Where theres folk, theres fire
- John Chandler
- Portland Tribune - Features
Generally speaking, the deeds of a lone gal armed with an acoustic guitar are not considered big news in a People magazine or 'Entertainment Tonight' sort of way. That particular cultural window seems to have slammed shut after the demise of Lilith Fair.
If there's anyone who could hoist a brick big enough to heave through this glass of indifference, it would be Seattle singer-songwriter Laura Veirs. Don't let her mellifluous voice and soothing songs fool you: Beneath a charming, affable exterior lies a very determined individual. On her new record, 'Troubled by the Fire' (Bella Union), Veirs scales subjects big and small, personal and global.
'I was struck awhile back by a quote from Nelson Mandela that said something like 'We're troubled by the light inside of us.' That seemed like a weird thing to say, but the more I thought about it, the more it rang true with me,' Veirs says. 'I think we're scared by our power and by our ability to create and be inspirational, and I see a lot of people holding back that light and choosing not to create, not to take risks and not to speak up for themselves. Other people shine that light and stand by their convictions.'
On the song 'The Ballad of John Vogelin,' Veirs, 29, sings the praises of a stubborn old-timer who never compromised his beliefs. 'I may not break even, but babe, I'll never break,' she sings, before segueing into a passage of graceful yodeling.
The image of fire manages to find its way into several of her songs. On 'Devil's Hootenanny,' a wandering musician gladly enters a burning farmhouse to party with the devil, simply because it's warmer than being stuck outside in the cold, dark night. In 'Tiger Tattoos' and 'Bedroom Eyes,' Veirs succumbs to the fire of her own passion and reaches out to the possibility of a new love. The latter song, especially, has 'country hit' written all over it.
But it's on 'Cannon Fodder' that she throws her cards on the table, announcing that she's not a part of any contented status quo: 'I will not have a child/I will be wild/I won't produce need for your slaughter/No more cannon fodder.'
Veirs' homegrown defiant streak can be traced to her Midwestern youth playing in punk bands. 'I used to be more aligned with punk and indie rock,' she says. 'But as I've gotten into my late 20s, I've become more interested in traditional American music and have studied the work of country-blues players and old-time musicians.
'I found that writing my own songs seemed the most natural and that playing them on the acoustic guitar was easy since I didn't have to plug anything in,' Veirs continues. 'When I 'get' or 'receive' a song, I have to rush to the instrument and play it before the inspiration is gone. Sometimes fiddling with cords and amps takes too long.'
'Troubled by the Fire' is by no means a stark acoustic piece, however. Veirs snagged some of Seattle's top musicians to help give her album shape and power. Guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer-producer Tucker Martine and former Tone Dogs Amy Denio and Fred Chalenor are on board, adding supple flesh to the bones of Veirs' tough and tender tunes.
But in the end, Veirs is the star of the show, playing regular folk music for regular folks. 'I've found that in lots of ways punk and folk aren't all that different,' she insists. 'Elizabeth Cotton, Woody Guthrie, Hazel Dickens, Leadbelly, Joe Hill, Johnny Cash, the Carter Family. É In my mind, the best punk is folk, and the best folk is punk. To me, hip-hop is folk music, too.
'At their best, all of these genres are about telling the stories of real people, their stories of struggle and survival and strength.'