In a career that has just closed out its second decade, Portland, Ore., songstress Laura Veirs has pretty much run the modern folk gamut. She’s toured with The Decemberists, written hundreds of songs and had two children along the way. In 2018 she released her 10th studio album, The Lookout, launched a podcast (Midnight Lightning) and published her first children’s book, Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten. Along with her husband, longtime superstar folk producer Tucker Martine, she’s garnered accolades at every stage along the way.
And yet somehow, we’ve never written a proper list on our favorite Laura Veirs songs. And so, looking back on her 20 years on scene, here are some career-spanning picks.
I’d never go so far as to say that I don’t enjoy Veirs’ first few albums, including 1999’s self-titled release and 2001’s The Triumphs and Travails of Orphan Mae, but it’s her third album, Troubled by the Fire where she first feels fully formed to my ears as a performer. “Devil’s Hootenanny,” off that album, is a lighthearted tune that recalls so many classic folk songs of the Depression era—Veirs finds herself singing and playing in front of a congregation of cartoon devils and demons, and is welcomed into the fold as one of their own. It’s one of those classic, romanticized musical conceits, that of the wandering minstrel who happens upon a moment of supernatural importance—and one of my favorite folk song tropes to boot. In terms of imagery, it’s honestly not that far off from the likes of Tenacious D and “Tribute,” but delivered with Veirs homespun charm and some honky-tonk-like keys and horn accents that give the whole thing a playful feel.
One of the characteristics of Veirs’ music I’ve always enjoyed is that she uses her art to give credit to all those who have inspired or helped her along the way. That’s true of a few selections in this list that just go ahead and name the influence in their titles, but “The Lookout” makes it a bit more of a mystery. It’s pretty easy to imagine, though, that when Veirs sings “You, my lookout on the ground / Making music from the broken shit you found / Man alive, I’m glad that I have you,” she’s talking about husband Martine, who also played drums on The Lookout. It’s a short and sweet tune that feels exactly like a handwritten thank you note—warm, fuzzy and personal, with some lovely strings capping it all off. Reminder to self: Include this track on the next playlist you make for your girlfriend.
It sometimes feels like people who haven’t listened to a lot of Laura Veirs can pigeonhole her solely as a writer of bucolic, delicate folk songs, but she can also bust out a kick-ass indie rock song and shred on the guitar when she wants to. Amusingly, she does so on Warp and Weft in a tribute to jazz legend Alice Coltrane, the second wife and widow of John Coltrane, best known as a harp player. This song, aside from being immediately captivating in its tone and tempo, is just a lovely tribute to the brilliance of its subject, who Veirs insists crafted “a palace for our ears” over the course of four decades. I love the way Veirs inserts us into her own frame of mind and personal relationship with Coltrane’s influence, saying “I never had the chance, to see her play / I listen to the records and I feel the waves,” and then “Made a million journeys in your mind /I can feel it in the way that you keep time.” As a non-musician, it’s particularly fascinating for me to think that someone like Veirs could listen to to music of Coltrane and recognize a kindred spirit in her, just from the way she plays her instrument.
Veirs’ fourth album Carbon Glacier was definitely a commercial breakthrough for the artist, with songs such as “Rapture” generating a lot of attention. I’m partial to the immediately catchy “The Cloud Room,” whose “up in the air” chorus is pretty much impossible not to sing along with. Echoing, metallic-sounding drumbeats lend the song a harder edge, along with some spacey keys, but Veirs’ voice is particularly front and center here. So is her penchant for pretty lyrics inspired by the natural world: “Seagull in the air / Floating on the updraft / See me on the ground / Think I just heard her laugh.”
July Flame is one of Veirs’ most complete and serene albums, and it was difficult for me to limit my picks from it on this list to only two. The songs on July Flame run from minimalist folk masterpieces such as “I Can See Your Tracks” to dextrous bits of wordplay in “Wide-Eyed, Legless,” but “Make Something Good” strikes a particular chord in my psyche with its plea for permanency. It could easily be construed as a metaphor for two people creating a child and a life together, as Veirs was with her husband at the time, but the poetic lyrics of “Make Something Good” can be extrapolated into an urging to all artists to strive toward making works with the resilience to stand the test of time. As Veirs sings, “I wanted to make something strong / An organ pipe in a cathedral / That stays in tune, through a thousand blooms / Make something good.” That ethos, to “make something good,” is the potential motto of a life well lived.
