Part two of Jeff Rosenberg's interview with transplanted Portland songwriter Laura Veirs. FUN FACT: Jeff and Veirs once went to a concert together, but he insists that it was not a date. Read part one of this interview here.
LC: The last time we spoke, in 2004, Carbon Glacier had just come out, and you told me of how you had just come from a successful show in Europe to a show in Hoboken where only six people showed up. I take it your draw there has improved since?
LV: We don't know, 'cause we haven't played there since.
But your NYC-area draw in general must have improved.
Yeah, it's getting better. We're playing at a theater there. Like a 600 capacity, or 500. I'm don't know if we can fill that, because we normally play at the Mercury Lounge, and fill that, but that's like 300 capacity, so, we'll see.
But you've been on a hit band's record [The Decemberists' The Crane Wife] now.
That's true, but that doesn't necessarily mean higher draws. Hopefully a lot of different combinations of things will help make this tour more successful than the one we talked about before. We're gonna open up a tour for [The Decemberists] in November.
How did your acquaintance with them develop?
I've known them for a while. We played a show together at the Crocodile a long time ago, but never really stayed in close touch or anything. But Tucker recorded their recent record, and us moving here and everything, we saw them more often. I was just hanging around the studio more, and they asked me to sing on that track.
What was it like contributing to something that wasn't your own material?
I've done that a fair amount over the years, 'cause Tucker's asked me to come in on lots of different sessions, when they need a backing vocal or sometimes a guitar player, so I've had that experience.
But you have a more prominent role on this track.
That's true, it's more a duet than a backup thing. It was fun. I was a little nervous because, big label, big popular band and everything, but at the same time, I know those guys, and they're just nice people, and I liked the song.
I was impressed that you got Nonesuch to give up on the little slipcase this time [a pretentious cardboard doohickey surrounding her last two discs, as they do most releases on that label].
Oh, the "O"-card? [laughing] Yeah, [the digipak] was a necessity to have the booklet be this thick, because I don't think it was gonna fit in otherwise, but my friend Clyde did this really great montage, and we wanted to get the whole thing in, so I think the thickness of that determined it. But I like this package.
Yeah, it's like back to the indie days.
It has that feeling.
What's it been like to be still a very indie-ish artist on a label that not only isn't an indie label, but is sort of less identified with that side of the spectrum?
It's been interesting. I think it's been really good overall, 'cause they have a great distribution network, and they've got great budgets, like, I can actually pay my band to record with me and tour with me, it's kind of kept us going in a way. At the same time, I think a lot of younger people who are fans don't know about this label, and are more used to K Records and Virgin, all these other labels. It's felt like Nonesuch has been trying to find a way to reach younger people, and having bands like me, and Black Keys, and Magnetic Fields, and Wilco, helps with that. Because their roster tends to have an older audience, and they're trying to get a younger crowd so they can sustain their label over time, and also just appeal to young people. So it's been interesting. It's a great label, I feel real lucky to be with them. We'll see what happens in the future, you never really know, but I don't think that any label has everything you could ever want, I think this is a pretty good fit for me.
Are you on an album-by-album deal with them?
It was a three-record deal, so it's up now. So we'll see what happens.
Does part of that hinge, for you, on how well they support your album?
I think it hinges, for both sides, on what happens with this record.
How did your collaboration with "Kotos the Rock Thrower" [who raps] on the remix of "Galaxies" come about?
His name is Specs One, that's like his rapper name, he's a fairly well-known rapper in Seattle, and he's got a few albums out. In fact, we were in Australia and we saw one of his albums in a shop, and we were like "wow, he's got his thing going!" He's been friends with Tucker for a while, so Tucker asked him to come in, and I think he heard it ahead of time, but it was really fast turnaround, he just did it pretty quickly in one or two takes, just laid it down, and I think it's really cool.
Yeah, I loved it.
I was hoping they would put that on the record, but I think they were scared, I don't know. They didn't put it on. I wish they'd put it on the record.
Also, speaking of b-sides...on Troubled by the Fire, you had your most explicit political song, "Cannon Fodder," that was back in 2003. Obviously those kinds of issues have continued to be on people's minds, but with the exception of the Bush song "Cliff Driver" on the b-side of the "Riptide" single—which I assumed was a Bush song—
It was, yeah.
You've really turned away from that avenue in your writing since, so, what's behind that?
