Laura Veirs: ‘I had a feminist awakening’
After her 20-year relationship ended, the US songwriter experienced a creative and personal rebirth
Laura Veirs: ‘I was making myself feel like I was crazy, but I wasn’t.’
In 2018, as her marriage fell apart, singer-songwriter Laura Veirs cried and biked all over Portland. “I called myself the crying cyclist,” she says. It was a new, impetuous hobby taken up after years of putting her desires on hold. When some friends asked her to join them on a 160km ride, she immediately kitted up and began training: 80km, 100km, weeping down her Spandex.
“That got me through the divorce, honestly,” she says. Another friend wondered whether the optical act of navigation mimicked eye-movement therapy, which is thought to weaken the effect of trauma. “I was surprised by how much it helped get the grieving out.”
The theory – balancing intellect and intuition – hit Veirs in her sweet spot. She is the daughter of academics; a former geology student and a career songwriter beloved for her moving, naturalistic vocabulary. Her voice has a sturdy, earnest clarity: on the superb 2016 collaborative album case/lang/veirs, her freshness contrasted the fiery Neko Case and earthy kd lang.
Writing can be hard in the way that it asks us – frankly, it requires us – to be vulnerable
More recently, the 46-year-old has been learning to trust her gut. As Veirs wrote her 11th solo album, My Echo, she realised that the songs stealthily illuminated her crumbling marriage to Tucker Martine – a Grammy-nominated record producer to acts including the Decemberists and Veirs herself. She had always written about dissolution.
“Because that’s the nature of life, right?” says Veirs, calling as she walks around her neighbourhood, out of earshot of their two young sons. But this time those themes felt conspicuous. Starting “the Secret Poetry Group” with two friends to write and swap poems had opened up a deeper realm in her songwriting, forcing her to examine parts of her life that she would rather have avoided. Forest fires, floods and death proliferated in her lyrics; the mood on My Echo slides between clarity and tension, suspicion and bittersweet gratitude. She sighs: “Writing can be hard in the way that it asks us – frankly, it requires us – to be vulnerable.”
During a period between two stints of couples therapy, Veirs and Martine recorded the album at their new studio. (Martine kept it in the divorce; Veirs got their home and primary custody.) It had recently been burgled, leading to a public fundraiser and compounding her stress. “I was really in the weeds, head down, do the work, get the studio running, get the kids’ breakfast, then let’s make this record,” she says. “And not really paying enough attention to us having a breakdown in terms of our love.”
On the song Turquoise Walls, Veirs addresses how her suspicions about Martine’s fidelity made her feel like “Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde”. She doesn’t want to discuss specifics, but admits that her rationality worked against her. “I was ignoring my gut and making myself feel like I was crazy, but I wasn’t,” she says. She recently posted a video of herself repainting their old bedroom from turquoise to white.
When she announced their divorce last November, fans told her she would come through it stronger. “I was like: f**k that, that’s totally not true,” says Veirs. But it was. “On the other side, yes – that’s why people do this,” she says triumphantly. “‘Cause something is irrevocably broken.”
She already knew that life’s pendulum is always swinging: after releasing two albums for the prestigious Nonesuch in the mid-2000s, the label dropped her. So Veirs started self-releasing in the US, and her acclaimed albums outsold the Nonesuch records. She wrote an award-winning children’s book about blues guitarist Elizabeth Cotten and accepted a surprise request to sing on Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell; he later guested on her last album, 2018’s The Lookout.
Veirs clarifies that it was not songwriting that got her through her divorce. She cannot write through trauma and doesn’t thrive in difficulty, “which has allowed me to be sustainable and have a long, prolific career”, she says. It was living in the way she never seemed to have time for previously: cycling, poetry, therapy, dancing, training (she can now do two pull-ups); learning to reach out to friends when feeling low. The transformation shed light on her old life. “There were ways in which our marriage wasn’t fair in terms of who did what,” she says. She and Martine made an arrangement before having kids: he didn’t want to compromise his schedule, which Veirs accepted. “That’s a questionable thing to do, but I did it,” she says. That schedule involved “a lot of late nights and time away from the family, which eventually I feel broke down the relationship because we didn’t have enough shared time”.
