- Jason Quigley
- Veirs proves dedicated to her craft, whether composing lyrics or spreadsheets.
Laura Veirs hasn't been back to Colorado Springs since she last performed here nearly a decade ago, but her vividly poetic description of the town where she grew up could convince you she'd left just yesterday.
"It's the air, it's the quality of the light, it's the smell of the trees, it's the wind — the color of the sky is this certain blue — all of those things will never change for me," says the former Northside native, who now lives in Portland. "I'm also bringing along my son on this tour. He's almost 9 now, so I'm excited to share that with him, to climb around in the Garden of the Gods and show him the house where I grew up."
This tour will also find the folk-pop artist sharing songs from her 2016 trio album with Neko Case and kd lang, as well as 2018's The Lookout, her 10th solo album, which includes an achingly poignant song about childhood named after Colorado Springs' Seven Falls. Last year also saw the release of Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten, her exhaustively researched children's book about the late country-blues artist who was one of her earliest musical heroes.
Not surprisingly, Veirs' reflections on these projects are nearly as eloquent and original as her music and writing, as she demonstrates in the following interview.
Indy: You'd been recording and performing for well over a decade prior to your album and tour with kd lang and Neko Case. Were there still new things that you learned from working with them?
Laura Veirs: I think there are little things that I do now that are definitely different. And that would be from Neko, because she made this one change to a song I wrote the music and words to called "Song for Judee." My original chorus was [Veirs sings]: "You loved the Sons of the Pioneers and the Hollywood cowboy stars / You are just trying to understand where we are." And Neko said, "Instead of 'understand,' you could say 'you are just trying to put a hand to where we are.'" And 'put a hand' is so much better than 'understand,' in terms of singability and also in terms of just nuance and meanings. And that's what I love about Neko: She often thought, lyrically, quite differently than I did, and in a way that I can't think, only she can do that. So now I actually have more of a poet's eye for little things like that.
You wrote a number of songs on The Lookout during Trump's rise to power. How do you go about incorporating the tenor of the times into your work without making it overly didactic?
It's a fine line, and it's one I really tread carefully. And that's where the art comes in. It is really hard to write about political things without sounding like you're up on a soapbox, or didactic, or just cheesy. And so I'll usually use some kind of metaphor. Like in the "Watch Fire" song, you hear the wolf coming. And in "The Meadow," it's like you knew it wouldn't last, it was beautiful. So yes, it's not like Armageddon, it's not like the world is all shit. But if something beautiful happens, that other thing is always looming.
Moving on to your book, a lot of biographies that are aimed at children — or even adults, for that matter — focus almost exclusively on their subject's life story. But with Libba, it felt like you were also trying to convey the essence of her music and why that mattered. How did you set about doing that?
Well, she's just a really dear person in my heart, and I wanted the impact that her music made on me to come across through a story. The facts of her life are fascinating, but if she wasn't a great musician, then who cares, right? So yeah, I did want people to get a notion of how unique her music is, specifically because of the way that she played, but also just her spirit. Her musical spirit was so strong and gentle and interesting to me, and that's why I wanted to tell her story.
But I also wanted to be real sensitive about how I told her story, especially as a white person, so I tried to find people in her inner circle. But in the first round of interviews, I was only able to talk to people who'd played with her onstage — who also happened to be white — or a manager, or a record label executive at the Smithsonian, or just musicians who knew her. And then, after two years of that, the deadline for the final art and writing was coming, and I was like, "You know what? I won't have done my due diligence if I don't find someone." So I did this exhaustive family tree that I cobbled together from my research on the internet, and just wrote it all on paper and was like, "Who is alive?" And finally I was able to reach [Cotten's great-granddaughter] Brenda Evans, who sang with her on "Shake Sugaree." Brenda was 12 when they recorded that, she's 65 now. And not only was she her close music collaborator, but she was raised by her. She knew what she liked to cook, what she wore, what her personality was. And not just on the stage or out in the world, but her internal life. That was really important to get, and Brenda helped me change the book a lot.
How long did it take to do all this?
Well, the whole thing — from the first seed of an idea, to writing it, getting an agent, getting a book deal, getting it published, the illustrations, all the back and forth — was seven years.
That's quite a process. And how many words did it end up being?
I actually don't know, but it only takes seven minutes to read, so it's not that many words.
So you basically spent one year per minute.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it's like the equivalent of a Spotify income.
How did this all start? When did you first hear her music?
Well, my parents used to sing her song "Freight Train" to me as a kid. And then, when I became a student of country-blues guitar, I learned her music much more in-depth, and I was like, "Wow, this is so cool, this music is actually really difficult and complex, when on the surface it seems very simple." And then when I learned she held her guitar upside down and backwards, that made it even weirder. She wasn't a nitpicky perfectionist-type person at all. There was a free-flowing kind of grace, and just this underlying strength to her, that you can hear in the music.
So when you write and record your own music, how nitpicky are you?
I'm pretty nitpicky, although one of my strengths as a writer is just writing a lot of material. A lot of people get stuck at that stage, because they want it to be perfect right out of the gate. So they kind of overly criticize themselves, and then get terrified by the blank page. That's not my problem. If there is a glimmer of something good, like a melody or a lyric, I'll be able to build on that.
But I do spend a lot of time making them better. And then I'm very organized in terms of preparing for a recording. Some of my guitar parts are difficult, so I have to practice them a lot and get ready, and I make like spreadsheets and stuff. I'm that type of artist.