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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Healthy Living with Laura Veirs

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With her acoustic guitar, Daria sunglasses and poetry-laden lyrics, Laura Veirs certainly fit the mold of a typical modern folk singer-songwriter. For her most recent album, however, Veirs broke that mold, aggressively smashing it into tiny shards. Recorded with her newly christened backing band of the same name, Saltbreakers is a sometimes fierce, rock-driven album detailing—yup, you guessed it—a break-up. Veirs is currently on the road doing solo shows behind the record, and she took some time to chat with ExpressMilwaukee from Denver in advance of her Milwaukee performance Wednesday night.

Saltbreakers felt like a conscious attempt for you to blow up your sound and redefine yourself. Was that how you planned it, or was that just how it got spun after the fact?

Well, both. I did think of it as more of a band record than before. Before, our band went by the name Laura Viers and the Tortured Souls, and I didn’t think that name worked for us. Laura Viers and Saltbreakers sounded better, and it made sense to play up the band this time since they contributed so much to the album, so it was really a bit of both. I had just went through a big break-up, and I got together with Tucker [Martine], who is our drummer and producer, and that’s all eluded to in the lyrics. I also moved to Portland and Tucker and I bought a house there, so there were a lot of changes.

How did you end up with a band name you didn’t care for?

I had been playing with Steve [Moore] and Karl [Blau] on the side when we got offered a gig, and I thought, ‘Damn, we should have a band name. How about Tortured Souls?’ [Laughs] That name stuck for a long time, but eventually I started thinking, ‘You know, we’re not that tortured. I don’t think this represents us so well.’

Did people pick up on the fact the name was tongue in cheek?

Yes, but there were still these constant questions about who was the most tortured, and I was like, ‘Alright, enough of the tortured thing.’

A lot of songwriters draw inspiration from their inner struggles, real or imagined. Do you ever feel like you’re at a disadvantage because you really aren’t all that tortured?

Yes—I do, kind of. I mean, I’m a pretty wholesome person, and I’m healthy, and maybe that works against me. I don’t have any addictions in particular (besides coffee.) I like to do yoga. In fact, we were stretching in the park right now. It’s very wholesome touring. Maybe not at wholesome as some people I know. I definitely can party compared to some people I know, but I don’t party at all compared to other people, so I’m in the middle of the spectrum. I mean, I definitely go up and down: I have dark days where I feel like everything’s stupid, but I generally don’t go through my life as a depressive. Life is too short to flounder in misery.

It sounds like you live the stereotypical healthy Portlander lifestyle.

I do! I totally do. I could be on the cover of the Portlan—well, maybe not, because I don’t look as cool as a lot of people in Portland do. I don’t have the cool outfits. But I do live a healthy green lifestyle.

Do you feel like you took to the city easily after moving there from Seattle?

Well, I’ve only lived in Portland for two years now, and I’ve been on tour for quite a bit of that, but at the same time, yes. We live in a delightful neighborhood. You’ll find when you talk to Portlanders that everyone thinks their neighborhood is the best, and that there’s no reason to leave it, and that’s how I feel about where we live, the Alberta Arts District. It’s on the northeast part of town, and it’s just a two-minute walk from everything, basically. And I have good friends in the neighborhood. And you do end up fostering great relationships with the people in your neighborhood, and that’s such a great feeling. It feels a little more like an old America than the new America where everyone is really distant from each other and stressed out by work. And there’s still a place for artists and freelance writers and other people who don’t make a ton of money, since it’s not a huge city and the rents aren’t all that high. People can afford somewhat to buy a small house here and there. So it does feel like a great city, and it does feel like home, even though I lived in Seattle for 10 years and I miss it.

So is it that coziness that attracts so many musicians to Portland?

I think, yeah. And the quality of life. Great food. Great people. It’s a flat city so you can bike. It’s relatively temperate, so it’s beautiful to travel around, and once word of that got out, more and more musicians started moving here.

Outside of Portland we all have this vision of it as a utopia where all these famous musicians just hang out. Do you consider yourself part of that bigger music scene?

Definitely people do hang out together here. It’s very friendly. My social scene, as far as famous people goes, is The Decemberists, Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie and Scott McCoy from R.E.M. But I don’t know Sleater Kinney, or The Gossip—or I know them, but I don’t hang out with them. We live in the northeast, they live in the southeast. So the northeasterners hang out together, and I think the southeasterners hang out.

Now I’m picturing drive-by shootings between members of The Gossip and members of The Decemberists.

Definitely! It’s exactly like that.

Laura Veirs plays Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, May 14 at 8 p.m.