For some women, it can be tough to do much of anything during the final weeks of a pregnancy. Laura Veirs didn’t let impending motherhood get in the way of recording Warp and Weft, her ninth record, which dropped in August. She cites her two sons as major inspirations for the album, including the darker elements. We talked with Veirs about her early days of songwriting (including a stint in an all-girl punk band,) her fondness of Brian Wilson, and working with My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel.
Tell us a bit about your new album.
It’s my ninth record and I made it when I was 8 months pregnant. It was a little hard to get air to sing well but I think I pulled it off. It was good to have a the natural deadline of getting it done before the baby arrived. We didn’t quite make it but Tucker (my husband and producer) mixed a few songs after the baby was born.
How would you compare it to your last album?
It’s more electric guitar-based and “fully band” sounding than my last record for adults, July Flame. I like how it charts new territory in songs like “White Cherry” which ended up sounding like an Alice Coltrane jazz kind of song.
What’s the album title in reference to?
It’s a weaving term. It refers to the two directions of yarn on a loom. I weave in old folk songs, references to other artists and lots of different and lyrical elements (dark and light) so for me the title works on multiple levels.
Who was your favorite guest artist to work with on the record?
They were all my favorites! Is that a cop out? It was so great to work with Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket. He really added so many great flavors, from electric guitar to sax to pedal steel. He’s a real master of his instruments and that’s so fun to watch in the studio. Also singing in a room with kd lang was a real thrill. What a powerful, big voice she has.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Beatles, Juana Molina, Brian Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Alice Coltrane, Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt among many others.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
When I was 19. They were joke songs, like about my cat who lost an eye (called “One-Eyed Jack.”) They were silly but I was having fun and learning. It felt natural to write songs from the start. When I was 20 I got into punk and those were some of my first “good” songs.
How do you go about writing songs?
My time is hard to come by now since I have two small kids so I do my writing in short chunks while a babysitter watches the kids. I try to do it on a schedule for a few hours three times a week. I can usually write a song in about an hour, sometimes two. I write many, many more than I keep (usually about 60-70 per album cycle, about 10-12 of which I keep.) I love finishing things so I always finish my songs. I suspend judgement until later which allows me to get my ideas out there. The whole thing is a complete mystery that continues to hold my attention — how to get the good songs? How to explain and capture what I’m feeling in a way that feels meaningful, true and relatable to others? It’s such a deep challenge and so hard to do well.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Sometimes I start with a title, like “July Flame” is a kind of peach I saw at a farmer’s market and I thought, “That’s a cool song title.” Sometimes I start with a fragment from a book, or I borrow from journals I’ve written in. Sometimes the music draws out a particular lyric. Writing lyrics is a huge challenge and something that I’m always struggling with and practicing.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m proud of “White Cherry” because it’s not like a song I’ve ever written before. I wrote it on the piano instead of my usual guitar. I’m not a good piano player so that’s helpful (keeps me out of getting caught in ruts.) I enjoyed rhyming “away” with “away” — ha ha! It’s a very emotionally open-sounding song — it doesn’t tell the listener how to feel. It has a cinematic quality and hopeful lyrics and bold instrumentation.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?
I’m a fan of the verses on “Dorothy of the Island.” They are true and sad and just kind of fell out onto the paper.
Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?
Harder because the bar keeps going up and I’m not naive anymore.
The most annoying thing about songwriting is….
There’s no clear path to a good song.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
People mention “Spelunking” a lot. Also “Through December” and “Make Something Good.”
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Brian Wilson. Some insight into how he crafts his incredible melodies would be amazing.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Little Green” by Joni Mitchell. The lyrics, melodies and guitar parts are the stuff of genius. I love the rhymes and half rhymes: “Cancer / answer to / dancer”, and “California / warmer there / non-conformer.” Joni manages to include striking details in this song while also capturing universal feelings of loss, joy and transcendence. It feels effortlessness. What a gift to us!