Laura Veirs Talks Motherhood, Music, And What's Next
September 29, 2015
Laura Veirs has been making good music for a long time. Over a span of 14 years, she's released nine albums. She is also a mom of two boys, Tennessee (five years old) and Oz (two and a half).
I was lucky enough to see her open for the Decemberists in 2009, before either of us were mothers. I’ve followed her career ever since. To this day, she gives me hope that creativity and the creation of art can expand and grow along with, well, the birth and creation of small humans (I have two young daughters).
For Laura Veirs, that evolution is clear through her music and the projects she continues to pursue.
You can literally “hear” her perspective change as her path through motherhood unfolds. After releasing TumbleBee, a children’s album of folk songs in 2012, she said“I had just had a kid, and I was trying to find a way to be creative but also to not put too much pressure on myself to write because I was so tired. It was a fun way to collaborate with Tucker Martine (husband and producer) and also to do something at the house."
Laura’s album, Warp and Weft, was released in August of 2013 while she had a toddler and a newborn in tow.
Around that time, she said “I think my scope has gotten wider now, and I can look at things with more compassion, and more empathy…I guess you come to realize the enormity of having these two people that you’re basically responsible for, for the rest of your life. I’m looking at the world now as if the camera’s panning wide, and I think you can hear that in the lyrics.”
Later that same year: “Art is such a solace. Without it, life would be pretty bleak, don’t you think? I think good art comes from other good art. I love reading great fiction writers; they inspire my songwriting deeply. I couldn’t do it myself. It seems like such a lonely job. But they provide such a light for humanity.”
I couldn’t agree more. Particularly when the initial isolation of having little ones sets in, art and music is a great comfort.
Artists generally do interviews when there is an album to promote, but I wanted to speak with Laura about what she is up to now - in the time when the magic is actually happening or, more accurately, when the work is getting done - about how she is able to keep up with her creative life while being a mother. I also just wanted to say thanks, all the while hoping I’d sound somewhat coherent after a night of little sleep with my five-month old daughter the night before.
Maybe she heard my exhaustion or maybe not, but she had “been there” and she made it to the next phase. It was reassuring to hear the passion in her voice when talking about the children’s book she is finishing and the enthusiasm about her latest collaborative project with other female musicians, but perhaps more importantly, I was grateful for her sincere compassion when sharing some advice with another mom and artist:
“The most important thing to do is to carve out some time for yourself,” she said. “To remember that ‘this too shall pass,’ and in the meantime, ‘to try to stay awake.’”
Shannon Hawley for Parent.co: How are you, Laura? So good to speak with you.
Laura Veirs: I'm good. It's beautiful in Portland right now, very sunny. It's great. I love living here.
I have a two-and-a-half-year-old and a five-month-old. I’m also a singer-songwriter, so I’m interested in talking with artists like you who can balance their creative lives with their lives as parents.
Yeah, well you're thick in it! Have you done any touring with your kids?
No, I haven't. I’m kind of at the beginning of my singing and songwriting career and that seems overwhelming. But you did do some touring with your boys, didn’t you?
I did both times - yes. I toured more with the first one. I toured, I think, like maybe three or four weeks in the States and three weeks in Europe with the little one. Tennessee was our first, and I didn't really know what to expect because I'd toured for many years, DIY – like just get in the van and go.
I would train the tour manager to be the nanny or I would manage the tour and we would just work it out. Although, in Europe on that first one, I remember we had a real tour manager and sound man, and that was great because my parents came along, and they were the nannies. They called themselves the “granny nannies.”
Oh my gosh, that’s amazing. How did it work out?
We were in two separate cars, which we didn't need to be. The baby was four months old, and I thought, “oh the baby's going to be crying the whole time,” because I had never had a baby before. I didn't know anything about parenting. I had been a nanny once but only like for four months when I was like 25. I really didn't even know what babies were like. They usually don't cry that much, especially if you're staying on top of basically feeding them.
