Laura Veirs: The call of the wild

Laura Veirs's album, a paean to nature and spirituality, has entranced the critics. Andy Gill is a believer
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The Independent Culture

The most enthralling album I have encountered this year has to be Laura Veirs's third release, Carbon Glacier, which represents a quantum leap from the Seattle-based singer-songwriter's earlier recordings. In every respect - the enigmatic title, the evocative woodblock-print sleeve illustration, the poeticised pantheism of the lyrics and the idiosyncratic future-traditional style of the music - it has the air of an instant classic, a benchmark by which future Americana releases will be judged.

The most enthralling album I have encountered this year has to be Laura Veirs's third release, Carbon Glacier, which represents a quantum leap from the Seattle-based singer-songwriter's earlier recordings. In every respect - the enigmatic title, the evocative woodblock-print sleeve illustration, the poeticised pantheism of the lyrics and the idiosyncratic future-traditional style of the music - it has the air of an instant classic, a benchmark by which future Americana releases will be judged.

Veirs's previous albums, The Triumphs & Travails of Orphan Mae and Troubled by the Fire, presented her as another traditional-influenced modern folkie in the vein of Gillian Welch or Jolie Holland, able to adapt the methods and mannerisms of an antique form to fit modern situations. She didn't start out that way: her earliest musical endeavours were undertaken while she was studying geology and Chinese at a Minnesota college, where she played with an all-girl punk band, Rair Kx! ("like the noise a cat makes"), who moved to Seattle, as punk bands did in those days, before disbanding.

"I guess I started to move away from all that punk stuff because Seattle is such an indie-rock-punk place that I kind of felt rebellious against it," Veirs explains as she prepares to play the Madrid leg of her European tour. "We still play a reunion show each year, but it's not that relevant to our lives, in terms of screaming and yelling our heads off, now that we're 30 years of age."

Instead, Veirs was drawn to the country-blues of artists such as Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotton, and took to writing songs in that vein, which appeared on her first two albums - both fine records, as far as they go. But with Carbon Glacier, the lyrical and musical elements seem to have reached their optimum blend, on a record steeped in the seagoing history and climatic conditions of her Pacific North-west home base. Though she grew up in Colorado, her family has long ties with the area, and one of the defining moments of her life was stumbling across a copy of Melville's Moby-Dick among the family heirlooms.

"I found an old copy of it at my parents'," she recalls. "They live on an island, where my father works with whales - he records them. Whales were a big part of my family's life in the North-west. The book was signed by my great-grandmother, from 1930. It's just gorgeous, with beautiful illustrations by Rockwell Kent, which really add to the story in a strange way."

Kent's illustrations furnished the inspiration for Jason Lutes's sleeve design for Carbon Glacier, of a solo mariner holding a lantern aloft amid a glacier-strewn sea. And Melville's intimate passion for his subject is similarly echoed by Veirs's poetic immersion in the rain and wind and sea and ice of her locality. Songs such as "Icebound Stream", "Wind is Blowing Stars" and "Riptide" use elemental images as metaphors for different states of mind - the tug of the latter's fierce current, for instance, is a clear evocation of the singer's desire to push beyond the safe and known: "Riptide pulls me out into the open sea/ My toes dangle for a place to stand and be."

But the effect is an oddly two-way process, as the human tropes and emotions thus evoked reflect back on their host images, bringing the inanimate to life - from the "wooden vibrating mouth" of her guitar, invoked in "Ether Song", to the rose and ice considered in Buddhist terms in "Lonely Angel Dust": "The rose is not afraid to blossom/ Though it knows its petals must fall/ Ice crystals form from flakes of heaven/ Fall down weightless to the earth/ To them it's worth the falling." The effect is to bring one to a sharper realisation of the spiritual equilibrium in which all things are held. That was, she admits, deliberate, though in an appropriately serendipitous way.

"I didn't think, 'I'm going to write an album about the nature of inanimate objects,'" Veirs claims, "but when I'm writing, if I start to notice a theme, I'll try to develop it. So when I noticed it happening, I thought, 'That's cool, that this ship hold is coming alive in "Salvage a Smile", and that the stars are going to send a helper to get the drowning person in "Riptide".' I feel that sometimes - I guess this could be related to my studies of Buddhism in China - that humans aren't as isolated and alone as we think we are."

Veirs spent a couple of years in China as part of her college course, before switching to geology. "I couldn't focus on human problems," she says, "so I decided to move over to science and focus on earth problems. And then I realised I really am more interested in human problems, and decided to talk about those through music.

"I still appreciate what I learnt in those different disciplines, and I think they come out in my music - especially since, having spent so much time out in the wilderness, I find that images of nature come to my mind so easily. I spent weeks in remote areas, both in China and in the States, and I can use metaphors of nature to describe other things I'm feeling. It's not like I'm singing directly about snow falling through the light, or whatever; I'm using those images to get at something else."

Veirs is assisted in her endeavours by a cross-disciplinary ensemble of musicians drawn from the rock and jazz avant-garde, who bring a new slant to Veirs's folk stylings. With her blend of traditional and experimental modes, it's as if she's combining the past with the future in order to get purchase on the present.

"That's what we were trying to do," she affirms. "In the song 'Rapture', for instance, there's this descending line played by a piano and a Casio that would have sounded much more traditional just played by piano, but Tucker Martine, the producer, thought that a Casio would be cool there, so we tried it, and it sounded awesome."

The album's sound, she believes, derives from the musicians' disparate backgrounds. Martine, the drummer and producer, makes his own experimental records, and has an appreciation of both the Seattle indie aesthetic and the Nashville country aesthetic, having been brought up there by his songwriter father. "He's such a sensitive listener," Veirs enthuses: "he has a way of finding the strengths of the songs and exploiting them." The bassist Karl Blau has an indie-rock background, the keyboardist Steve Moore is more jazz-oriented, the cellist Lori Goldstein (who played with Nirvana on their Unplugged set) does her own Balkan music, and the viola-player Eyvind Kang has a more avant-garde and world-music perspective. "That's one of the things I really appreciate about my community of musicians in Seattle," she says: "that there is a lot of sharing and collaborating across genres that you might not expect in a town that's internationally known for grunge. There's so much more going on there than people know about."

Together, Veirs's collaborators bring her songs to life with parts that seem to evoke the elemental nature of the songs - the brooding, foggy drone of organ, the drip-drip-drip of banjo notes, the icy groan and scrape of viola. "A lot of that was accidental, although maybe not," she muses. "I make a four-track demo of the songs, and then we meet up and discuss them and imagine the instrumentation. Sometimes it works the first try; other times it doesn't quite fit; but I do feel we got to add some of that elemental stuff that I didn't expect to happen. A lot of it happens on the spot in the studio, and if we like it at the time, we go with it. We don't really second-guess ourselves."

The most magical track on Carbon Glacier, the place where all the elements come together perfectly, is probably "Rapture", a reflection on the dangerous ecstasy of sensitivity with which some artists are privileged to perceive the world. "Love of colour, sound and words/ Is it a blessing or a curse?" Veirs enquires, illustrating her point by comparing the fatal frustrations of Kurt Cobain and Virginia Woolf to the doomed but delightful attempts by Monet and the 17th-century poet Mutsuo Basho to capture the essence of nature in their art.

It's clearly a struggle that Veirs takes personally, and it is one to which she brings her own fresh, distinctive voice. Which is, of course, the only sensible way to approach the task. As Basho himself advised: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought."

'Carbon Glacier' is out now on Bella Union ( www.bellaunion.com)

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