For an artist as ethereally inclined as Laura Veirs, it was perhaps not the ideal weekend to be playing her first major Chicago gig. The music density level around town was way high, what with Farm Aid and the Hideout club’s annual block party and high-profile gigs by the North Mississippi All-Stars and Dave Alvin and the fabulously reunited dBs. Even on her own show at the Metro, Veirs fought for attention, opening for the much cooed-over Sufjan Stevens, whose pom-pomming alt-vaudeville drew all kinds of coverage in the local papers while Veirs’ mysterious, gracefully modulated art-pop was ignored.
But strolling up Clark Street before the show, away from Wrigley Field and the bad music blaring from barrooms after a Cubs-Cardinals game, Veirs was feeling good about her Metro appearance, her tenth and final date with Stevens. On tour last summer, it wasn’t unusual for her to play to four or five people. This time around, largely thanks to the Sufjan buzz, she was playing to full houses. Her CD and T-shirt sales at the gigs were much improved and, most importantly, she was adding to her own buzz.
Though Chicago reviewers couldn’t be bothered to mention her, she has gotten critical shots in the arm in other music centers, including New York, where her new album, Year Of Meteors, was praised in The New York Times, and in London, where an Independent reviewer ranked her with such artists as Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and Bjork. Not that this Seattleite, whom another British reviewer unkindly wrote “resembles no one so much as the young Woody Allen as a girl,” reads her press or worries about not belonging to clubs that won’t have her as a member.
“I’ve always been on the edges of groups,” she said between sips of beer at a sidewalk cafe, dressed in a Sufjan T-shirt and jeans. “In school, I took turns being in the cool group and then the nerdy group. I was captain of the swim team, but dated a guy with a mohawk, who also happened to be valedictorian. I’ve always been interested in all kinds of people, in not being stuck in one group, or one image of who I am. My audience seems to be a mixture of indie rockers and NPR listeners.” And, apparently, the Wiggles crowd. “I’m always hearing, ‘Oh, my 5-year-old just loves your music.’”
Possibly that has something to do with her girlish voice and unadorned delivery. “My voice is still trying to figure itself out,” she said, acknowledging its lack of those sultry qualities that image-makers love. Possibly, too, it has something to do with the dreamy, sing-songy quality of Veirs’ tunes, some of which sound like they could have been folk ditties before her producer and drummer, Tucker Martine, dressed them up in electronic textures.
Whatever the factors, she recently had an album of her songs recorded by a group of French schoolchildren. A strong following in both France and England has helped to spark her suddenly accelerated career, which had all the markings of a modest ride on the indie-rock tracks when she was asked a couple years ago to join the ranks of adventurous major-label affiliate Nonesuch Records (Year Of Meteors, her fifth album and second for Nonesuch, came out in late August.)
“I aspire to a childlike, open-eyed view of the world,” says Veirs, who is 31. “I learn from children. My nephew, who is 2, notices stuff I miss — a beautiful leaf or bird. That gives you a fresh perspective. Everything around you could be magical if you really saw it that way.”
Natural imagery — clouds and rocks and caves and fire — so dominate Veirs’ songs that the effect is very nearly excessive. The fact that she studied geology in college gives critics an even wider opening to focus on physical details and miss out on the thoughts and emotions they evoke. The emotional impact of the tunes derives less from looking out than looking in. She’s at her best when the brazen features of her internal landscape — “the wildness of the human spirit that’s too often buried,” as she put it in an interview — match up with those of her external landscape. “Give me snow and give me salt,” she sings on the new album’s “Through The Glow”. “Troubles cracks and creaks/Watch ‘em tumble to the sea/Come back ’round you see.”
The people in her songs are frequently submerged or in shadows, or both. “There’s a shadow beneath the sea,” she sings on “Shadow Blues”, from 2004′s Carbon Glacier. “There’s a shadow between you and me/I’ve learned that love is scared of light/Thousand seeds from a flower/Blowing through the night.” Even in the joyful state of “Galaxies”, the purest expression of romanticism on Year Of Meteors, her warmest effort to date, she is 10,000 leagues beneath the sea. But wherever she is, there are vibrant sounds to be heard, frequently in the form of music, to carry her through. Or, in the case of the outlandish “old-time fire band” on “Devil’s Hootenanny” (from 2003′s Troubled By The Fire), to carry her down.
Raised in Colorado Springs, Veirs attended college in Minnesota, where her studies in geology and the Mandarin language led her to an expedition to China. She ended up in Seattle in 1997, becoming part of a music community stocked with distinctive experimentalists in rock and jazz. These days, the Portland scene, crowned by trendy bands such as the Decemberists, is luring artists away with its lower cost of living and equally scenic setting. She is staying put, even though Seattle’s famously depressive climate is not so great for her art. “I don’t write so well in bleak circumstance,” she says.