Laura Veirs ’97, Singer and Songwriter

5 October 2006

LAURA VEIRS: 2006 Sasquatch! Music Festival

Although punk gave her an initial kick, singer/guitar player Laura Veirs really dug into songwriting while having an existential crisis in a remote desert of northwest China, where she was on a research trip. Left to tend camp as her fellow geologists probed the hills for cutting-edge discoveries, Veirs fended off yaks and their curious herders while obsessively tinkering with her crappy five-dollar Chinese guitar. “The desert was called the Takalamakan, which in the local language means ‘you can get in but you can never get out’,” says Veirs. “ That’s how I feel about songwriting now. I’ve started and I’ll never be able to stop.”

Veirs tried to bribe the group’s Chinese guide to take her out of the desert but the man was too ethical and refused her offer. Eventually she was able to leave, escorted out on a ten-hour donkey ride during which she had dysentery. Veirs returned to finish out her college degree later that year and then moved to Seattle, where her brother was studying oceanography.

Veirs (pronounced “Veers”) grew up in a progressive pocket of Colorado Springs, CO. Her parents were teachers: her dad taught college physics and her mom taught middle school. The family (which includes her older brother Scott) was very close, and spent many summers and winters camping, backcountry skiing, canoeing, and other outdoor activities. Although Veirs was encouraged from a young age to express herself artistically, she wasn’t particularly drawn to music in her childhood. Her family played classical, folk, and world music on the stereo, and Veirs took a few years of piano lessons, but by the time high school rolled around she wasn’t really involved in music other than casually listening to the pop music that her friends introduced her to. In high school she was more interested in sports (she was captain of the swim team) and photography. Veirs’s first musical memory is of her dad singing her to sleep with old American folk songs.

Veirs first started playing guitar at the age of nineteen when she was at Carleton College in rural Minnesota. She initially learned folk songs but soon after a friend introduced her to Bikini Kill, Sonic Youth, and other noisy bands. It wasn’t long before she convinced three girl friends to start a punk band. She had so much fun that she nearly abandoned her studies of geology and Chinese. Until that point, Veirs had been considering a career as a Chinese translator, diplomat, or geologist or other form of scientist.

After college she moved to Seattle, where she started playing solo at open mic nights. With the help of a friend, Veirs recorded some songs onto a tascam four-track and submitted them, in a duct-taped package and with a hand-written biography, as an audition for Seattle’s 1999 Bumbershoot Festival; she was accepted.

That summer she moved to San Juan Island in northwestern Washington State, where she met Bret Lunsford, former guitarist for Beat Happening, at his record store. Lunsford asked her to play a show at the store, where she met the vibrant Anacortes music community, including bassist/guitarist Karl Blau (who now plays in her band); Blau then introduced her to a wide variety of underground Northwest folk and rock musicians.

Veirs also made her first CD, Laura Veirs, that summer in a recording studio on a neighboring island. Made in only three hours, recorded live to DAT, the album was self-released later that year.

The following year another Seattle musician, Aiko Shimada, introduced Veirs to producer/drummer Tucker Martine and trombonist/keyboard player Steve Moore—two members of her current band. Veirs and Martine instantly hit it off, and she recorded The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae with him in August 2000. She again self-released the record, which made a modest but noticeable splash in the local press and radio.

Veirs recorded her next record, Troubled by the Fire, in the spring of 2002. That March, Martine had met Simon Raymonde (former member of the Cocteau Twins and founder of London’s Bella Union Records) at the South by Southwest Festival and sent him a final version of Troubled by the Fire that summer. Raymonde loved the record, calling it one of his top ten favorites of all time, and Bella Union released it worldwide in March 2003 to surprising critical acclaim.

In June 2003, before heading out on her first European tour, Veirs and her band The Tortured Souls— which now also includes viola player Eyvind Kang and cellist Lori Goldston, who toured with Nirvana— recorded Carbon Glacier. Bella Union released this record in Europe and Australia in February 2004 and it received high critical praise. Mojo called the record “incantatory, contemplative, literate,” and went on to say, “Laura Veirs might be the bridge between the alt-country ghetto and the Sheryl Crow-revering mainstream,” while Uncut, in a five-star lead review, called Carbon Glacier Veirs’ “first masterpiece…the unmistakable sound of a songwriter hitting her stride, pouring herself into each syllable.”

Posted In