Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: interview, july flame, laura veirs, sacha whitmarsh
“Playing in here could turn me into a religious woman!” Laura Veirs jokes from the stage of the majestic Union Chapel in north London. It’s the last UK show of her tour to promote her seventh and, in the eyes of many critics, best album, July Flame. It’s a fine venue with, naturally, incredible acoustics and imposing architecture. And, tonight at least, it’s really cold. Lip-numbingly cold. The entire audience is clad in hats and scarves; they’re even selling hot drinks alongside the merch table in the foyer. For this entire leg of the tour Laura and her band have been travelling through a country in the grip of its biggest freeze for a hell of a long time. In stark contrast the album she’s showcasing every night on stage evokes a totally different atmosphere. Taking its name from a variety of peach, the album serves as a springboard into a sultry, sun-saturated world full of the magic of midsummer: Will o’ the Wisp, fireflies, Chinese lanterns and heady, sweltering nights. It’s joyous.
Six months pregnant and missing home, Laura sits down to chat in a draughty back room at the venue. Suitably attired in a knee-length puffa coat buttoned tight to the chin, she fixes me with a slightly steely gaze (think the Year Of Meteors cover) through her trademark thick-rimmed glasses as we try to keep warm. Although her songwriting places her firmly in a rural setting, the truth is that she’s actually a bit of a townie. Born in the city of Colorado Springs, she moved to Seattle after college to start a punk band, and has since settled in Portland, Oregon. I tell her I totally had her down as growing up in the country. “That’s the perception but I’ve always lived in cities. And I live in a city now with a million people. But that doesn’t mean I can’t write about nature,” she states insistently. “A lot of times I’m talking about something like a fly on glass. Or sun coming through a window. Stuff that happens whether you’re in the city or not. But, yeah, I think probably the camping I did as a kid helped!” she laughs.
As with all of her work, July Flame is crammed with poignant imagery, populated by references to water, sky, stars and unspoilt landscapes. Perhaps its most exquisite example of natural beauty comes from ‘When You Give Your Heart To Me’ as Laura sings, “And my stampeding buffalo / stops in her tracks and watches the snow / falling through the old oak tree / when you give your heart to me.” Truly, hers is a remarkable lyrical talent. But Laura is surprised that she’s so often singled out as an artist who writes about nature. For her, the natural world is intrinsically part of the North American experience and she points out that such imagery is present in the work of most American songwriters.
“There’s a difference between American wilderness and European wilderness,” she explains. “Over there, it’s truly rugged. It’s huge, it’s vast and there are large animals that could eat you. That doesn’t happen over here. So I think that really impacts on my writing. But I certainly don’t have a view of the sea with a wonderful country cottage and a garden. I live in a city with a dense neighbourhood, houses close together. But I have a nice backyard where I work in my studio, with my wood-burning stove and my trees and my cat and stuff. So it’s not like London, by any means.”
July Flame was written, rehearsed and recorded at Laura’s Portland home, which she shares with her partner and producer, Tucker Martine. They made the decision to relocate from Seattle some years ago in order to find a more harmonious way of life. “Seattle’s become very bustly and rich and shiny and kind of too fast-paced. And the traffic’s the second worst in the nation next to LA, or something like that. So it’s just – to us – less liveable. And we like to ride our bikes; it’s flat in Portland and there are the most bike commuters and it is, I think, the most utopian American city.”
Despite being conceived within these more secure environs, the songs on July Flame struggled to incarnate. “I wasn’t blocked as much as uninspired,” she explains. “I felt like I was searching for something new and exciting and I couldn’t find it and it was very frustrating. I wrote song after song after song that I felt wasn’t ploughing any new ground.” When starting her previous albums, Laura would set out with the intention to explore a theme and write the songs as a result of that exploration, a sort of “If you build it they will come” mentality. It was earth for The Triumphs & Travails Of Orphan Mae, fire for Trouble With Fire, water for Carbon Glacier, air for Year Of Meteors, and sea for Saltbreakers.
July Flame has its own strong theme – it’s summer, warm and contented, secure and appreciative – but it wasn’t written in that way. This time the songs came first and out of those the theme emerged. “I just waited for it to expose itself to me, and so it took longer for that reason too. I was interested in seeing what it would sound like if I made a record without going in with some intellectual preconceived idea of what it was going to be. So I let it unfold for me and I started to notice a lot of the summer themes and the night-time imagery, flames, fire stuff, and I was like ‘Okay, let me exploit that in a good way and use some of those images again in the next song and make it feel like copies of things’.”
As guest vocalist, Tucker and Laura enlisted Jim James from My Morning Jacket to sing on four tracks, his wild, beautiful cries adding a haunting, ethereal layer to the album’s wonderful riches. “His voice is like an otherworldly instrument,” Laura states, and in addition to this instrument are drones, banjo, a string quartet and some sublime pedal steel. There’s also a track about a widely overlooked American bass player named Carol Kaye. She’s the woman responsible for the basslines of, as Laura literally lists in the song, massive hits like ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘I’m A Believer’, to name but a few. Shocked that she knew so little about this amazing musician and fellow Washington (state) resident, Laura was motivated to write a song by way of a tribute. “I kind of like that line, ‘Not a household name but / she’s been in your head all day’. ‘Cos, it’s true! She’s totally unsung but really instrumental to these great songs that have been, and still are, happening.” To date they’ve not met but have a budding email relationship. “She says she loves the song and she’s really excited to come and see our show in LA so I’m gonna ask her to sit in,” Laura grins.
And since we’re on the subject of great female musicians, I ask her whether she’s excited about the return of Lilith Fair; Sarah McLachlan’s travelling celebration of women who make music. Does she think there’s still a place for a women only music festival in 2010? “Less and less so but I’m still glad that it’s happening. I’ve heard about this new version of that festival and that it’s very diverse, which I like. ‘Cos the last one seemed a little too soft female singer-songwritery and I understand that this is more like featuring people who do hip hop and other kinds of stuff too, which I think is good.”
One of the most important things things like Lilith Fair, she adds, is to give young girls role models in music. Each summer, Laura teaches at the Portland Rock & Roll Camp for Girls and states how inspiring it is to see how the girls there (the programme is for girls aged 8–18) can be totally transformed through the experience of writing and performing their own music. “You know, when I was that age I had no role models at all. Certainly they have some, but it’s still a very male-dominated industry,” she states earnestly. “I mean people are quite shocked that I am out here pregnant ‘cos they haven’t seen a pregnant woman play music before.”
So what for the future? For now, Laura and band are back in the US for a string of dates that run through until March. Then it’s back to Portland in preparation for the arrival of Veirs Martine Jr, who is due on April 15. Laura is keeping a blog of this trip, partly as the usual website fodder for fans, but also, she states, for her child to see the journey they took just before they were born. She’s also determined to continue to tour, which is as much about giving her child some experience of different countries and cultures as it is about her career. “I certainly am not gonna stop going on tour. This is my life, this is how I live! Fans have said to me, ‘Oh, we won’t see you ’til your kid graduates from high school!’ and I’m like, that’s not really true. I’m not gonna just become this stay-at-home mom!”
July Flame is out now through Bella Union. Photos by David Belisle.
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