Laura Veirs has released nearly a dozen records throughout her career, including a much-celebrated collaboration with k.d. lang and Neko Case in 2016.
That productive 20 year span was heavily influenced by her relationship with longtime husband Tucker Martine, a noted music producer who also worked on nearly all of those albums. The couple separated late last year, but not before completing most of the work on Veirs’ newest record “My Echo.”
That album, which was released in late October, chronicles the turbulent period leading up to the couple’s decision to separate.
Veirs spoke with opbmusic’s Jerad Walker about the recording, the difficulties she and her husband faced in untangling their personal and creative lives, and her longstanding love of happy-sounding sad songs.
Jerad Walker: This album is a deeply personal collection of songs, and the first single, “Burn Too Bright,” is no exception. This is a tribute to the late Richard Swift, an incredibly talented producer [Foxygen, Damien Jurado, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, ] and musician [The Shins, The Black Keys] who made his home in Oregon for many years. I think you stuck the landing on this, but I assume that this was a really hard song to get right.
Laura Veirs: Actually, now that you pointed it out, it was hard to get this song right. I don’t know why it was, but I wrote 15 versions of it for over a year. You know, he wasn’t a close friend. He was a close friend of close friends. So in that way, I had some distance from the situation. And I think distance from trauma can be helpful when you’re a writer.
He was certainly an influential person to many in the Northwest and around the world. And also others like him, like Kurt Cobain or Janis [Joplin] or Jimi [Hendrix] or any of these young people who burned out too soon. You know, I was just contemplating that type of person and what happens to them and why and how. I wanted to make it bright, too, because I didn’t want to make it just this sad, morose type song. But I didn’t want to disrespect them by making it too light. So I was kind of treading a fine line there.
I never was in the studio with him, although I heard from people that he was really cool to work with and really sort of, like, off the cuff and weird and not planned, and stuff was breaking down. Just kind of like a rough and ragged style. And I recently broke up with my ex, Tucker Martine, who — we made records together for 20 years, and I only worked with him as a producer. And I’m curious to know what it’s like to work with other producers like Richard, who have a different style. A lot of times people don’t know what a producer does, but they help you pick your songs. They help you with every aspect of the song, and what musician’s going to play what, how to arrange the songs and then how to record the songs. That’s going to be an interesting process for me, in terms of finding someone who I feel like I have a good kinship with, because it is a very intimate relationship.
Walker: Impermanence is a theme on this album, and it does mirror your personal life. You’ve been very open and honest about your separation and divorce. You can clearly hear that struggle on songs on this record like “Turquoise Walls.” Did you consciously write about that as a theme here? Or was that just something that crept up on you as you were writing the record?
Veirs: I mean, I was struggling in my marriage for several years and trying to figure out what to do. It could be just such a confusing thing, especially when you have kids and you’ve got houses and we had a recording studio, multiple businesses and all this stuff. It’s just like, our whole lives were entangled. And it could feel overwhelming to try to figure out how to make it better and whether you should keep going over that you should break up, and eventually we would realize we should break up.
But through the process of writing this album, I was sort of toying with all of these questions, but not really looking at it with a critical eye in terms of should I be with this person or not. It was more like, “Why does life feel so ephemeral? Why does it feel like things are falling apart? Why am I obsessed with death?”
“Why is everything going away and disintegrating?” And then I realized after the album was done, “Oh, that’s what that was about.” You know, my relationship really wasn’t working, but I couldn’t see it with my rational mind. I didn’t want to see it. Why would you want to look at that? That’s a huge thing to do, to get divorced at this stage of life, with all of these things you know, including our music careers. [They were] very intertwined — and not just our careers. Our musical identities — at least mine was very, very entwined with him and him being my first listener for 20 years, [my] first editor.
Making this record, I was really just grappling with more of these existential questions. … Like, life’s nature is to fall apart. Life’s nature is entropy and things dying. You know, life is the exception.
Walker: Can we talk about “Another Space and Time”? It’s got this really fun, almost carefree bossa nova sound that’s juxtaposed with some pretty dire climate related lyrics. It’s sadly very topical, considering the fire season we just had.
Veirs: I love — well, it’s not a conscious thing — but I do love the paradox of dark lyrics with bright music and vice versa. It’s like one of my happy places.
So I try to go there often. I don’t try to go there often — I just go there often, and it worked well with this song. This song is about hoping for a better world, and I think you could get that sense of breeziness and the potential for a better world and a joyful world in the music. But yes, the lyrics are like California is burning, the sea is rising, the internet is taking over. But I mean, I don’t want that to happen, so let’s go to another space and time where that’s not happening and we can dance and feel free. And that’s how we are embodied in this music video that we made dancing and feeling free — in Alberta Park during a very treacherous COVID summer.
Walker: I wanted to ask you about case/lang/veirs, the supergroup you were in with k.d. lang and Neko Case. I’ve been with OPB for six years now, and during that time, I’ve worked on, I don’t know, a hundred sessions. And that concert that you three did with us in 2016 is without doubt the one that comes up the most. People constantly ask about that to this day. It really struck a chord, and I was curious if you were ever gonna work on a follow up with Neko and k.d.
Veirs: I don’t really think we will. I think it was likely to be just a one off, but you never know.
We ran into challenges along the way that I think annoyed us all. But there was also so much goodness in it. It was a successful project in terms of, we all got our voice on there. Our voice meaning our songwriting voice, our character on there. It wasn’t just like one person bowled everyone else over. We all have strong personalities and strong characters, and we were able to compromise our strong personalities enough to get this record done in terms of writing the songs — from everything. [It was a] collaboration from everything to like what exact lyric is going to be there, how are we going to sing that, who’s going to play on that, how are we going to tour, what kind of carpet are we gonna have on the middle of the floor at the venue, what about the lighting, can we bring a massage guy. I don’t know. Can we afford it?
All of these decisions that three strong women had to make together made it seem like, at certain points, it wasn’t gonna work or wasn’t gonna fly at all. But it did. And we did the tour, and it was successful, and people liked it. But there was some challenges there with creative challenges and then personality things, managers, this and that. Ultimately, we’re all friends and and I won’t say never, but I don’t think that everybody in the group wants to do it again.
Walker: Well, I’m glad we caught lightning in a bottle at least once.
Walker: You always have really impressive guest lists on your records, and this album is no exception. My favorite contributions is from Jim James who a lot of people know from the band My Morning Jacket. He’s on the closing song, “Vapor Trails.” It gradually turns into this really bittersweet, very pretty duet.
Veirs: So Jim has been on the last 10 years of records. We met him through the Decemberists, and he is such an awesome singer, such a great songwriter and performer. And he just comes into the studio and nails stuff in, like, one take. It’s awesome. I like the way our voices match.
[The song] is about people passing out of your life like the vapor trails pass out of the sky when you’re looking at vapor trails from an airplane. It’s kind of a melancholy way to end the record. But this record is such a mixed bag of hopefulness and melancholy, and I like that it’s not just one or the other, because life for me at that time really wasn’t one or the other. It was a mix, and I captured it with these songs.
Walker: I think it’s the perfect album closer.
Veirs: Thank you.