Laura Veirs might sing sad and lovely melodies over minor-chord changes, but not in a way you've heard before. Unlike some slow-folkies, her music is not filled with misery but, rather, full of mystery--the mysteries within us, and those that lie between us.
Veirs' playing grew out of love for the genial country blues of Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt, and later incorporated attitudes and approaches from Northwest indie (Bikini Kill, Built to Spill) and avant (Bill Frisell, Eyvind Kang) musicians. And in some sort of musical version of the evolutionary maxim "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," her songs themselves sometimes develop along the same path. She'll start from methodically familiar chord changes, when suddenly, true to her name, she "veers" off into unexpected territory, shifting the landscape under the listener to a dreamscape. But her steady guitar and disarmingly calm voice guide the transition. Veirs comes on like some hypnotic, insect-devouring flower, first luring her prey with the subtlety of its fragrance, only to snap inexorably shut once they're enthralled. Veirs draws an audience in with her hushed delivery; she makes you lean in and listen, and before you know it, you're all hers.
Of course, first you have to be within hearing distance. And so far, the Seattle native has had an easier time finding an audience in Europe than in her own noisy homeland. Her third album, Troubled by the Fire, came out last year on Bella Union Records (the label created by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins). Its warm critical reception paved the way for her latest CD, Carbon Glacier, released overseas in February to five-star reviews and "masterpiece" encomiums. Those reactions, and connections through Frisell, her friend and collaborator, finally paved the way for her first American record deal, with the respected Nonesuch label, which released Glacier here last month.
So now she's got some catching up to do. "We just came from France where we were selling out 300-people rooms," Veirs told me by phone from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. "There were people doing coordinated chanting for multiple encores, we were signing people's chests after the show, and we go from that to Hoboken where there were literally six people at the show." Far from demoralized, Veirs says she took it as a challenge: "It reminded us that we're not big shots, we still have to slog it out in the States. It was humbling, but it felt good to realize that it's work, it's my job and it's not always gonna be easy."
Certainly, though, Veirs' band, the Tortured Souls, makes the journey easier. Her gifted producer, Tucker Martine, plays drums on her records and sometimes accompanies her live. The stupendously talented Steve Moore plays keyboards, "vibraphonette" and trombone, sometimes simultaneously. And one of Veirs' own favorite Northwest artists, Karl Blau, accompanies her on bass, guitar, synthesizer and saxophone, as well as adding spooky, sensitive backing vocals. "In Europe, Karl opened most of the shows," Veirs says, adding, "I am totally inspired by his music, his voice, his approach to songwriting."
Veirs says she has raided the Nonesuch vault for free CDs (including the Bulgarian Women's Choir, whom she says has inspired some "weird, dissonant harmonies" in her own newest work), but her favorite benefit of the new label affiliation is to share the love with the Tortured Souls. "Being able to make another record and actually pay my friends who are my bandmates is a nice feeling," she says. "With a budget, I could ask for all sorts of fancy people, but I have what I want with my band. They're fancy enough."
Veirs' lyrics, which that band so fancily supports, are more authentically poetic than the ordinary brand of self-conscious "song-poetry." Every word is there for a reason, evoking thoughts and emotions that simply couldn't be conveyed by more prosaic language. Her own favorite critical reaction to her craft was the French writer who called it "elaborately simple." But she's lately taken to avoiding reading others' words about her own words and music. "I did read the first ones, and then stopped reading them," she says of the rave reviews Glacier garnered overseas. "I felt like I was getting too involved in the outside world and what they thought of me. I need to come from inside of my music and find out what the heart of it is for me, not be guided by what other people think."
Laura Veirs plays with the James Low Band and Nate Ashley Friday, Nov. 5 at Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., 231-9663. 9 pm. $8. 21+.