On her forthcoming album Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children, Laura Veirs makes old folk songs sound new. It's a cliche, sure, but there is often a kernel of truth in a cliche. There is certainly truth in that one regarding Veirs' album, her first for families, on which she invigorates songs so that people who've never heard many of these songs might not necessarily think of them as "old folk songs." (And those of us who have many of these songs many times over can listen again with fresh ears.)
I chatted briefly with Veirs recently (on her birthday, no less) about her musical memories, why she made the album, and what kinds of gifts a musician gets for a baby shower.
Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Laura Veirs: I definitely remember Dad singing me to sleep. He plays very casually -- the piano, guitar, charango. By very casual, I mean almost "half-correct." It was nice not to have that pressure.
I actually don't know how to read music, which, now that I'm a parent puts me in a bit of a dilemma. For me it'd be nice to play piano with my son and have him play along, but I'd prefer him to have the joy.
Anyway, we listened to a lot of classical music and the stars of the day -- Olivia Newton-John, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young. It wasn't a big emphasis, more of a passing fancy.
When did you start thinking about making this album? Before your son was born?
No, it was after he was born -- before he was born, I was touring. I thought it'd be be fun to do something easier. I wouldn't have to slave over the songwriting.
I was doing less touring and for years, parents told me that my music calmed their kids. So I thought it'd be fun to look at the canon of awesome songs and research them. Woody Guthrie, sure, but also songs like "Jamaica Farewell," though I had to change the chorus on that one. Traditional music is the "people's music."
What did you refer to in doing your research?
A couple folks in particular. Harry Belafonte, in particular his Live in Carnegie Hall album. The arrangement of "Jump Down" on that album influenced our version on Tumble Bee. Also "The Fox," which the Blue Sky Boys did a cool version of.
The other person was Peggy Seeger and her album Animal Folk Songs for Children. Her mother Ruth was the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship -- she was an avant garde composer.
Who else?... Neil Young. We put on one modern song on the album by musician and friend Karl Blau. He's really prolific, a genius songwriter. It's the title track, written when he was 20, about a girl he couldn't catch.
We specifically didn't want to make a goofy album. Some of the songs were familiar -- "The Fox," "Jamaica Farewell." Some weren't -- the Woody Guthrie songs, Peggy Seeger. We were unfamiliar with "Prairie Lullaby" -- Jim James [from My Morning Jacket] recommended that one. Songs like "King Kong Kitchie" were hazy in our memories -- it was cool to see them come back into focus.
Did people give you music as baby gifts? I'm curious whether people naturally gave you music because you're a musician or avoided it because they didn't want to risk giving you a gift you didn't like.
Most of our friends are musicians; we got lots of rock-and-roll-related clothes. But not so much music. My husband [Tucker Martine] is a producer and pretty much has whatever music is released. We didn't get a single CD...
Photo credit: Alicia Rose