Slowly but surely, confidently and quietly, Laura Veirs has become a significant presence among American folk artists. The singer who began writing while she was a translator for a geological expedition in China has since released seven increasingly acclaimed albums, toured internationally and settled down in Portland, Oregon with producer Tucker Martine and a young son. Veirs’ last LP, 2010’s July Flame, refined her command of emotion and fascination with the natural world and was acclaimed as her best work yet.
Rather than seek simply to repeat a successful formula, however, Veirs has chosen to strike out in a new direction. Her next record, Tumble Bee, was influenced by her experiences of recently starting a family and is her first intended for children. Following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, Peggy Seeger, and Pete Seeger, Veirs and Martine have plumbed the American songbook for tunes that might help reignite in today’s children a passion for singing and song.
In this interview for PopMatters, Laura Veirs explains the influences and aims behind Tumble Bee, discusses the calculated creative risk it represents, and offers reassurance that this is not “the beginning of the end” of her songwriting for adults.
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Did any memories of your own childhood experiences with music influence the way you went about recording Tumble Bee?
We had music on around the house casually and my dad used to play guitar for fun, and I did take piano lessons for a while but never took it seriously. Music was just sort of for fun, and in the background; it wasn’t a focus in our house. A couple of the songs we chose were songs my parents sang to me: “Jamaica Farewell”, which was a hit for Harry Belafonte in the 50s as well as “The Fox” which is a really common American folk tale. The motivation was that a lot of friends of mine who have kids have said over the years how much their kids like my records. I don’t know if it’s the songwriting, or the singing, or both but it’s something a lot of people said. Also Tucker and I had a kid about a year and a half ago so we were interested in just learning more about the history there is out there of kids’ music, and on a practical level thinking “What kind of songs can we sing?”
Often I try to sing a song and realize I only know part of it and get sick of it. It was also fun to think, “Oh, what were records like in the 20s when people were making kids’ records? What were they like in the 60s?” A lot of artists over time have done them. It’s not done very commonly nowadays by someone like me, but Woody Guthrie did it, Pete Seeger did it, and one of our favorites we discovered is Peggy Seeger. The songs were written by her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was an early avant-garde composer in the 30s and she did a really cool group of songs called Animal Folksongs for Children (1957). Two of the songs we chose were from that—one is “Little Lap Dog Lullaby” and one is “Jack Can I Ride”. They’re just really cool, weird songs that have words we may have heard through the years—“momma’s gonna buy you a little lap dog”—we’ve heard stuff like that, but the twists in the lyrics and the changes in the chords we all new to us. We listened to hundreds of songs trying to pick the ones we felt were a good fit for my voice. We tried Neil Young songs ... we weren’t thinking specifically of kids’ songs but songs that were appropriate for kids. The Neil Young ones didn’t work, but eventually we came up with the thirteen that we kept.
Your choices are interesting for me because, as a British listener, I recognize very few of the songs. I’m 22 though, so maybe age is a factor as well?
I think that has something to do with it. A few of these songs were sung by hippie parents to their kids in the 70s, and I was born in 1973 so I grew up in the 70s. And there is also that national difference.
Although you’ve talked about trying to find songs that worked with your voice, you must have had a huge number of songs to choose from. What other kinds of things were you looking for?
There were thousands, really. We were looking for ones that were pretty up-tempo ... we weren’t interested in a lullaby record although there are two slow songs on there. We wanted to have an up-tempo, jump-around kind of record but it was nice to have a couple of slow ones on there as well. Also we tried not to shy away from real life addressed in the song lyrics: “All the Pretty Little Horses” is a lullaby that was written by a slave woman who couldn’t care for her own child because she was too busy with her white master’s child. It’s pretty sad when you think about it in those terms. There’s also lyrics in there about the bees and the butterflies pecking out the eyes of the dead lamb in a field—it’s kind of gruesome, but at the same time I think children are interested in not having everything sugar-coated. Not that I’m interested in doing a super-dark album for children, but I don’t want to avoid that altogether.
