A mother of two young boys, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs tells James McNair how her role as a caring parent has influenced her latest studio album
Laura Veir's reflections on life’s fragility
“A lot of this record is about the fragility of precious things and the precariousness of existence,” says singer-songwriter Laura Veirs of her latest record, The Lookout. The American and her husband and producer Tucker Martine have two young sons aged 5 and 7, which has prompted themes of protection and watchful attendance to play a part in her 10th studio album.
A contemporary folk-pop outing, the record also touches upon the recent passing of two of the musician’s friends, and what she describes as “the chaos of post-election America”. Chatting over the phone from her home in Portland, Oregon, the singer explains how, this time around, the songwriting process was somewhat novel.
“Basically, I made three sets of 20 cards – the first set suggested an approach to lyrics, the second one made a suggestion about how to approach the music and the third would suggest a theme or a vibe. Each day I would randomly grab one card from each set and start writing. Forcing myself into that kind of restriction was actually very liberating.”
The album’s opening track was born the day the cards decreed that Veirs should begin with a line from a poem, put her acoustic guitar in an alternative tuning, and write about death. Extrapolating from a mention of Margate Sands in T S Eliot’s epic 1922 poem The Waste Land, Veirs had the starting point for Margaret Sands, an exquisite song of remembrance with guest backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.
“You have this sailor looking out over the edge of his boat and seeing a skeleton underwater,” says Veirs of the song’s lyric. “But he’s thinking, ‘Wow. I’m still here – and look at that beautiful sun, listen to the gulls crying’. The point is that, because life really could be taken from us at any second, we should embrace the moment. The older we get, and if we have children, I think that realisation becomes more and more stark.”
The five-year gap between The Lookout and her 2013 album Warp and Weft shouldn’t be misinterpreted, for she’s been extremely busy in the interim. As well as releasing 2016’s Case/ Lang/ Veirs, an eponymous three-hander with fellow singer-songwriters kd lang and Neko Case, Veirs has been exploring other media.
In January she published Libba: The Magnificent Life Of Elizabeth Cotten, a children’s book about the African-American singer and guitarist who wrote Freight Train – one of the best known American folk songs of all time – aged just 11.
Veirs also hosts Midnight Lightning, an ongoing podcast series about motherhood and music wherein her guests have included veteran Wrecking Crew member Carol Kaye, the bassist who juggled single parenthood with sessions for such luminaries as The Beach Boys and Ike & Tina Turner.
“Yeah, the podcast was a great thing for me,” Veirs says, “because I was starting to feel a little isolated in my work, and in my parenting. I was also thinking: ‘How much or how little should I tour and when?’ As a musician with young children these decisions can become very complicated.”
The singer’s book about Elizabeth Cotton, meanwhile, was a labour of love celebrating the life of a
musician whose music she’d known since childhood.
“My parents listened to her and they sometimes sang Freight Train to me at bedtime,” Veirs adds.
“My book only takes minutes to read but I spent years writing and researching it.
“As a white person writing about a black person it had to be right, so I wanted to do my due diligence. If I’m honest it’s maybe more of a hit with parents than with kids,” she says with a chuckle. “At the readings I’ve done the grown-ups have cried and the kids have looked a little distracted!”
Back to the album, other songs on The Lookout include Everybody Needs You, a contemporary sounding, beat-box driven folk song in which Veirs makes a simple sketch of family demands. “Out in the yard / The kids pull your sleeves”, she sings. The album’s title track, meanwhile, is a love song for Martine, her “lookout on the ground.”
Elsewhere, Veirs’s cover of the Grateful Dead song Mountains of the Moon, which she first learnt to play as a Father’s Day present for Martine, also has other personal resonances. It was only relatively recently that she and her husband realised they were at the same Grateful Dead concert at Red Rocks, Colorado 13 years before they actually met in Seattle.
It’s on The Canyon, though, that Veirs addresses the sudden loss of a dear friend to cancer. “He was such a sweet man,” she says. “He would go out into the desert and try to help Mexican refugees who were trying to cross at the border and were dying of thirst. He was also a musician who never had a lot of success but played with a lot of great people.
“We used to go and stay with him in Tucson, Arizona, and he would host me and the band and feed us in the morning and wave goodbye. Those people can be a real solace when you’re out on the road a lot.”
Veirs has also described The Lookout as “a soundtrack for turbulent times”, but despite its themes of loss and uncertainty, its strings, pedal-steel and piano-ornamented music is often bright and sprightly. There’s an admirable lightness of touch on Watch Fire, a song in which Sufjan Stevens guests on backing vocals. But again there are metaphorical allusions to lurking danger, Veirs imagining she and her children stranded in a snowy wood with wolves circling nearby.
The singer says she feels a heightened sense of protection in the current political climate, but she is also aware that today’s ubiquitous news media – and the alarmist tendencies of some outlets – can sap our strength, leaving us listless and preoccupied.
“I struggle with getting the influence of the news out of proportion,” she says. “I just took social media off of my phone yesterday because it had become so distracting. We were rehearsing songs for my tour recently and I couldn’t focus the way I used to. I was thinking: ‘Am I just getting old, or is it my smartphone [laughs]?”
“Because of that, I’ve just bought this book called How To Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan To Take Back your Life. Apparently most people in the US are on their phones for the equivalent of 54 days a year, so I’m trying to get off. She [author Catherine Price] says in the book: ‘Your life is what you pay attention to, so what do you want to pay attention to?’ I think I’m going to put that on a sticky note where I can see it while I’m washing the dishes. I figure that the most important news will find another way to get to me.”
As for her next project, Veirs says it is likely to be more episodes of her podcast, but this time focusing on male musicians’ experiences of parenthood. “Other than that I’m imagining a summer off with the kids relaxing,” she adds. “I don’t even know if I can relax any more, but we’ll see.”
The Lookout is out this weekend