Like a cold creek trickling through the forest, picked guitar bubbles at the start of "I Can See Your Tracks." The opening cut on Laura Veirs' latest album, July Flame, the sound creates a beautiful and slightly melancholic world, where memories prayed away. My Morning Jacket's Jim James howls like a scourging, scouring wind, and sights, smells and sounds overload the senses. It all makes Veirs' voice sound very alone in the woods. Even with such forlornness, there is the hope that nature, not time, will heal all wounds.
Taking a short rest from her tour at a friend's apartment in New York, Veirs talked the tune.
THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY:"I Can See Your Tracks" and a lot of tunes have significant nature imagery. What made you decide to focus your writing in that way?
LAURA VEIRS: It just sort of comes out that way. I think that people in general gravitate toward natural imagery because it's all around us and pretty accessible to everyone. I just try to find a way to talk about the natural world in a way that's an analogy for human emotion. I try to take something mundane like a fly struggling against a glass and turn that into something like, "Oh, I'm struggling trying to understand what's going on beneath this person." Now having written seven albums—and about nature through most of those—it's a challenge for me to find a new way to do that. I ended up having to write a lot of songs for this record to get to a place where I felt, lyrically, I would get something new.
So how is this record different from what you've done before?
There are a few basic song structure things that I changed, like experimenting more with choruses, adding bridges, changing time signature within the song, doing polyrhythmic guitar playing, writing on a piano, writing on a banjo to get different ideas flowing. I admire someone like Hank Williams so much because he was able to basically play the same chords every time and write all these great songs within a very limited structure. Somehow, he continued to find a way to make that new and exciting. But I've found that just playing another G chord wasn't doing it, so I change the tuning on the guitar or go to a different instrument. Just doing some of those structural things—at a craft level—helped me change the sound of this record.
There's a lot more group vocals and a string quartet, and I've never had either of those. Having Jim James from My Morning Jacket guest on there was great. He's a new, and pretty bright, presence—a voice that's so obvious and loud. Whoever you've got singing with you on a record changes the feeling of it. There's a lot of similarities as well because it's the same basic crew that I've used for almost 10 years. But we moved to a new town, and we have a studio in our house, and we recorded it in our living room, and I think there's some differences because of that—moving to Portland, getting Portland musicians on there, and also recording in our collective house.
Living in Portland, and moving there from Seattle, what role does the Pacific Northwest play in your writing?
I don't know. I've lived here so long. I've never really lived and written songs anywhere else. It would be interesting to see what living in a big city would do for my writing, or living really in the countryside. But the musicians I've met and become close with have all been really influential. Also, the DIY culture there is really strong and has been for so long that people, in general, have this attitude of, "Well, just do it." If you don't have a manager, just figure out the contract yourself. Or, you don't have a booking agent? Just do house shows at your friends' house up and down the coast. There's this do-it-yourself attitude that permeates the culture there that has made a big impression on me.
You mentioned earlier that you've been experimenting with song structure, but "I Can See Your Tracks" is just three verses.
I prefer not to be totally traditional in my songwriting, but I draw from folk traditions. Yes, that song is very simple in its structure. I think the strength of that song is in the guitar playing and the arrangement. I love that central howling section that Jim James does. In general, my songs and records have a little bit more going on underneath that people can discover as they listen many times to a record versus hammering you on the head with pop hits, and then you're done. I try to have some subtlety happening so that people can discover the unfolding of the song over time. Often, I think, people—with my new records, when they first hear them—think, "I don't know if she hit the mark here." But then if they keep listening, they're like, "Oh, this is my favorite one." Not everyone every time, but they're sort of grower-type records because there is more going on underneath than just sugar-pop.
What made you decide to have such a sparse arrangement on "I Can See Your Tracks"?
Well, I demoed it with guitar and vocals. I don't even think I put any overdubs at all on it—just one bass guitar track and my vocals. And maybe a couple small harmony things, but [producer and partner] Tucker [Martine] heard it and was like, "This is great. This is a good first track for the record." There's something about it: the tempo or the upbeat kind of feel to it, but it;s not all major key stuff either, so it's a little bit mysterious sounding. He thought Jim James would sound good on there, and I was like, "Yeah, that kind of howling thing that he does." So we both just kind of came to that together. I certainly think it turned out well, and I like doing that song live. We don't have Jim James with us on tour, but we have two guys who do a really great rendition of that. Jim does two vocal parts on that howling section, and they do that harmony together live, and it sounds really good.
You said a lot of your songs are analogies for something greater. Is this song based off of something that actually happened? Did someone actually go to New Orleans?
No, it's more a character.
What sort of character?
They see the tracks of probably their ex-lover—I don't know, that would make sense—and then they want to follow the tracks, but they can't. They're not supposed to because they're not with that person. So let's have nature wash them away, so we can't find where that person is. The first verse is visual: I can see your tracks. The second verse is—what's it called?—olfactory: I can smell the smoke from the fire. That person's still there. Then the howling happens. And then the realization that it's over happens, and the person's like, "OK. The snakes are here." Like danger, that sense of being alone and isolated. It's about trying to forget the past and having trouble with that.
When you write songs, do you like to approach them as a character or as yourself?
I think that's pretty specific to the song. I think they are all autobiographical at some level because they're coming through me. But, certainly, some of them are more me imagining someone's situation, and other times it's more a cathartic thing for me personally and working something out that's going on with me. It just depends on the song.
What does writing from the character's perspective do for you on "I Can See Your Tracks"?
It just captures that very common human emotion of difficulty in moving on with your life. And trying to be present but realizing you're still holding on to the past or projecting into the future. That's just such a pervasive issue for us as humans. So, I think it just helps me deal with that reality when I write a song about it. I don't know. I don't really know what it does for me. I just like to play that song. It just feels good to play it. It makes sense to me.
Regarding your playing, does being pregnant change the dynamic of you playing live at all?
I'm like eight months in. Does it change the performance? I guess. It changes touring in that I'm more tired, and I need to take time to rest. Otherwise, I don't have energy for the show. That's new for me because I'm usually really energetic and can do whatever I want. But five weeks into this eight-week tour, I just realized if I don't take a rest or a nap during the day, before the show, I can't play the show well. So, that's one difference. And people are interested. I think a lot of women are inspired by it because there's this sort of idea in our culture that pregnancy—you're very fragile, and you're almost, like, sick. But my feeling is: well, this is my job, and this is my calling and my work, and I need to do this before I have the baby, and I'm going to do it once I have the baby, so let's just figure it out. So far, so good, knock on wood. So I think other women, and maybe some men, are inspired by that, like, "Oh, you can do this. You can be eight months pregnant and touring around the world, and it's fine. It's actually not that big of a deal."
Laura Veirs & The Hall of Flames play Local 506 Friday, Feb. 19, for $9-$11. Old Believers and Cataldo take the stage first, starting at 8:30 p.m.