Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Laura Veirs Shares "Tumble Bee" With Children of All Ages

What was your inspiration for the album?

Laura Veirs: Tucker and I had our son right after my July Flame record came out. I toured a bunch for that but then I was pretty tired out by being a new mom and by touring so much. I wanted to make a record, but something different than I've done, and also something where I didn't have do all the songwriting (which takes a lot of energy and time which I didn't really have then).

Also, we realized that there are some great children's records out there, in particular Peggy Seeger's Animal Folksongs for Children. We thought: "This is a cool art form, let's try doing a really GOOD album for kids, one that our friends would like, too."  Practically speaking, it was great to have new songs to sing to our son, too.

Can you describe how the birth of your son, and motherhood inspired you and has changed your sensibilities and insights into writing and recording music?

Laura: Now there's a time cap on everything. That can be good and it can be hard. Sometimes when we're just getting into a good vocal take we realize, "Oh, we need to relieve the babysitter." The same goes for songwriting.  The up side of that is that I’m really efficient with my time now.  I’m still discovering how motherhood will affect my songwriting. I’m in a writing phase right now so I don't have a lot of perspective on the songs yet.

I read that you became curious about the history of American children’s music and that you listened to hundreds of songs from the past several centuries, including Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.  Can you discuss some of the songs you chose and why these songs resonated with you so strongly?

Laura: There’s something about the Peggy Seeger record that really strikes a chord with me. Her performance is amazing, and that's part of it. She’s a great singer and piano player. The fact that her mom dug up the songs is really cool. Her mom was Ruth Crawford Seeger (Pete Seeger’s step-mom), and she was an avant-garde composer in the 1930s, and then later was a collector/archivist of American folk songs.

Strangely, Elizabeth Cotten (of all people) was her maid for a while and she learned a bunch of songs from her.  She collected songs into a songbook for kids in the 1950s. "Little Lap Dog Lullaby" and "Jack Can I Ride" come from that. They are familiar in the sense that they are traditional songs (we've heard the words somewhere before) but the arrangements are unusual. The whole record is so fresh-sounding, I love it.

Harry Belafonte’s Live At Carnegie Hall was also a goldmine. His version of "Jump Down Spin Around" is amazing. We pretty much copied it (well, we tried to copy it, but it's a tough song to do well). My parents used to sing "Jamaica Farewell" to us, so that one seemed like a natural fit.

I was surprised we didn't find more material on Harry Smith's Anthology. A lot of those songs are pretty weird and obscure... "Old Blue" could be cool for another kid's record down the line.

Once the idea of the album revealed itself, how did you get started and approach making a "children's album"?

Laura: It took a long time to pick the songs and demo them. But once we had them in place, we approached the album like any other, calling on our musician friends near and far to come and bring their magic.

Colin Meloy (Decemberists), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Bela Fleck and Brian Blade (drummer for Bob Dylan) among many others make appearances on Tumble Bee. Can you talk about recording with the guests on the album?

Laura: Many of the guests are friends we've made in Portland, as well as people we've played with for years like Karl Blau, Tim Young and Alex Guy.  The more well-known people are friends of ours, too, so we just asked them to come over and record and they did. Everyone was great to work with and very open-minded and sweet about the whole thing.

Tucker emailed the tracks to Jim and Carl of My Morning Jacket, and Bela Fleck, too, and they added their parts and emailed them back. Pretty amazing! Also, watching Brian Blade drum in my living room was a highlight. He’s on fire and he's laughing the whole time.

When I was listening to Tumble Bee, I was immediately reminded of a copy of The Johnny Cash Children's Album (1975) that I recently picked up. What I enjoy most about that record, and  Tumble Bee, is that each album appeals to children, while managing to appeal equally to loyal fans. Can you talk about how this record fits into your discography for you?

Laura: This is another step along the path. Something different and I’ll go back to making another "normal" record next. It's like my Two Beers Veirs EP in a way, a covers record where I can explore other people's writing and then go back to see what I can do with my own.

It’s fun to have that freedom as an artist, not to feel like I’m on a treadmill of any kind. There is a stigma attached to children's music, but I’m confident that if people can get past the label, they'll hear something they like. The spirit is good on this album, I think.

What was most unexpected and/ or surprising in making Tumble Bee?

Laura: We made this record in our house when our son was between 7-13 months or, or so. We could leave the microphones up around the house and not worry about it because he couldn't walk. The timing was great because as soon as he started walking (and destroying fragile things), we were done recording and could take down the mics.

I was surprised that we could get this record done as efficiently as we did with a new baby around... We had help from great babysitters for 4 hours per day, and we worked as hard as we could when they were out of the house.

What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the process?

Laura: Probably the vocals. Tucker is a stickler for great vocals. It makes sense, but it is terribly humbling. He has a million and one ways of saying, "Try again."

Overall, what has been most rewarding/ lasting for you from this experience?

Laura: I have a whole new crop of songs to sing to my son which is wonderful. Also, many of my friends have small children and are looking for good music to listen to with their kids. They seem to get a kick out of this album, so that's a good feeling, too.

What has it added to your perspective of your body of work?

Laura: It’s another brick in the road. I hope I lay many, many more bricks!

Has it provided you with a hint of what's next for you?

I’m going to write another album, but I have a feeling it's going to be pretty weird (not so straight-forward as this one). We’ll see!

Will you be touring for the record?

Laura: I’ll be doing about 20 shows: 10 in Europe and 10 in the states. We will be doing kid shows in the afternoons and then normal shows at night. The kids' shows will have costumes, bubbles and other interactive things... They're all up on my website now on the tour page.

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