2007’s Saltbreakers, which just saw an October re-release along with the rest of Veirs’ Nonesuch catalog, likely stands as my personal favorite of the artist’s LP’s. Practically any song on Saltbreakers could have found a space on this list, from the perfectly paced rock tune “Wandering Kind” to the bouncy title track, but in the end I went with a few of the songs that best capture Veirs perspicacity as a lyricist. There’s a lot going on in “Drink Deep,” a rhapsodical meditation on natural dualities—life and death, burning and quenching. Few lines Veirs has ever written are prettier than the heart of this chorus: “Drink deep, my love/ For the water is gasping for your mouth / Gasping for your mouth.” It’s the kind of tune where you scarcely even need to speak the language to feel the profundity—Veirs tone really says it all.
In between July Flame and Warp and Weft, it’s clear that Veirs had some time to meditate on motherhood—her own, and the general concept. It resulted first in 2011’s lovely composition of children’s tunes, Tumble Bee, and then in the album opener of Warp and Weft, a song where the influence of parenthood can’t be missed. It’s a song about birth, regrowth and thawing—you could say it’s about Veirs’ own artistic reawakening after a period of rest, perhaps. As the new sun rises, it illuminates her children: “Matches inside your golden hair / Catch all the light, I’d fight to the death I swear / As all the other mothers would, the land / Stalked by winter, solace in a small warm hand.” The song is also lifted immeasurably by the presence of guest vocalist Neko Case, who jumps in unexpectedly to lend an instantly iconic tone to two perfectly pitched lines. I really can’t think of many songs that benefit more from two lines by a guest vocalist, and it’s obvious listening to this why Veirs would go on to partner with Case and k.d. Lang on 2016’s collaborative case/lang/veirs. The chemistry here was undeniable.
Note: I almost included the superlative “Atomic Number” from case/lang/veirs on this list, but decided it was better suited to focus solely on Veirs’ solo material. But that song is awesome.
This may well be one of the first songs that a lot of fans heard from Laura Veirs. It certainly left a huge impression on me the first time I saw her performing live, as an opening act for The Decemberists on their Hazards of Love tour. Beginning with a deceptively peaceful vocal overture, “Galaxies” explodes immediately thereafter into a song that features some of the most robust instrumentation of Veirs’ career, dueling between spacey, psychedelic keys and grungey guitar. Its closing minute is a perfect concert jam, although one that fans didn’t get to hear Veirs perform very often in the years that followed, as she was mostly touring with smaller bands that lacked the ability to project the bombast of “Galaxies.” In recent years, however, Veirs has returned to performing the tune live, adapting it to different kinds of instrumentation. It remains one of her best-loved tracks by many fans, myself included.
Laura Veirs has written a whole lot of verbose songs in her career, but “Cast a Hook in Me” might be the champion in terms of beautiful lyricism, which is present in spades all throughout Saltbreakers. Her performance is deft, nimble and always impressive—just the way she rapidly turns over the syllables in the chorus is inspiring: “Rivers running up the hills and to the sky and down to the sea / Where a merman with a twinkle casts a hook in me.” Twice on Saltbreakers, Veirs describes herself as “a falling leaf who keeps her green,” conjuring an image of resiliency in the face of struggle. I’d like to think that’s what she was getting at in “Cast a Hook in Me.”
There’s a delicate, ethereal quality to several of the songs on July Flame, and in “Carol Kaye,” Veirs marries those ghostly harmonies to the most sincere of tributes. It makes perfect sense that Veirs would revere Kaye, an underappreciated and under-known session bassist who recorded more than 10,000 sessions in her career, while also hailing from the Pacific Northwest—she appears on albums such as the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, shaping the history of the bass guitar in the process. The song’s clever construction weaves as many Carol Kaye songs as possible into its verses, while simply allowing Veirs to gush: “Not a household name / But she’s been in your head all day / It would be so cool / To be like Carol, Carol Kaye.”
In the process, Veirs pays tribute to an influence while making a piece of art that is undeniably her own—“something good,” as it were. There’s no shortage of great Laura Veirs songs, but this sweet ode is our favorite.