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Music

20 Questions: Laura Veirs

Evan Sawdey
Photo: Jason Quigley (Courtesy of artist)

After a collaborative album with k.d. lang and Neko Case, Laura Veirs re-emerges with a delicate, deliberate collection of folk-pop wonders, as well as a love for the Pixar film Coco and all things coffee.

The Lookout
Laura Veirs

Raven Marching Band Bella Union

2018-04-13

Amazon

While Laura Veirs has been putting out immaculately composed folk albums since 1999 (and always on her own Raven Marching Band Records), something truly changed with the Colorado-born/Portland-based star since the turn of the millennium.

Following 2010's July Flame (which, at the time, was her highest-charting full-length), Veirs began taking a series of risks and detours that few would have ever seen coming. 2011 brought Tumble Bee, which by all technical accounts was a kids album, but upon further inspection proved to be a great dissection and reinterpretation of the Great American Children's Songbook, warts and all, going unspeakably grim at times but all with a sense of buoyancy and discovery. Then, in 2016, a one-off collaborative album with fellow folk-pop heroes Neko Case and k.d. lang helped thrust Veirs' into something even resembling the mainstream.

So what a surprise it is to hear The Lookout, her tenth full-length proper and one of her most subdued efforts yet. Of course, this is Laura Veirs we're talking about here, so even her going soft and steady still provides ample opportunities for bite and fascinating new sonic textures (to say nothing of her collaborations with Sufjan Stevens and Jim James). Produced as always by her husband (and in-demand producer) Tucker Martine, songs like "Everybody Needs You" feel lush and lived-in, highlighting the best of Martine's unique worldview and storytelling.

To help celebrate the release, Veirs sat down with PopMatters' 20 Questions and revealed a love of the Pixar animated feature Coco, why she'd love to dine with Björk, and her delightful obsession with coffee.

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Everyone in the world should read this book. Brilliant and heart-breaking and startling and beautiful. It's no wonder it swept all the recent awards. The most recent movie that made me cry was Coco. It was the scene where the little boy sings that gorgeous "Remember Me" song to his dying grandmother. I loved that film! It's awesome when films for kids are equally as enjoyable for the parents. Coco is visually stunning, emotionally deep, and strikes close to home as it's a story about a family of musicians.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Sorry, I'm drawing a blank on this one!

3. The greatest album, ever?

Any album by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. She's an elderly Ethiopian nun who makes the most gorgeous piano compositions I've ever heard. Her music soothes my weary soul. I can listen to it for hours on repeat and never get tired of it. It's like listening to a river.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Wars because I never watched Star Trek really but the Star Wars films were formative early films for me. If I could be anyone I'd choose Chewbacca.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Books! I love to read modern novels. When I'm reading a good book I feel it's pull more than the internet or magazines. (I also read The New Yorker cover to cover every week.) I don't really watch shows very much though I realize there are a million great TV shows being made by brilliant people these days (I recently watched and enjoyed several episodes of Atlanta, however.) I don't listen to tons of music generally-speaking but I love podcasts like "Song Exploder" and "Pod Save the People." Books recently that I've loved: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, and Don't Skip Out On Me by Willy Vlautin.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

What accomplishment?

7. You want to be remembered for...?

A good friend, a good mom, a good wife, a nice person, a creative person, someone who made some beautiful, enduring music. Someone who inspired people to be sparky. Someone who was sparky.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Elizabeth Cotten, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, MLK, Malcolm X, Patsy Cline, Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Watt's Towers in LA. I visited these once and they inspired me to just go and be a DIY freak. Sabato Rodia made these beautiful towers around his home over 33 years out of found materials like bottles and rebar and seashells. They are on the National Historic Register. They are inspired by nature and are beautiful and enduring!

10. Your hidden talents...?

I'm a pretty good quilter/seamstress. Before I had kids I made lots of quilts and pillows and curtains inspired by the Gees Bend quilters. Now I don't have the time but I hope to get back to that craft at some point!

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Film and then watch a performance at a show and learn something from it. My husband Tucker suggested it. Many artists do this to improve their performances. It took me 20 years to do it but I recently watched a performance and learned a lot about subtle things like how I can stand to get better at singing more in tune, how the band can blend our harmonies better, and how we can improve the visuals (stage lightning, projections, etc.).

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Our house. We bought it four years ago before the PDX housing market went through the roof. It's a lovely house with an attic space where I have privacy to write songs. I feel very lucky we can raise our children in this house. It's on a block with 22 other children and the kids can walk to school. We are close to a street with coffeeshops and groceries and restaurants. We love our neighbors. I feel very lucky to live in our house.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or...?

Levi's for sure. Never worn any Armani. I'm not a fashion person at all. I don't really care. It's one of the parts of the music business that I struggle with. You'll notice that on tours I only wear one outfit each night. Once I find something I like, I see no need to switch it up!

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Björk and serpentwithfeet. I love their recent collaboration on Björk's song "Blissing Me". I listened to that track on repeat when it came out. I would love to hear about their collaboration and I'd love to get to know them as artists because they both seem like really interesting, original and passionate people.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

150 years into the future so I could see my great grandchildren and how their generation and the generations before them banned assault weapons and there were no more mass shootings in the US (or anywhere else in the world).

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Spa vacation! I get about one-two massages per year. I would love to get more but I never seem to find the time! Take a spa vacation with friends/my husband to some warm and sunny place sounds like heaven right about now ...

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or...?

Coffee! I drink one cup of French Press coffee every morning and one in the afternoon if I need a pick-me-up. Coffee is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I've never indulged very much in the other vices though a glass of red wine before a performance sure helps loosen me up.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I love living where we live in NE Portland but I dream of someday living in Paris, New York, LA and having a tiny vacation home somewhere warm, sunny and rural/wild like in Mexico or Hawaii. A girl can dream!

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

You have the power to do so much good. Ban assault weapons. Give us a tax structure that is fair to the poor and middle class. Care about the environment and support programs for solar power and wind power. Flood the public school system with cash. Relieve student debt. Lock up police officers who murder citizens. Stop being such a sexist creep. Sigh ... the list goes on and on ...

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Writing a keynote speech for the MN Music Coalition Conference coming up in April. Practicing songs for tour. Working on my podcast. Dreaming of the direction I'd like to go in terms of writing my next album. Taking care of the kids and the house and trying to keep all the juggling balls in the air!

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