That's the whole thing about being a working mom on tour. When you’re on the road like that, you can breastfeed whenever you want. You're with them all day and then you have chunks of the night where you're away from them, and I would just pump once at the club or I'd pump in the van. Then the babysitter or the grandparents would take them back home. Or sometimes we'd just keep him at the venue the whole time.
Had you talked to other musicians who were moms before you went out and did that?
Yeah, I talked to Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, who I met on the Decemberists tour. Also, I'm friends with the Decemberists - none of those band players are breastfeeding moms but some of their wives are. They would come on tour, so they knew a little bit about how to describe what was going on. Shara was good to talk to, because she's at my level as far as budgets go. You end up spending eight or nine hours driving, then eight or nine hours at the gig playing your show and then going to bed as soon as possible to get up and start over again. It's pretty brutal. It's really hard.
Sounds hard, but you did it!
My point is that I learned so much just being out there doing it! And realizing ... well, my main advice for people who do want to tour with their children is to do it! But maybe do it before they are two.
Luckily my sister-in-law had told me that because she's a mom and she's got two kids. She said that, at 18 months they get their own agency. They get their own ideas. They get their own words. They get their own bodies and they want to run around and they do not want to sit and be stuck in the van next to mom for eight hours a day. That was really great advice, so I did tour with both of them when they were infants. Now I don't know what to do, because one of them is in kindergarten and the other one is two and a half. I don't know. I guess I'll just wait and see.
Any plans for what’s next in terms of musical projects and touring?
I'm going to record a record in November. We're going to do it at my husband’s place . He's the producer and he's made all my other records. The machine will get going again. I know a lot of women have had school-aged children and gone out on the road. Do they bring those school-aged children or not? That's the question I need to start asking. I always just try to find someone older and more experienced and ask them what to do.
I think it's really brave to do that, and also so smart to think to ask other people that have done what you’re trying to do. What else have you been working on?
I actually wrote a book for kids. It's called “Libba, Elizabeth Cotten.” It's about her life. It will be coming out on Chronicle Books in two years, which seems like a really long time away, but I'm just finishing that, which is really fun.
Then this other project is just working with these other two musicians, and we've been co-writing which has been fun because I've been working on music for so many years as a solo writer. It's really neat to share that experience of sitting down and writing with other people.
You’re busy – how do you stay inspired or get inspired to work on something new?
I think it's kind of neat after so many years to switch it up and do different things. It was really fun to write a book for kids because that's just totally a different muscle . I've never exercised that muscle before, and now co-writing. I've been doing that more with people.
It is interesting as you live a long life as an artist to find ways…I think for me it's a combination of sometimes
just not doing art, like taking a few months off. Sometimes that means changing the format like I'm going to write a book for kids. What's that like? Sometimes it means – okay, I'm going to collaborate with a new band. I'm going to make a new band or I'm going to totally play a different style of music …
It takes a lot of discipline, I think, in my case. There is this African guitarist I recently heard - I was like, “I should learn that.” I haven't done it yet, but for me, it's a matter of a balance between taking it seriously and really pushing and then also sometimes, it's about backing off. We are so busy as moms and parents and there are two million things pulling at us. Sometimes the artistic person just needs to chill.
For an outsider reading interviews and listening to your music, it all seems pretty seamless – how you have found your own voice and unique style and you seem follow your own curiosity about things and ideas that inspire you, which I think makes your art feel really authentic.
Thank you for being brave and steadfast in making music that way. Do you remember what inspired you to write Libba?
Thanks, that's really sweet. I made the record for kids, TumbleBee, and from that research we discovered that Elizabeth Cotten, who I had been a fan of for years, was the maid of the Seeger family. I had no idea that she worked in their house.
Then I discovered the story of how she was found by them. She was working as a doll clerk in this department store in the 50's in DC. Peggy Seeger, who's Pete Seeger's half sister and a renowned songwriter in her own right, she got lost in the store. She was a little girl, and Elizabeth Cotten found her and returned her to her mother who happened to be this total bad ass, avant garde composer lady and also classical piano teacher, archivist and folklorist - this amazing musician, named Ruth Crawford Seeger.
