LAURA VEIRS with SUFJAN STEVENS at Trinity St. Paul's Centre (427 Bloor West), Saturday (September 10). $20. 416-870-8000.
Laura Veirs is a woman enamoured of rock. No, not that kind. From the title of last year's great Carbon Glacier disc to the zirconium metaphors and skipping stones that tumble through her breathtaking new Year Of Meteors (Nonesuch) album, the Seattle-based songstress and university geology graduate is carrying on a full-fledged love affair with mineral deposits of a more, uh, concrete variety.
This time, though, the most striking leap on the record actually does have a lot to do with rock in the more conventional musical sense.
"I was burning out on playing Carbon Glacier songs every night," Veirs admits over a PR dude's cell from Brussels, where she's finishing up her second of two major press junkets of the summer before heading out on a North American tour with orch-folk it boy Sufjan Stevens.
"Man, I wanted to rip it out and use distortion. Right up front, I made it clear that I wanted this to be a full-on band rock record. I even wrote one total punk rock song that didn't fit on the album, but it's coming out as a 7-inch here in Europe - on coloured vinyl, which is so cool! And I'm getting a lot ballsier onstage again."
Plugging in and rocking out might seem incongruous to those familiar with Carbon Glacier's stark spaces and acoustic strumming, but for Veirs, who started out performing in a feminist punk band in college, drawn by the ideology and aggression of riot grrl revolutionaries, it marks a return to her roots.
I figure it was more of a stretch for producer Tucker Martine, who's best known for his arty avant-pop manipulations and electronic effects, but Veirs says the guy was full of surprises.
"I think Tucker has a really clean approach that some people find too clean, and he's known for more subtleties, but he doesn't soften my stuff out much. And y'know, he's so cool, cuz he never practises drums, but he came in and nailed it behind the kit.
"I think he learned he could totally rock out," she continues, "and he just finished up the new Mudhoney record."
Like, the Mudhoney? Like Seattle grunge pioneers, Singles soundtrack, My Brother The Cow Mudhoney? They're still around?
"Yeah, I didn't know they were either, but there you go."
Weird. Year Of Meteors still has all the hallmarks you'd expect on a collaboration with Martine - waterfall synths, creaky viola and electronic effects sketching in the rocky landscape around understated guitars. The difference is that this time the guitars are raw and amped-up more often than lulling and fingerpicked, and the synths are propulsive and percussive.
On the standout Galaxies, Veirs ecstastically yelps about love, using deep sea and outer space imagery while twinkly keyboard bursts explode like supernovas and anemones around her unaffected vocals. It's like a lithium-enhanced Cat Power more concerned with universal connections than anguished catharsis.
That emphasis on connection extends beyond her deft lyrical explorations of how humans interact with the environment.
"I see myself as a goodwill ambassador in Europe. I want to give them a sense that we're not all neo-Nazi fundamentalist lunatics. I love America - it's so gorgeous, and I have the deepest friendships and relationships. Too bad it's run by idiots."
She corrects herself.
"Actually, they're not idiots. They're evil geniuses."
Veirs already has a healthy reputation in Europe, due both to a previous deal with indie Bella Union and to the fact that there's more of a market for rootsier singer/songwriters outside North America. But signing to Nonesuch - and her upcoming tour with Stevens - is making her more of an indie star at home.
Despite loads of touring, she still makes time for teaching guitar at rock camps for kids in her hometown. Bet they're wowed by taking lessons from a rising rock star.
"Naw," Veirs laughs. "Even though I have a pretty good draw in Seattle, they have no clue about how I exist on planet Earth.
"It's still so cool to see the next generation of stars. I taught this one 14-year-old girl who looked like a total tomboy and was such a rock 'n' roller. At the end of the program, we have full-band recitals, and the girl fronted this band. She was wearing a black glove with no middle finger and she kept flashing it at the audience.
"It was so punk rock and so self-conscious at the same time."