Laura Veirs Plays With Fire

The Portland musician chats about her seventh album, July Flame


With thick blankets draped over the windows of her Portland home, musician Laura Veirs and an assortment of local legends--including The Decemberists' Chris Funk and My Morning Jacket's Jim James--composed music to chase away the winter chill. As the cold rain pooled in the gutters outside, Veirs filled the house with her warm banjo strums, delicate acoustic guitar and lyrics buzzing with folksy pastoral themes--pollinators, flowers, fireworks and buffaloes. Though July Flame--Veirs' seventh studio album, which will be released in Jan. 2010--took its first breath on a dark winter day, it is most assuredly a child of summer.

"We recorded it in January, February and March, so it was already rainy and dark out. We just put blankets on the windows because some of the street sounds were coming in and we didn't also want our sounds to go out ... so it was kind of like a cave for winter," said Veirs. "And it's funny because we were recording summery songs in that environment, but it doesn't matter because you just get into the flow."

While most musicians don't have the luxury of shuffling out of their bedroom directly into a recording studio, Veirs has found the perfect solution--date your record producer. Her longtime boyfriend Tucker Martine was recently named one of the top 10 producers of the decade by Paste Magazine for his work with Veirs and other acts like The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens and Bill Frisell.

"It's fun to record at home because it's just all set up in the living room and the mics are there for months on end, ready to go at any time," said Veirs. "We keep a strict schedule, like, 'OK, let's work from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday.' Since we've made six records together, we've just always had that kind of work ethic, like 'This is our schedule, this is our job.' But of course it's looser than if you were renting a studio space and watching the clock."

Martine has produced all but one of Veirs' albums--including 2004's acclaimed Carbon Glacier and 2007's marine-themed Saltbreakers--but the two have only been linked romantically for the past few years. According to Veirs, Martine's influence seeps into her songwriting process from its earliest phases--she now passes Martine her raw songs for that crucial first read. For July Flame alone, Veirs penned 80 new songs, which had to be whittled down to the 13 that made it on the album.

"It's been pretty clear to me and Tucker which songs are working and which songs aren't. So it's not like 80 amazing songs and 13 great ones, it's mostly 80 clunkers and 13 great ones," explained Veirs. "The great ones are few and far between with me. I don't know about other songwriters, maybe they work and work and work and craft a song over time and then they're done and it's great. For me, I just write a bunch of songs and most of them are crap and then a few of them are good."

The album's title track, which is available for free download on Veirs' Web site, was inspired by a trip to the farmers market. When Veirs happened across a July Flame peach, she immediately felt the words inspire something inside her. In the song, Viers' carefully plucked guitar takes the lead as her echoey voice chants, "July Flame / sweet summer peach / high up in the branch / just out of my reach," and a rolling drum beat pulses like a far-off thunderstorm.

"The peach theme worked because a lot of what I'm interested in this record is people struggling for a sense of security and permanence in the world and realizing that's very rarely there," said Veirs. "A peach is good for that because a peach is beautiful in the moment and tasty and sweet, but then it will rot if you don't eat it because it's not there for very long."

As a whole, Veirs explains that July Flame is intentionally more pared down than her previous album, Saltbreakers. Though Viers brought in artists like Jim James to add haunting, lonesome-cowboy vocals to the song "I Can See Your Tracks" and the Tosca String Quartet to play on several other songs, her priority was making an album that she could perform unaccompanied.

"There is, at the core, an idea that these songs need to stand up on their own, which hasn't always been the top thing on my list," said Veirs. "But also you can hear that there is density to some of the tracks, like the string quartets."

But Veirs' current tour isn't a solo effort. With a solid few months of touring ahead, Veirs has back-up band members Alex Guy, Jordan Chenall and Eric Anderson to keep her company on the long drives. On Monday, Nov. 30, Veirs and the Hall of Flames will swing into Boise for a show at the Linen Building opening for Blind Pilot (see Noise News, this page). When Veirs isn't on the road or recording in her living room cave, the blankets get pulled off the windows to let in light for her guitar and banjo students, a passion Veirs has maintained throughout her prolific career.

"I get back into [teaching] on and off through the years. When I'm not touring, I'll build up my students because I really like to teach, and it kind of brings a sort of extra focus and schedule to my day, which I like," said Veirs. "Also, it reminds me of what it's like to be a beginner and get in touch with a sense of wonder about music that can sometimes get lost if you're just focused on touring and the basics all the time."

Monday, Nov. 30, with Blind Pilot, 7 p.m., $10 advance, $12 door

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