Laura Veirs (Photo by Shelby Brakken)
When Laura Veirs played at Union State recently, it was the second to last date on a tour of the northeast with supporting act Andy Jenkins. Before that, she’d spent four weeks in the UK. Despite receiving critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, she has developed a larger following overseas. That’s a shame, because she makes fantastic music, and she deserves a larger audience here at home.
A native of Colorado, Veirs grew up enchanted with the Rocky Mountains. This led to an interest in science and the natural world, which she pursued at Minnesota’s Carleton College, where she studied Geology and Chinese. While she was there, she also started to play music seriously. This was the mid-’90s — she graduated in 1997 — and she was heavily influenced by the riot grrrl movements. As a solo artist, she’s gone in a different direction, playing a combination of folk and indie rock.
Because of the pandemic, Laura hadn’t performed live in three years prior to her current round of touring. Her last appearance in the area was at this same venue, backed by her band. She had a special guest at that show: Brenda Evans, the great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cotten. Born in the last years of the 19th century, Cotten became, in her later years, one of the most influential country-blues musicians, and she composed songs like “Freight Train” and “Shake, Sugaree.” Brenda played the latter song with Laura that night. Laura has also written a children’s book, The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten.
On July 27 at Union Stage, Laura’s set was solo acoustic, with a loop station to add effects. She told the audience that she gave up the loop station for about 10 years, but has recently brought it back for playing her live sets.
Though she released a new album, Found Light, just a few weeks ago, Veirs started off with an old favorite, “Riptide,” from her 2004 album Carbon Glacier. That album was a breakthrough for her, leading to increased critical awareness and publicity for her work. The title of the album — as well as several others (Saltbreakers, Year of Meteors) — points the ongoing themes that come up in her work related to her interests in geology and the natural world more broadly. Veirs has a special and unique ability to make connections between the world of hard science and the creative arts.
The second track of the evening, “When You Give Your Heart,” sprang from that new album. The title of the album, she explained, alludes to “finding light in dark times.” In creating the album, Veirs tried “to process my own feelings through writing and song.” “Seaside Haiku” reflects Veirs’s interest in poetry; she’s mentioned how widely she reads, and that shows in her lyrics.
Watch the official music video for “Seaside Haiku” by Laura Veirs on YouTube:
Before “Winter Windows,” Laura talked about how she eats dinner every night (when she’s home, obviously, as it would be difficult when she’s on the road) with her kids, ages 12 and 9. At dinner, they discuss the “rose” and “thorn” — the high and low point of their days. Laura shared her rose for the day was getting some especially good juice, while the thorn was trying to park for the show. (If you’re thinking of going to The Wharf, I strongly advise you take the metro to L’Enfant or Waterfront Station and walk there. Parking right at the Wharf is extremely expensive, and, if you don’t park right there, you’re not going to be any closer than you’d get if you took the train.) In a rather charming exchange, Laura asked an audience member near the stage to share the “rose” and “thorn” of their day.
Other songs from the new album included “Winter Windows” and “Sword Song,” as well as “Naked Hymn,” which is somewhat new territory for her. As she was creating her previous album, My Echo, Veirs was splitting up with her husband and longtime musical partner, Tucker Martine, who produced all of her albums after her self-titled debut. Lauran co-produced this album with Shahzad Ismaily, with half the record made at his base-of-operations in Brooklyn and the other half made in Portland. “Naked Hymn” celebrates a rediscovery of sexuality after divorce, and it’s the most straightforwardly sensual song she’s written. On the album, there’s a major sax part in the song, which is a new instrumental touch for her music.
“When I’m out here in the East,” Veirs said, “I’m reminded of how humid it is. I’m going to sing my ‘Lake Swimming Song’ because it feels like I’ve been swimming all week.” She played “Where’s Gravity Gone” for a gentleman named Bob, who requested the tune on her Patreon. The evening’s sole cover was Elliot Smith’s “Between The Bars,” and other songs in the set included “Can’t Help But Sing,” and “Spelunking.”
Watch Laura Veirs perform “Spelunking” live for KEXP on YouTube:
Laura took requests at the end of her set. She explained that she can’t play all of her songs on demand, because there are a lot of them and, well, human memory is a limited thing. With two children to care for, she has limits to how much time she can spend practicing her music and committing lyrics to memory. She did treat the audience to three songs she could play offhand: “Pink Light,” “July Flame,” and “I Can See Your Tracks.”
As she wrapped up her set, she mentioned that, next March, she’s teaching a two-week course at the online School of Song. Then, she closed the main set with “Song For Judee,” which is about Judee Sill, a talented musician who died at a tragically young age in the 70s.
For her encore, Laura played a couple more new songs. “My Lantern” was “inspired by people in the streets in the Black Lives Matter protests.” Her last number of the night, “T & O,” was written about her kids, some six years ago. It was written from a very different emotional place than she found herself during the pandemic, when “online school almost broke me.”
Before I left the venue, I noticed that an acquaintance of mine, Hugo Award-winning author Jeff Vandermeer had tweeted his love for the new album earlier in the day, and he called her one of his favorites. That made perfect sense to me, as she and Jeff share a strong interest in the natural environment, and the intelligence and poetry of her songs appeals to folks like Jeff. There’s a lot to love in her work, and if you haven’t checked out yet, you should get on top of that right away.