Friday, May 18, 2012

Interview with Laura Veirs

In a region filled with singer/songwriters Laura Veirs has become one of the Northwest's most distinctive and accomplished tune-smiths.  Her 2010 release July Flame was critically regarded as one of the best releases of that year and was my favorite CD that year of any genre.  July Flame is the type of record that any musician would strive to make.  Distinctive and diverse both musically and lyrically, July Flame has no weak spots.   Digging back through Veirs' catalog I was pleased to find several other records of intelligent and warm folk/pop music.

Veirs' latest record Tumblebee, is a children's record.  But this is no ordinary children's CD.  Every song is cleverly arranged and features and excellent cast of backing musicians including banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. 

Chatting with Veirs was refreshing.  She's very open and revealing about her songwriting process.   It was great to hear such an outstanding songwriter and musician expresses the same frustrations and insecurities that I've experienced.  It's clear she's an extremely hard worker and is as interested in the process as she is with the end results.

Check out her website here:

BC: How did you get started with music?

LV: My brother had a guitar lying around in high school, but I didn't take to it until college.  He showed me a few chords and I got a few songs under my belt.  I grew up in Colorado Springs, which is a strange town for music.  There's almost no live music scene - unlike kids who grow up in the Northwest who can go see tons of all ages shows.  In my case there were no mentors and no women who were doing music.  There were boys in high school bands, but I just didn't have any exposure to it.  

BC:  Was it in college when you got going with music?

LV:  I met a bunch of girls who were in the punk rock scene.  The showed me Bikini Kill and all the DIY bands from Kill Rock Stars.  I was like, wow there's a whole world of people doing this.  Ani DiFranco was an inspiration at that time too.  So I started playing electric guitar and writing songs.  Writing a lot of joke-ish kind of story songs.  And after I graduated from school I moved to Seattle and started doing my own songwriting more seriously and kept going from there.

BC:  When you were writing your own songs in the beginning were you learning guitar?  Did you take any lessons?

LV:  I didn't take lessons seriously until I met John Miller.  He's a great teacher, he got me started learning country blues and that was a huge thing for me.  That had a massive influence on my playing style.  I started writing songs in that style with the alternating bass line.  Then I would harmonize the melody and it opened up this whole world of songwriting that I didn't even know was possible.  That was huge for me.

BC: Did you practice that technique intensely for a while?

LV:  Yes I did.  I worked very hard at it.

BC:  Working at it slowly?

LV:  Yes.  Slow.  I was frustrated.  It was like, "I can't do this at all.  I'm really going to have to work on this."  I did and I was amazed by the fact that I could do it, but it took the kind of diligent slow practice that is hard for people.  I've taught music for many years and getting into the nitty gritty of working out the trouble spots and making sure that it is smooth and not something you're anxious about.  It took a lot of hard work.

BC: Did John Miller teach you that or did you figure it out on your own?

LV:  His approach was great.  The thing that really worked with his lessons was that he had everything all tabbed out.  It was visual and musical.  Then we would sit and listen to the LP's.  Old blues records and talk about the musicians.  He'd put it in this really cool context.  I would learn songs by ear.  I've always had a good ear.  I'm not very visual with my music but to have the combination of him playing the music slowly and I would record it.  Then we would go through it note by note.  Then I would work on it all week.

BC:  Sounds like he was a great teacher.

LV: He was, and I've taken a few skype lessons with him still.  He was very patient and you got a deep sense of music from him.  I thought this guy was a like gold mine.

BC:  That was fortunate that you found a great teacher.  How about vocally?  Did you take vocal lessons?

LV:  I did at one point.  I learned about diaphragm breathing.  Learning that when you breath in to sing your stomach goes out.  The breathing was a really big thing because I was always a very insecure singer.  My voice was very thin and reedy.  I felt like I had the songwriting and musical skills but the performance and singing was always hard.  Now after those lessons I learned about singing and supporting my voice and that helped.  I think so much of singing really is trial and error and getting up in front of people.  So much of it is confidence.  You can't really teach confidence.  You just have to do it over and over and over.