Contrary to the myth that has made male creativity synonymous with following the muses and sanctioned chaos, it is possible to make art and remain accountable to others, I suggest. Veirs agrees: “The longer I do this, the ones who stick with it are really organised. Especially if you’re a woman with the bulk of responsibility for the children, which is typically how it still is; you have to be incredibly disciplined and vigorous in your scheduling and focus to pull it off. There is, for me, almost no allowance for dysfunction.” (Her efficient nature is evident in her answers to my first few questions, in which she outlines her whole story and ties it up with a decisive, affirmative bow.)
In 2017, Veirs launched a podcast, Midnight Lightning, to interview fellow parent-musicians. The first series focused on mothers; ironically, she scrapped a planned second series on fathers because “any job I’m doing needs to pay for itself” now she is a single parent, and the podcast didn’t.
Now her life is enabled by a new domestic setup: a close female friend became a live-in nanny and “awesome coparent”. They share an easy life full of mutual kindnesses, without tension or arguments. She describes their relationship – not the kind that’s culturally valued – as “profound”.
I am walking... from my old life of divorce pre-Covid to new life: Covid, divorced and all the uncertainty that comes with that. But my life is strangely awesome
After Veirs’s divorce, she went on a “dating rampage” for the first time in 20 years. It was nerve-racking: would anyone want to date a single parent in her mid-40s who had let her greys grow out? “And yes! They do!” she laughs. She dated men and women until online dating’s “disposable people culture” depressed her: once she affirmed her desirability, she realised she didn’t need a relationship to feel fulfilled. It was part of what she calls her “feminist awakening” enabled by Björk, Rebecca Solnit, the poets Sharon Olds and Ross Gay, her friend the late film-maker Lynn Shelton, and the writing of black and queer thinkers – “people not in the powerful traditional roles in society” – on survival.
Eventually, her songwriting ability returned: Veirs has much of a new record already written, and says My Echo hardly feels relevant to her now. The new new songs deal with heartbreak and new love and protest (she has been a fixture on the Portland frontline, joining the “wall of moms” in her ski goggles and sanding mask to protect against teargas) and metamorphosis. “Moulting and all that science stuff that I love. Snakes and butterflies and moths, caterpillars, chrysalises. ‘Isthmus’, the thin strip of land connecting two larger bodies of land.” That’s where she is now, “walking across it from my old life of divorce pre-Covid to new life: Covid, divorced and all the uncertainty that comes with that. But my life is strangely awesome.”
Previously, Veirs happily deferred to Martine on production. Now she has rented a room in an arts centre where she is recording DIY for the first time. A feeling of “newness” has come over her work, 25 years after she started in post-riot grrrl DIY punk bands. “I feel more relevant than ever in terms of feeling alive as an artist,” she says. Her next frontier is a fear of words, a strange concern for a writer of her experience. “I love hip-hop because there’s such an abundance of lyrics, and my lyrics are so sparse and so careful,” she explains. “One of my goals is to get more brave about getting my words out.”
Divorce forced Veirs to embrace a big life change. Post-pandemic, many people are contemplating similar (albeit often voluntary) shifts. “Look into yourself and ask yourself why you’re not doing it,” she advises anyone who’s hesitating. “Is it fear? ’Cos it usually is. What’s underneath the fear? Can you live with being afraid? Because to make a big change you have to go through a fearful experience ’cos you don’t know what’s coming. We all have to reckon now more than ever that our time here is short, so how do you wanna spend it?”
Intention isn’t everything, she knows now. She cannot just rationalise and move on. But nor would she want to; she has to feel it: “I wanna live head up.” – Guardian
My Echo is released on Bella Union on October 23rd