This is part one of Jeff Rosenberg's interview with transplanted Portland singer/songwriter Laura Veirs. Jeff and Veirs spoke at a coffee shop on NE Alberta near her new Portland home. You can read Jeff's profile of Laura here, and find part two of this interview here.]
So, how long have you been in Portland?
I moved here, technically I moved all my stuff here in November, but I bought a house here last August.
When did you and Tucker become an item?
We've been together a year and a half now.
Some of the lyrics on your new album seem to contain more overt demonstrations and discussions of emotion on this album than in past work where you've dealt with those things more obliquely.
Less obscure, more direct. I was feeling a lot: breaking up with someone, a long relationship, and starting a new one, all those things, for everyone, bring all kinds of questions to your mind, and all kinds of sadness and excitement, and just the whole spectrum of human emotion comes to the surface, and so I processed all that through my songs on this record.
Was it a case of "I've got some stuff to process here, I'm gonna sit down and write a record," or did the songs emerge more by themselves?
They just fell out, like one after another. Just presented themselves. And I made time to write them, it's not like they entered to my mind complete, I had to work on them, and some of them I changed around a lot and edited them, like I always do, but some of them also just came out quickly, like, without any edits. But I'd been going through a lot, and I just felt that I needed to write music. And I always feel that to a degree, but I really felt more of a need this time, 'cause I was going through a lot of emotional changes and a lot of upheaval. So the music helped me—just sitting with my guitar helped me feel better. I don't think of this as necessarily just a cathartic record, but there's that element to it.
It's not your Blood on the Tracks or anything.
I don't know what the story is behind that record.
Well, nobody really does, but it's one of the great breakup albums. And this is better than the Fleetwood Mac Rumours situation, because at least the band is hooking up, not breaking up, while making the album.
Yeah [laughs]. That's a great album, too.
Yeah, and a great episode of Behind the Music.
I didn't see it, but yeah, that's dramatic stuff.
Has it changed the band dynamics, now that half of it is going out with each other?
If anything, this band is tighter than ever. We made record with the band in—we're a group, this isn't just me with hired guns, this is a band. And that's why we changed the name, and that's why their picture's on the back.
It's one of the coolest band shots I've ever seen.
Yeah, Autumn de Wilde took that, she's really great.
Next album, time for some new eyeglasses though.
Well, these [that she's wearing now] are different.
But those [that she's wearing on the back cover of Saltbreakers] are the same from the previous album cover [Year of Meteors], aren' t they?
Yeah, but before that they were different, too. More funky. And kind of crooked.
So major-label artists can afford better eyewear?
Those were given to me by an ophthalmologist in England, actually. 'Cause he said, "Those glasses that you're wearing are falling off your face, you need new glasses," and he took me to his shop, and gave me free ones.
"Black Butterfly" seems like one of the songs that we were talking about, that's very sparse and direct emotionally.
Yeah, actually, I wrote that in Portland, I wrote the lyrics at the park on Killingsworth a few blocks west of here, I think it might be called Alberta Park, 'cause I was spending a lot of time here last summer before I decided to move here. That one, I wrote on the piano, which was unusual, I don't usually do that, but it was fun. I didn't play the piano part [on the record], 'cause I'm not really that good at playing session-quality piano, but for getting ideas, it's fun. It allows me to break up my normal habits that I've formed on the guitar.
So now that you're "Laura Veirs and Saltbreakers," since saltbreakers is a synonym for waves, I guess you're the Northwest's own Katrina and the Waves.
Who are they?
They did "Walking on Sunshine."
But I guess it would be more appropriate if your hit was "Walking Under Partly Cloudy."
For the Northwest, yep!
How did the opportunity to record those choral vocals [on "To the Country"] at the Cash Cabin in Tennessee come up?
Tucker and I had been listening to a lot of soul music, like '60s soul stuff, with big choir backup, and also we'd been listening to some Brazilian music with choirs, and then this group of French children did a concert of my songs in France, and they were a choir, so all these choir things kept happening, and it just fit and it was Tucker's idea—I mean, I wrote the song on GarageBand, and recorded it as a demo on my computer, and multitracked a lot of stuff and did a few multitrack vocals, but he's like, "We need to make this big sound. You could do it, but le'ts get a choir to do it," and I thought that was a great idea, and we didnt know any choirs in the Northwest that we were excited about, so he knew the guy that managed the choir that we used, and they were on the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack so we knew they were good, and this choir director knew John Carter Cash, who's Johnny and June's son, so he actually had a day open at their cabin, which is the studio where we recorded it, which was really just incredible, because you walk into this old cabin where they made their final records, their pictures are up on the wall, it's like a family...it feels like a living room, with wood everywhere...
Is it the same place where they shot the video [for "Hurt"]?
I'm not sure, people ask me that, but I'm not sure if it's the same one. I don't remember, I saw the movie long before I went to the cabin. [It's possible Laura thought I was asking if part of Walk the Line was shot there, not the "Hurt" video]. But you can see pictures of the cabin on various records of theirs. You know, just being around.... You could feel them there, so that was amazing. It was really a highlight of this recording experience.
How long did you work there?
Just a half a day. And Tucker's from Nashville, so we hung out there, too.
What was your reaction when you heard about the fire there [on Cash's property]?
Oh, it was upsetting. We heard about it online while we were on tour in Europe, and we were shocked. We didn't actually see that house [that burned], it's further away from the cabin, through the woods.
What month were you there?
That was in October.
Did you have a good connection with John Carter Cash? Any chance you might work there again?
He was really nice. It would depend a lot on budgets and stuff, but it would be really fun to make something like a stripped-down folk record there. That would be perfect, 'cause it's just this folky cabin in the woods.
Is it part of the land that Barry Gibb owns now?
I don't think so, I think it was on John Carter's property, his house was in view of the studio.
Laura Veirs on the web
Photo courtesy of the artist's Myspace page