Motherhood can affect people in strange ways. When Laura Veirs had her first child, her reaction was to record an award-winning children's album of old folk songs that dealt with death and suffering. Three years later, her second child a few months old, the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter is about to release what may be her best yet, a cascade of self-penned adult tunes that weave together parenthood, darkness and fear, recorded with collaborators including k.d. lang and My Morning Jacket's Jim James.
In her wood-panelled basement in Portland, Oregon, Veirs tells me it took her time to get her “songwriting chops” back after her first child. “I was so worn out being a new parent, and going through this thing like being in love for the first time when you just can't think straight. I was falling in love with my child. And my songs were so sentimental, so sappy. It took me about a year to get songs that I liked again and then I realised I was looking at tension between light and dark, like warp and weft in weaving.” Warp and Weft became the title of her new collection, which she will tour in the UK this year.
Many of the songs were written while she was pregnant. How did that affect the process? “There was a lot of worry,” the bespectacled, chirpy 39-year-old says. “Is it going to come out with five heads? Is it going to make it? There's so much fragility.
“Every parent is stalked by a spectre of darkness because something could happen to your family,” she continues, quoting lyrics from the first track on her new album: “Stalked by winter/ Solace in a small warm hand”. And then there's the chorus for “Dorothy of the Island”, one of the many story songs inspired by real life, this one about a mother apparently plunging to her death, a chorus Veirs appropriated from an old Blind Willie Johnson song: “Motherless children have a hard time/ When their mother's dead…”
But her music is not melancholic. “I love that tension, I play with that all the time, jarring someone – 'how can I feel so good listening to a song about motherless children?'. It's a strange thing to have a happy melody with dark lyrics but I love it. It's so much more interesting.”
Raised in Colorado, Veirs was a punk – possibly the only punk to have ended up getting a US Parents' Choice Award (for 2011's Tumble Bee, the children's album). But after college, when the singer of her band quit, she realised she would have to learn to be a front person. It wasn't easy: “My first ever open-mic was in front of two people, my friend and the sound guy, who was blind, but my hands were shaking off the neck. It was a disaster. I thought: 'I can't do this. Let me dig in here and figure out why.'”
She nearly made a career “digging in” in a different way until an epiphany in a Chinese desert. “I was a geology major on a field trip I didn't enjoy and I realised, 'I'm not going to be a scientist, but this guitar is for me, so I'll work on that'.” And she did, taking lessons to hone a very impressive technique. “It can be limiting when you say you're a folk musician. Yes, I'm writing narrative songs that have natural imagery and I play acoustic guitar but I don't like to box myself.” The latest album is certainly much more expansive and fully produced than “folk” would suggest, featuring a song about Alice Coltrane and another inspired by Coltrane's jazz.
k.d. lang, Jim James, and others came Laura's way because of her long-time collaborator, and husband – producer Tucker Martine. The couple met in 2000, and worked together on Veirs's second proper album, The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae. She says it was many years before they got together romantically. “It's tricky territory to be a creative collaborator with your partner because you can be snippy. When it started we had a couple of hitches.” Now they have a ritual of shaking hands before they start work. “When we make a record, we are artists and collaborators first; then second we're husband and wife and parents.”
James has featured on Veirs's last three albums, but lang is a new friend, as is singer-songwriter Neko Case, who also appears on Warp and Weft and who has just moved to Portland. “It's the hippest town in America, lots of young families, lots of people like us who used to be punks trying to figure it all out.”
Some people might have to figure out the cover of Warp and Weft. “It's an unfolded crane,” explains Veirs. It refers to the song “Sadako Folding Cranes”, about Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl irradiated in Hiroshima in 1945. Her ambition was to fold 1,000 origami cranes to get a wish from the gods. She died aged 12, in 1955. “Inside will be paper you can fold and every crane we get we'll give a dollar to a peace group.”
Veirs wrote 60 songs for Warp and Weft. “I can write one in an hour or two, suspend judgement in the moment and go with it, but most of them aren't very good. I have to write so many to get the good ones.”
I'm struck by the image of dozens of orphaned songs chattering around Veirs and Martine's Portland home, as they tend to Tennessee, three, and Oz the new-born. The real children make Veirs's forthcoming tour “a scheduling nightmare. I just try to remind myself this is what I want: a satisfying marriage, a collaboration with Tucker on multiple levels, these two amazing beautiful children and this artistic life.”
'Warp and Weft' is out on Bella Union on 19 August. Laura Veirs tours the UK in November