I haven't been drawn to writing political music, largely because I think it's so hard to do well that I've just not taken that challenge on. I think there are people through history who have done a good job of it, and I hope that there will continue to be that, because we need to hear that music, but I just don't feel like one of those people right now. Maybe I will write more political music in the future, but right now I just follow my muse and my muse isn't telling me to do that. "Nightingale" on this record was inspired by the war, but you'll have to dig to find that reference. It's not so obvious.
When I saw the title "To the Country," I thought, it's either a back-to-the-land thing [which it is]. Or like, a manifesto—"This is my message to the country!"
You contributed one of your demos to a homeless benefit compilation, which I downloaded on iTunes, it was a demo of Secret Someones, and I really enjoyed listening to that, and wondered if it was something you'd thought about doing more of. Have you thought of releasing your demos more formally?
We've joked about it, but I have still too many fresh songs coming. I think maybe if I took a break at some point, and I wasn't writing, I would probably do that. Some of my demos I think would be really interesting for hard-core fans.
Or maybe if this album breaks it big and the label is hankering for more "product."
Right. It's interesting for people to get that intimate, inside glance of what it was like for that person at home.
Your albums feel very intimate anyway, so then hearing the demos...
Yeah, really stripped-down.
Does Tucker produce your demos, or do you self-produce?
I used to make them on a four-track cassette player, but when I got a Mac, I started using GarageBand, which has been fun, 'cause I can do more arrangement ideas more easily. It's really lo-fi. I sometimes don't even plug a mic into the computer, just use the internal mic. But I have it all set up as soon as I grab my guitar because I've found over the years that if you think you'll keep your idea while you're setting up a mic for your computer, it's gone.
Or even not just the idea, but the moment.
The feeling, or even the rhythm, the subtlety of the rhythm, is gone.
Are you still more popular overseas than you are here?
I think so...but I think it might be leveling off. This tour will say a lot. We just did a [European] tour and we were filling like 3 to 500 capacity rooms, or actually sometimes 100 capacity rooms in smaller towns, bigger rooms in bigger towns, and it could be like that on this tour too, we'll see. But I'm sure there'll be one show in, like, Texas, or who knows, New Orleans, we haven't played there before...not Nashville, 'cause Tucker's from there, but there's probably a few places in the South that'll be a bit bleak, 'cause we haven't played there. But like, New York, Portland, Seattle, those are equivalent to what we're seeing in Europe.
Those are your good markets? Because I remember you saying [years ago] that it took you a long while to kind of crack Portland as a performer.
It's true, it did. I don't know why that was. Like, right now, we're in that situation in San Francisco. We do much better in L.A. than we do in San Francisco, which I think is kinda strange, because I think San Francisco seems like the same kind of people that we have here, but it's been kinda tough there. Maybe less press and less radio support than in some other places.
Maybe less discretionary income, too, 'cause people are struggling to pay their rent down there!
That could be, too.
So these kids in France record your songs. When I first heard about a kids'-choir album of your songs, I thought it was the same group of kids who sang on "Snow Camping" [on Carbon Glacier].
Yeah, it was sort of a cute following thing from that. Their teacher's a fan of mine, he's this 31-year-old French guy with long blonde hair and tight white pants and electric guitar, and he's really a big music fan. He did The Doors with them the year before, did a whole concert of Doors songs, and he notified me quite a bit before the concert saying that he was teaching these kids my songs, and I was like, "Wow, I'd love to hear a recording of that," and he sent one and they were beautiful, I was like, oh my god, these are amazing, what are you doing? And he said, "We're making a full concert, you have to come over!" so we booked tickets and booked a little tour around that, and Tucker and I went over last April and recorded it, and then made a limited-edition CD, which we still have some of, that we sell on tour.
Have you heard the Langley Schools Music Project album [of '70s Canadian schoolkids singing classic rock songs]?
Yeah, and I think these kids are even better than that. They worked so hard on this, I mean, they worked for a year to make this concert happen. And they did such a good job. I mean, like, little girls doing duets with flute and violin on "Black-Eyed Susan," like, two girls singing, it was heartwarming.
Is it all girls?
They were mostly girls, but there were about, maybe, ten boys involved. It was unusual, I mean, that's the kind of thing you'd never predict happening.
Part one of this interview
Hear French kids singing Veirs
Photo: From the back of Laura Veirs