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Sounds From Nature: Laura Veirs

Like the stark yet fresh landscapes of America's Pacific Northwest, Laura Veirs' art is both primitive and urbane. Her music and paintings are as much at home in the barn on her farm as in the cultivated venues of Seattle. One can imagine her voice haunting the forests that surround her.  Her songs, as well as her paintings and drawings, are often literally dark.  Her voice can be shivering and fragile.  Yet when she speaks to you, she sounds more like a friendly teenager than a soul-searching adult; full of enthusiasm for the future.  "I'm just really happy to have this opportunity to share my music with people, and so far, the tour has been really fun," she said during a recent interview.

Carbon Glacier wowed some critics upon its release in Europe earlier this year, with The Independent declaring it "the most enthralling album of the year thus far."

Reviewing an import copy for Neumu in late March, Brian Barr wrote, "The challenge here?  Crafting a record that fully captured the emotional diversity of the Northwest landscape.  And she has met her challenge.  Here, Veirs' songs echo the loneliness of the Cascades, meditate on the moodiness of the Puget Sound region, and drift to sea on the numbing freedom waves of the Pacific."

Veirs recently completed her first U.S. tour, and Carbon Glacier is finally available in the U.S. on the prestigious Nonesuch label (Wilco, Buena Vista Social Club, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson's Smile).

"Connecting with the audience makes me feel vital and alive," Veirs, 31, said, on the phone from New York, after returning from a three-week tour that took her to England, Scotland, Switzerland, and France.  

Perhaps inspired by years of studying geology in college — Veirs has a double major in geology and Chinese — Carbon Glacier includes countless references to the natural world.  Written and composed in her backyard barn in Seattle, the 13 songs make use of a broad range of environmental metaphors ranging from ether to riptides. The songs are both haunting and happy; the lyrics linger and demand re-examination of their meaning, as in the dreamy musical poem "Rapture" — "Love of color, sounds, and words/ Is it a blessing or a curse... enraptured.”

This is an album full of questions, not answers; Veirs is more of an observer than a philosopher.  She offers us her inner thoughts not so much as ideas but as images. Not all her words are enigmatic, though; often she is very direct about her strong feelings about representing a different side of America than what the world has seen since 9/11, telling me in frustration, "We Americans are not all ignorant! I always make a point of playing [the anti-war] 'Cannon Fodder' [off her previous album, 2003's Troubled by the Fire] these days while on tour in Europe."

Veirs tours with her band the Tortured Souls, an eclectic ensemble whose members include such veteran Seattle underground rockers as former Nirvana cellist Lori Goldston, the producer/drummer Tucker Martine (Modest Mouse, Bill Frissell), Beck viola player Eyvind Kang, Steve Moore on keyboards and trombone, and bass guitarist/guitarist/vocalist Karl Blau.

Martine also produced two previous albums by Veirs — The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae in 2000 and Troubled by the Fire (which former Cocteau Twins member/ Bella Union Records founder Simone Raymond released to critical acclaim in the UK after seeing Veirs perform at the 2002 South by Southwest Festival).

The former college punk rocker and Colorado native was still feeling the effects of travel when she called from New York. "I'm learning it's difficult to be out there emotionally all the time," she said. "Sometimes I get uncomfortable and nervous [performing] night after night.  It's difficult to be emotionally honest with your audience when you're doing 18 shows in 19 days."

Still, she was clearly invigorated by her experience abroad.  "I learned a lot in France — about enjoying life and food and taking more time. I'm trying hard to slow down with people, say hello, even if I don't know them when I walk into a store. There they are much more integrated. For instance, the host of the talk show we did sat down with the audience and the artists later in the cafeteria.  I can't imagine that happening here in the U.S."

Veirs did not start playing guitar until the age of 19, when she found herself emotionally falling apart during a geological research trip in a remote area of a northwest Chinese desert. There, all she had were a couple of yaks and a cheap Chinese guitar to keep her company. She was only able to leave after agreeing to do so by a 10-hour donkey trek.  

After surviving the exotic adventure, and dysentery, she returned to Carleton College in Minnesota.  There she formed an all-girl punk band and began second-guessing her scientific ambitions.  Veirs did manage to stay focused enough on her studies to graduate, and soon thereafter moved to Seattle, working for a time as a guide at the Pacific Science Center. She also taught English as a second language to new Asian immigrants. But she could not get music out of her system and became a regular at open-mic nights around the city.

Her musical career got serious after a friend convinced her to submit a tape for consideration to the 1999 Bumbershoot Festival.   She was accepted, and within a year recorded and released her debut album Laura Veirs (which is still available on her Web site). She followed with The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae (also self-released) in 2001. Last year Bella Union released Troubled by the Fire.

Asked about the rave reviews Carbon Glacier has been getting, she  said, "I don't read my press. I don't want it to influence my songwriting. I want to keep my inner world separated from critical influences."

Veirs is preparing to record a new album with the Tortured Souls in January, with Tucker Martine producing again. "In some ways it is a departure," she said.  "I'm experimenting with new rythyms, more electric guitar and distortion."

For more information on Laura Veirs, as well as tour dates, check out her Web site.

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