Laura Veirs on Balancing Musicianship with Parenthood and the Power of Structured Songwriting

For those of us who frequented indie folk shows in the mid-aughts, Laura Veirs and her blend of thoughtful, witty, and always infectious songwriting was a regular fixture. Flash forward to 2018, and Veirs is still doing her thing. Her 10th solo record, The Lookout, came out last week, which features lush production and follows an impeccable collaboration record with Neko Case and k.d. lang from 2016.

When not penning songs or making records with her husband and producer Tucker Martine, Veirs also plays host on the Midnight Lightning podcast, a show that focuses specifically on the challenges of balancing the life of a working musician and the life of a parent.

We recently had the chance to catch up with Veirs to talk about writing and recording the new record, as well as lessons learned from her podcasting efforts. To check out her music and keep up with tour dates, you can visit her website here.

For the new record, I read that you treated the process like one would treat a traditional job and set a schedule for yourself. Can you elaborate a little bit how you approached that process?

Four days a week, I worked on songs from nine to one. I find that three or four hours of concentrated work is about all I can be effective with when it comes to songwriting. After that, it just doesn’t make sense. I have young kids that are four and seven, so I didn’t want to work full days, because I like spending time with them, too.

Laura Veirs - The Lookout

I think children can be good for artists for that reason, because they force us into a structure, but they also exhaust and distract us, so it’s a double-edged sword. Before I had kids, I worked more hours per day. But right now, I like that really strong, concentrated work in the morning, with the rest of the day dedicated to errands or laundry or my kids.

For this record, I stuck to my structure and really forced myself to focus. The way the world is right now, with phones and internet, it can be so hard to stay focused.

I actually had to get off of social media and turn my email off and really be disciplined about staying offline while I was working. Once I got off of all that stuff, I was able to get back into a place of focus and thinking, which is what I need to do to write good songs. I was able to reflect on that through songwriting, which is what I tried to do with this new record, in terms of thinking about the political landscape that we’re in, the difficulties of our country being so divided, and the gun violence.

I didn’t want to make it a really heavy record, but I was experiencing some heaviness in my life and had a couple of friends pass away, and you can hear references to that, the death, on the album. But the music—I didn’t want it to be morose or plotted or dark. So I feel that the music is a counterpoint to the more difficult lyrical matter, because it sounds kind of bright and easy and fresh.

I wanted it to sound fresh because I’ve been doing this for 25 years—this is my 10th solo album. For me, at this stage, it’s a challenge to stay surprised. I devised these songwriting homework projects that I would give myself each day to get away from feeling like I was in a rut, and to surprise myself. I think my husband, Tucker—who has produced all but one of my records—also wanted to stay in that moment of, “What are we doing that’s fresh here? What can we do to push this forward instead of just rehashing what we’ve done before?”

Laura Veirs - "Lightning Rod"

In revisiting your older records, I noticed some recordings are sparser and more acoustic and others are a bit heavier, a little bit more electric guitar-oriented. As a writer, to what degree do you envision the production and final sound as part of the writing process, versus just writing a good song on the acoustic guitar and then seeing what happens when you hit the studio?

I don’t really think on those terms because I find it so hard to get a good song already that I want to focus so much on that. Over the years, I’ve found that songs can be quite malleable. Lyrics are the hardest part for me, so if I get good lyrics, I can put them into many different melodies and song structures to see which will resonate most clearly.

I focus on getting the core song’s ballad, and I limit that stuff to four tracks since I record demos on a 4-track cassette. I think that any kind of restriction that you give yourself as an artist helps creativity, but this also keeps me from wasting a lot of time working on demos since I can’t add 500 vocals to something I’m not going to keep anyway.

Laura Veirs (Photos by Jason Quigley)

So I record a lot of those demos and put them in a folder, and then Tucker and I go back through and slash and burn, you know? Whatever’s remaining in the top folder gets recorded. Once we’re in the studio, we’ve got the core songs that feel solid already, and we can work on the production from that.

You’ve collaborated with a lot of interesting musicians throughout your career. I was a big fan of the k.d. lang and Neko Case record, of course, and I know Sufjan Stevens sang on one of this album’s songs. How do those collaborations come to fruition?

