, with Martine still thankfully in the producer’s seat. I have seen some pretty harsh reviews of this album; unjustified in my view. Nightingale is one of the loveliest things she has written (I’m always a sucker for songs about birds), the title track is another rocky trip along the lines of  Meteors and then we have Cast a Hook in Me   ‘Rivers running up the hills and to the sky and down to the sea / Where a merman with a twinkle casts a hook in me.’

In 2008 came Two Beers Veirs, a five-track EP of cover versions including Freight Train, written in the early 20th century by Elizabeth ‘Libba’ Cotton. And 2010 saw the release of July Flame, named after a variety of peach seen by Laura at a farmers’ market. This is a gentle album whose cosy feel reflects the fact that it was recorded at the couple’s home in Portland, Oregon. ‘We had the windows blocked off with blankets,’ Veirs told her local newspaper, the Portland Mercury. ‘It was like a little cave in the winter. The neighbours saw our curtains closed for months and were probably like, “I don’t know why those guys never open their curtains”.’

Among the many highlights are the title trackSun is KingLife Is Good BluesWhen You Give Your Heart and Carol Kaye, a tribute to the legendary female bass player who has appeared on more than 10,000 recordings including many of the Beach Boys’ classic songs. ‘She can really play it/ She can really lay it down/Smile, Good Vibrations, Help Me Rhondda, Homeward Bound/It would be so cool to/Be like Carol, Carol Kaye/Maybe I can meet her/Shake her hand one day.’ A couple of years ago, Laura’s wish came true. There is a picture of her with her son Tennessee and Carol on this American moms’ website. 

A children’s album, Tumble Bee, followed in 2011 and included one of my favourite songs, Billy Hill’s lovely Prairie Lullaby

Laura was expecting her second son while recording 2013’s Warp and Weft at the home studio, and her pregnancy had a major effect on the album. ‘I’m haunted by the idea that something terrible could happen to my kids, but that fear pushes me to embrace the moment,’ she said. ‘This record is an exploration of extremes – deep, dark suffering and intense, compassionate love.’

Another American singer-songwriter, Neko Case, teams up with Veirs for the first time, providing backing vocals on the opening Sun Song plus several others. And the Canadian k d lang makes an appearance on Finster Saw The Angels. 

Neko and k d must have enjoyed working with Laura because in 2016 they all teamed up for the album case/lang/veirs, produced by Tucker at home. This includes Laura’s Song For Judee about Judee Sill, creator of the brilliant Jesus Was a Crossmaker, who died of a drug overdose in 1979 aged only 35. The sweet I Want To Be Here was written by all three women and is sung in perfect harmony. The disc was rapturously received by the critics, with one describing it as ‘an exquisite tribute to connection and reflection on the things that bind us’.

Laura’s tenth solo collection, The Lookout, was released in 2018 and describes itself as a ‘concept album about the fragility of precious things’. The title track is a tribute to her husband. ‘Yeah, he’s my lookout,’ she told a radio interviewer. ‘He looks out for me. He looks out for our kids. And it’s a reassuring feeling to have someone like that because there is so much in my life and in life in general that is unstable and feels threatening, especially in the kind of divided country that we’re living in right now. It can feel like a threatening place. And to have someone that you feel is there looking out for you feels great. And I wanted to honour him in that song.’

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, when Veirs announced last year that the marriage was over. She blamed Martine’s frequent absences from home – he has collaborated with innumerable other artists including the bands My Morning Jacket and the Decemberists – for the breakdown of the relationship, which ended during the recording of her latest album My Echo. Martine is as always credited as producer but surrendered the mixing desk half way through. My Echo, released a couple of months ago, chronicles the disintegration of their partnership and could be seen as Laura’s Blood on the Tracks.

Turquoise Walls, for example, is a cracker.

When I thought that I might lose you
Oh, I trembled like a leaf
Tattered by the wind
And torn by the September storm
I tossed and turned and threw
The blankets off, oh, I could not sleep
Thinking you were keeping
Someone else’s pillow warm.’

End Times brings tears to the eyes.

As the Earth cracks in two
And we fall out into space
I’ll be thinking of your hands
And all the times they held my face.’

So does Brick Layer

‘How can a sweet afternoon
Become a brick-hard night?
I’m still learning the rules
Of how to treat somebody right.’

All The Things, with its musical echoes of early Joni Mitchell, is simply exquisite.

There’s another hint of Joni in the final track Vapour Trails, whose opening lines ‘Watching the sky this morning/Three planes flying across the blue’ are reminiscent of the magnificent Amelia from Hejira.

My Echo is a superb album, one of Laura’s best, and I’m playing it to death.

So that concludes a summary of the Veirs story to date. I hope there’s a lot more to come, and that those of you who haven’t heard her before fall under her spell as I did.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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