There seems to be a bit of a dark element to one song in particular, which is “Soldier’s Joy”. I wasn’t familiar with it before, but it has a lot of history behind it, hasn’t it? It seems to refer to the Revolutionary War quite a bit, which is an odd presence on a children’s album.
Yes and no. I think what we were really thinking about with that one was the weird syncopated rhythm of the vocals. When we heard that song, we thought would be great for kids because the chorus is asking people to get their instruments out and have a dance. In that sense it’s pretty uplifting, but yeah it says “We’re gonna take down those Redcoats!”
A lot of these songs are pieces of history and come from a long way back, and I wondered if you did anything to try to update them, or if you think they’re just timeless and should be recorded only slightly differently?
Some of them we left alone, like “All the Pretty Little Horses”—nothing happening there is new and that song has been covered a lot. The first version we heard was Pete Seeger’s, on a children’s record and we thought it was just gorgeous—it’s totally haunting. And then side, though, was like “Little Lap Dog Lullaby” which is a completely different arrangement to what Peggy Seeger did on her record. That one almost sounds like a pop song, it almost sounds like any song I would have written for an album. It’s pretty lush and it has that cool drum beat. That one’s really different.
We just tried to figure out what each song was asking of us and put that together, and in some cases it was pretty simple, bare-bones and as we heard it but mostly we were changing them around a little bit just because that’s more fun for us.
The next thing I want to ask you goes back to your last album, July Flame, which I think a lot of people felt was the best thing you’d ever done. Did you ever feel that changing tack and moving on to something like a children’s album was a little bit of a risk?
Yes—people could say “that’s the beginning of the end for her”, right? She’s just gone and had a kid and decided to do children’s music. Yeah, that’s a risk I was taking and it’s fine with me. I’m going to make another album that I love, and it’s going to be for adults and I’m confident about that. But I wanted to take a break from writing, and this was a fun thing to be doing. I feel like artists should really be able to do whatever they want, you know? That’s the nice thing about being an artist.
It sounds as though you’ve found, as well, that there’s a crossover between what works for children and what works for adults.
I hope so. Really it’s not the three year-olds who have £15 or $15 to buy a record—it’s the parents. They’re the ones that are going to be putting it on. And I really wanted to make something that they would want to pick up. I mean there are great children’s records out there, but I think in general the bar is set a little low. People are searching for something good, and I hope we can provide them with something.
By doing this project you must feel that introducing kids to music is quite an important thing. From your perspective as a musician and as a mother, what do you think is the value in that?
It’s one of the most important things in the world! I mean, across every culture people are musical. To be versed in that, to feel that you have a sense of rhythm, that you can participate as a young person in a group singing situation or that you feel confident to play drums in a group ... children can gain all kinds of wonderful feelings from playing music and I see that already with my son. At only a year and a half he loves to drum, and he’ll burst into song also. It’s important, especially as church life disappears, for people to have music on in the house—children will get so much joy from that. It’s so fundamental and I feel like the way things are headed, people don’t sing in everyday life and many people don’t think they can write a song or play an instrument and that’s a little bit sad to me. I feel that one of America’s great strengths is its music culture, and I would hope that the next generation of children in this country would realize the richness that we have—and elsewhere, of course. This is primarily an American record of American songs, but they’re often rooted in the British isles.
It’s just important for children to study music. You can read all those reports that say that it helps with social skills as well, and a lot of other things. Of course, it’s getting cut in the schools, too. So it’s important to expose them to it.
You’ve talked about the importance of music in helping kids develop, and also the fact that the way people experience music is changing. Do you think that another thing that is nice about Tumble Bee is that it provides a kind of alternative to today’s commercialized view of music, especially TV talent shows and the like? There’s something a bit more old-world and real about these songs.
I’m glad you think so, and I certainly hope so. This is really a person and her friends playing instruments and it’s a wonderful thing to see, which is why we’re going to go and do some touring with it. People playing instruments is so important, and we don’t see that as much as—like you say—talent shows on TV and people just listening to music through their computers. It gets a little removed from the heart of the matter, which is that it is a powerful thing to sing an old song or play an instrument in your living room.