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Love, hope and saltwater

Reinvigorated by a recent move to Portland and inspired by visions of sun, moon, stars and saltwater, Laura Veirs and the Saltbreakers dig out a unique niche of eclectic folk rock. By Del Engen
/ Source: contributor

Laura Veirs is a keen observer of nature in the middle distance, that which we can sense directly without a telescope or microscope.  Sometimes she simply bears witness, but more often she draws striking metaphors from imagery of the sun, moon, stars and importantly, the crashing of ocean waves.  Her new album, “Saltbreakers,” is awash with briny oceanic imagery. 

“Like most of my records I don’t really know what’s going on until I’ve written about 10 or 15 songs,” says Veirs.  “I realized that there was a lot of salt and a lot of water, so I noticed, ‘Oh, ocean again.  Salt.  Sweat.  Tears.  I went through a breakup, I got together with someone new, and it was really hard in a lot of ways, so salt and waves were good metaphors to explore.”

Like many writers, she collects interesting words.  From some now-forgotten source, she recalled “Saltbreakers,” another term for ocean waves.  Not only was it an apt title for her new album, but she decided to rechristen her band as “The Saltbreakers,” with Tucker Martine on drums, Steve Moore on keys, and Karl Blau on bass, Eyvind Kang on viola — all accomplished and prolific musicians in their own right.

She infuses salty themes through the 12 songs in a variety of tempos and moods, from the pensive down-tempo folk of “Nightingale” to the buzzing pop punk of “Phantom Mountain.”  She is also a consummate wordsmith and poet, threading her songs with internal rhyme and alliteration.

Veirs sings with an unadorned voice nearly devoid of irony.  At times she’s cool and defiant, and others intimate and vulnerable, especially where she must whisper the low notes to sing at the bottom of her range.

Veirs studied Chinese and geology in college, and comes from a family of scientists.  “There are also a lot of artists and Buddhists in my family,” she says, “lots of nice lines that I can traverse in art and science and I draw from all of them in my work.  The nature thing comes from that, and also from a sort of dream world, a surrealistic place.”

Because her imagery is open to interpretation and the production is equally dreamy, the music lends itself to film, and in fact several of her songs were recruited for the noteworthy indie film, “We Go Way Back.”

The album’s dreamy production was developed under the guidance of Tucker Martine.  Martine’s studio skills are frequently sought out by numerous bands, including The Decembrists and Mudhoney, as well as renowned keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and guitarist Bill Frisell, who guests on “Saltbreakers.” 

Martine and fellow Saltbreaker Steve Moore were also enlisted by Microsoft to help produce sound schemes for the new Windows Vista operating system. 

While listening to one of Veirs’ demos called “To the Country,” Martine envisioned a layer of choral call and response.  He set out for his hometown of Nashville, where he drew upon local resources who introduced him to John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash and June Carter. 

After assembling the choir, they recorded in Cash’s modest cabin-studio where he did many of his final recordings.  “You could really feel the energy in that room,” marvels Veirs.

Martine and Veirs express fond mutual admiration.  “We just have a great way of working together,” she says. “He has a way of bringing forth the beauty that is hidden in my music that I might not hear, and I just love that.”

Both recently ended relationships, and decided to start a new chapter together with a change of venue. They moved south from Seattle to Portland, which they report still has a charming small-town feel and a supportive music scene.  “Everyone’s excited about each other’s bands, and there are lots of fledgling labels popping up with unique aesthetic visions,” says Tucker.

When Veirs grew up in Colorado Springs, she says that there was no all ages or indie music scene.  She reports an awakening of sorts in college, discovering slowcore bands like Low and the feminist punk of Bikini Kill.  “If I’d grown up in Portland, it would have been a totally different thing... There are so many outlets for girls in music here.” 

One of those resources is Portland’s famous Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls, where she plans to teach next summer. 

Veirs has not yet found great success in America, but notes that her music is quite popular in Europe, where she can routinely pack the venues she plays.  She also seems to find a special audience with European school children, where a choir of 45 students in Cognac, France arranged and performed her songs.  “They worked very hard for over a year to learn and sing and play these songs of mine.  It was a very special experience to hear them.” 

Laura Veirs and the Saltbreakers are currently touring Europe, and will continue in the U.S. later this spring.

Read more about Laura Veirs at