Laura Veirs has plenty on her plate. The Portland-based singer-songwriter has two decades of wondrous albums to her name. She tours regularly. She’s a mother to two young children, and she’s married to busy record producer Tucker Martine, who works with big names like My Morning Jacket and Beth Orton.
Two years ago, Veirs collaborated with k.d. lang and Neko Case on a collection of lovely folk-pop songs. In January, she released her first book (Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten) and unveiled a podcast, Midnight Lightning, about the lives of working musicians who are also parents. While she found the podcast incredibly rewarding, it was also a ton of work on top of all the other stuff. Veirs isn’t sure whether there’ll be a second season.
“I need to focus my energy,” she says. “I have limited energy and limited focus, so what is it that I want to focus on?”
For now, the answer to that is The Lookout, Veirs’s 10th album, which came out in April on her own label, Raven Marching Band Records. It’s a set of charming songs built from gently-plucked acoustic guitars, tasteful electronic touches, occasional twang, and enduring melodies delivered via Veirs’s practiced voice. As always, the natural world—sapphire skies, painted winds, cold mountain water—plays a major role in the Colorado native’s lyrics. But this time, there’s also an undercurrent of unease and uncertainty, fueled by the current presidential administration and Veirs’s protective instinct as a mother.
She was working on the songs for The Lookout right around the time of the 2016 election, and remembers grappling with how to write about her feelings without coming off as heavy-handed.
“I don’t want to be obvious, but I also don’t want to ignore it and be like, ‘Everything’s wonderful!’” Veirs says. “That’s why it’s called The Lookout—because we need to look out for each other. Because this is a weird time and it’s confusing, and it could get a lot worse before it gets better, and I think we need to pay attention and look out. How we do that, exactly, I don’t know.
“I feel worried for my kids and the world they’re moving into, but I also try to treasure the moments that I have that are beautiful and that do feel safe,” she says.
Veirs is a famously productive songwriter; she wrote more than 100 tunes for The Lookout before paring them down to the 12 that made the record. But after 25 years of writing—and with significant nonprofessional obligations that require her time and attention—she thinks it’s harder than ever to burrow into the deep space where the best song ideas live. So she set up a system: three sets of 20 cards each, one with a lyrical prompt (like “embarrass yourself”), one with a musical prompt (“use a new time signature”), and one with inspiration (like “breathe and relax” or “see it through”). Then she drew one card from each deck and used the combinations as fuel for new songs.
“I think part of the problem for artists this late into their career is feeling stuck. I’m rarely surprised anymore,” Veirs says. “In the beginning, everything is surprising. Everything feels like a flow. But this far in, you’re like, ‘I’ve written this sentence so many times.’”
The key to her card system is that it creates structure in a world that feels more chaotic than ever.
“Half the battle is [restricting yourself],” she says. “Especially with the internet and the world so huge and wide open, how are you supposed to find anything small to write about? So if you can just get to the small thing, then you can make the small thing big.”