Ruth Crawford Seeger and Elizabeth Cotten struck up a conversation and they became ... I don't know what exactly went down, but Elizabeth Cotten ended up being their cake baker and she did ironing and all kinds of cooking, basically their domestic helper. I think she was in her 60's when she started working for them.
Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie would come through the house and have these crazy house shows.
She had been playing when she was 13, she taught herself how to play upside down and backward. I had always known about her and I'd always studied her music and I'm left handed and I had watched her play and it's like what the fuck, she's playing upside down and backwards it makes no sense to my brain.
All the dots had never connected for me. I didn't realize she also was connected to the Seegers that they were the ones who gave her the springboard, the platform to launch her career pretty late in life. She toured into her 90's.
Anyway, I was like that's a story worth telling. I think kids would like that. Then I got the idea, the seed sort of simmered around for several years until I actually just buckled down and wrote it. It only took a few months of research and writing to get that down but I think half of a thing is a good idea and people should know about her. She's a folk treasure of our country.
Yeah, as an artist it's like you get to be a curator too in some ways to share what you're inspired by and what you believe is an important story.
You also said you were going into the studio with collaborators in November to work on a new record?
It's this project that I was invited to be a part of with two high-profile women singers/musicians. We've been writing for a while, more intensively in the last six months. It's very three-part harmony centric, which you would imagine because we're all singers. Then it'll have a band ... it'll be a band record. It won't be totally stripped down. It's neat. It's very unclear to me what it will actually sound like, but I'm really grateful that they're inviting my husband to be the producer, because I just trust him and I relax with him. It feels very homegrown.
How do you get through the early phase of writing songs, where you want them to be great? What advice do you have about “putting in your time?”
Writing an abundance of songs is not really that difficult, but getting good songs is difficult. In some ways, I was a little bit naive but also over confident at the same time. My first record was super bad but I thought it was cool. Then I learned through that.
I thought, “this is worth sharing.” I think a lot of it is about curiosity and hard work, but a lot of it's just about confidence, just having the confidence that your ideas are worth talking about. Otherwise, why would you get up and subject yourself to the pain of whatever it is - the torture of performance, or touring, or bad reviews, or whatever?
You've got to be confident that what you're doing is worth sharing. Anyway, I had that confidence , but the next record I did was better.
Where do you think you got that confidence? Now that I’m a parent, I'm really interested in how the way we were parented affects our creative life, and also how we can affect our children’s creative lives.
I think every parent wants their child to feel that they can do whatever they want to do. That's certainly what I want to instill in my boys - that kind of confidence like “you can do it. Take the world by the horns, you can do whatever you want to do.” I really feel like my parents did that with me. I don't know how they did it.
I think it's because they are very positive and they go through their days knowing what they're doing and enjoying being really present in the world and engaged and active in doing things. My brother and I just must have seen that and been like “if they can do it, we can do it.” You know?
Are there any mantras that help you in this specific phase of parenthood and staying creative?
My goal is just to stay awake. That can be hard, because I'm tired but awake on multiple levels. Awake to the pain of the world. Awake to the joy of the world. The children bring both.
I just try to stay awake, and some days it's easier than others. I also try to realize, even when things are really hard - and this really pertains to parenting - that it's going to pass. Your toddler's screaming in the airplane, and you're just like “oh my God, okay this is going to pass,” and then the airplane ride ends.
In your position, with such young kids, find time to carve out for yourself because that's the most important thing for your art. Make time for yourself.
How do you find time for your art?
Childcare! My Mom and Dad swoop in for tours. My husband and neighbors and sitters and friends are all wonderful.
All of this is really making me feel hopeful and relieved as a mom (in a very exhausting phase) and an artist. You go be with your boys and I’ll go be with my girls. Thanks again for all of the work you are doing and for taking the time to speak with me.
My pleasure. Yes, carve out time for yourself. Good luck to you.