BC:  Did you really work at your voice?

LV:  No, just doing hundreds of shows and writing and hundreds of songs and going over and over.  I started to feel like I enjoyed singing and had less anxiety about it.  I had less fear of performance and more interest and curiosity about how you get a good tone.  I think for so long it was a place of fear.  I can't do this.  I'm trying and struggling.  But now it's more a place of interest.  Like, "how can I change my voice to do what I want?  How do I sing in different ranges?"  Like singing from a soulful place or a high ethereal place.  I think also recording with Tucker was helpful because when you record it's like a microscope and you get a clear idea of like, WOW, I didn't hit those notes.  I wasn't even aware.  I think recording is important to becoming a better singer.

BC:  I love your CD July Flame.  There's not a song I don't enjoy and I think that's really hard to do.  Even from some of my favorite artists that I've listened to forever, there's usually a song or two that I'll just skip.  But, I can listen song to every single song on that record and that really turned me on to going back through your catalog.  As a songwriter, I know it's so hard to write a good song.  I'm curious how you approach your songwriting.

LV:  You know, I'll usually be noodling around a guitar part.  But, by the way, I've always been disciplined about setting hours aside every day to do it.  It's my job.  I think of it as my job.  I don't know if I did a few years ago.  Using the word job makes it sound not fun, and sometimes it's really not fun but most of the time I'm in a place of, "wow, this is so cool."  A place of interest.  Then I feel like this isn't that hard.

When I'm writing I get into a cool inward space.  An interior place of what's going on.  That usually comes from the guitar.  Then I'll start.  Maybe I'll have a title.  Maybe I have a few words I can start to string together.

BC:  Do you have a list of ideas you go through?   Like oh, here's an old idea.  I'll work on that.

LV:  Sometimes I'll find a line in a book.  Funny words or phrases from a terms dictionary.  Like the phrase, "up the river."  You know that's a term for going to jail.  I just had a friend who went to jail.  That turned into a cool song.  It's sometimes like I'm trying to keep my eyes open.  For July Flame, when I saw the name of that peach at the farmers market, I thought what a cool song title.

Recently I saw a sign that said, "Love over Gold"  What does that mean?  To me that means choosing relationships over money.  I thought what a cool song title so I wrote it down.  I put it in my email inbox.  I might look at it later and think, I should work that out.  I'm trying to keep my eyes open a lot for random stuff then I'll write it down.

BC:  One thing I think you do really well is lyrics.  Your lyrics are so unique and vivid.  Do you set out to kind of write lyrics that are sort of poetic and paint a unique picture?

LV:  Definitely.  I try to go with the general songwriting theme of detailed verses and a more universal chorus.  My choruses are usually very simple.  Like, "Can I call you mine?  Can I call you mine?"  That must be in a lot of songs.  That notion, of "you're mine."  But my individuality comes out more in the verses.  I work very hard on that.  I feel like lyrics are my weakness actually.  As a lyricist I feel it is so hard to find the words to describe something without sounding cliche.  Now, with my songwriting it's hard not to repeat myself.  I don't want to write the same lyrics again.

BC:  I think lyrics are the hardest.

LV:  So hard.

BC:  I think you're on the right track.  Do you rewrite your songs over and over?

LV:   I'll write a song, then put it down.   But, sometimes I'll write three or four songs in a sitting and then I'll come back to them the next day.  Then maybe I'll use the same words with different music and maybe the third or fourth is the version I'll keep.  Maybe I'll discard the whole set of songs and maybe steal that one line that works and put it in the next song.  I do a lot of lyric recycling.

I wrote 80 or 90 songs for July Flame.  And now I've written that many for this new record I'm writing.  It's so hard to come up with a good song.  It's so mysterious.

BC:  Have you had the experience of writing a song that just sort of appears fully formed?

LV:  I love that.  They're not always the good ones.  But, sometimes they are.  It's like a gift, it's like I don't know how that happened but it did.  

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