We did a similar thing, actually, with case/lang/veirs. We wrote the songs very sparsely and recorded demos with just like one harmony over a dub, and then we had the meeting with Tucker. We talked it over, like “Okay, I hear a full band in this,” and helped curate which musicians we were going to have on the session. It was tricky, because we had so many cooks in the kitchen for that one. Every decision was tricky. One way we worked around that was that we decided that each person would have the same number of songs to sing, and you’d have the final say on those songs—what the lyrics are going to be, who is generally going to be playing on the track. That one was hard.

I think the writing was more difficult than the record-making. There wasn’t a lot of conflict in the studio, and it was kind of like the musicians were so good that it just felt pretty fun. But the songwriting was where we locked horns and didn’t always agree on what should happen with the lyrics or the structure or any of it, really. But, obviously, we did it. We’re still friends, so that’s good.

I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the origin of your podcast, Midnight Lighting, and what motivated you to take off into the podcast world?

Oddly, I had been thinking about it for a long time—about a year—when I met this guy named Joe Wong who has his own podcast and is a music composer and drummer. I mentioned my idea to him in the fall, and he told me I should do it. He actually offered to co-produce it too, which was so helpful because I’d never done podcasting.

I was feeling burnt out on songwriting, which happens to me every time I finish an album. The podcast was a really nice way to step back from that and connect with other musician parents. We talk on an intimate level about decisions that you have to make when you’re juggling these two things that are pretty much in conflict: raising kids and being a touring musician. It was nice to feel less lonely, because sometimes I feel like I’m the only one doing this.

Laura Veirs - "Watch Fire" (feat. Sufjan Stevens)

With this being something you think about often and having finished the first season, do you have any major takeaways—things that kept coming up about parenthood and musicianship?

This first season was all women, 14 women, and a lot of them struggle with guilt because there’s an idea that artists are selfish—if you’re out on the road, you’re just being selfish. I think it might be different for men because there’s this societal idea that men are the breadwinners, so you just go do your thing and whatever it is that you’re making money at is justifiable. I might be wrong—I haven’t done those interviews yet [Ed.: Season two of Midnight Lightning will be all men]—but it’s an idea I have.

Ultimately, though, it’s good for mothers’ children to see them working hard, being creative and out there in the world, having their own ambition. Even though it’s maybe tricky for kids to have mom gone, it also shows them that dad has a lot of cool things to offer too—or grandparents or whoever else is helping while the parent is gone.

It has been cool to see how it’s a conflict that we feel. How long should I be gone? Should I be gone more or should I be gone less? But each person is managing to pull it off in a way that makes their life feel rich, and I think that that’s a valuable thing to take away.

It is. I think it also dovetails with how to be an independent musician, particularly, in this day and age. The conventions have evolved a lot and how to make a living in the music business is so improvised nowadays that that improvisation is necessary—you have to figure it out as you go.

Exactly, there’s no template. For many musicians today, it’s really imperative to tour, whereas back in the day, you could have made a living otherwise. My father-in-law was a songwriter and wrote songs for Elvis and Pointer Sisters and made a great living and that was just in the ‘70s. Not like today, where you get just like .0001 cent from a stream from Spotify.

Right. To that end, you said you’ve been doing this for 20 years, so you’ve seen things evolve. From your perspective as an independent musician, how do you think the music business has changed?

Well, certainly record sales have gone down, but streams have gone way up, and that’s obviously the way that we’re headed. It’s like a tidal wave—you can’t stop it. I wish there was a more equitable system set up for musicians as far as pay dates from streams, but I think people will be working towards that. It’s hard when you’re dealing with these giant corporations that have billions of dollars.

That said, it’s not completely gone. We’ve already sold out a thousand general records for my new album, and it’s not even out yet. There are still people out there who like to hold music in their hands, enough people who care about art and vinyl. I love that there’s a market for that.

Laura Veirs - "Everybody Needs You"

What were some things that you were listening to while recording your most recent record? Not necessarily direct influences on your sound, but things that have been on your turntable or playlist over the past year.

I’ve been listening to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian nun who plays the most beautiful piano ever. She’s classically trained and writes very odd and beautiful solo piano songs. I’ve also been listening to Frank Ocean’s record a lot, channel ORANGE. I like the way he plays around with dissonance and his interesting production choices.

I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue again, which I listened to in high school, but it was neat to remember how strong those songs are. It’s so sparse, with so few instruments, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m always intrigued by how people can write music that’s so beautiful and so sparse, because it’s so easy to spruce stuff up in the studio. On my new album, I wanted to have some sparse songs as well as, so hopefully that translates. Some more lush ones, too, but I think we managed it.

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