LAURA VEIRS with SOMETIMES WHY, BLUE SKIES AT WARand DRY at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (October 19). Free. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Think Seattle music and muddy power chords, loud, angry dirges, anguished wails and oodles of flannel come to mind, right? Now throw in some heroin, a little coffee and tons of cigarettes for good measure.
Not any more. A decade after King Kurt's suicide trumpeted the de facto death of grunge, there's a new Seattle scene on the horizon, and Laura Veirs is riding the wave.
Veirs makes music that reinvents traditional forms with an icy twist. She messes up the fingerpicking lexicon of country and blues and the intimacy of folk with punk rock's unpredictability, the minimalist ethos of new music and the found-sound experimentation of post-rock.
This - plus stream-of-consciousness lyrics that are frank and oddly heartbreaking but obtuse enough to avoid the gooey clichés of emo - gives you an idea of the new Seattle vanguard. It's supported by local indie labels like K Records and Barsuk and epitomized by Veirs and peers like the Blow, Karl Blau and Little Wings.
"I wasn't there in the grunge heyday, but people are saying that at this moment in Seattle the vibe feels like it did before grungy rock blew up," a pensive Veirs offers over the phone from the UK, where she's wrapping up a brief European tour. "Everyone was playing together, there was no hierarchy and nobody was making any money. People just enjoyed figuring out how to make a new kind of music.
"Right now, there's tons of collaboration, a lot of cross-genre stuff we haven't seen in a long, long time. The community part is amazing."
The Seattle-based songstress writes music that's rooted in the craggy mountains and gravel beaches of the Pacific Northwest. There's an icy precision to her minimalist string arrangements, off-kilter guitar picking, syncopated rhythms and hiccupping vocal cadence that evokes a kind of hypnotic environmental dream state.
Listen to the songs on her latest disc, Carbon Glacier (which originally dropped in the spring on the Bella Union label abroad and was recently re-released by Nonesuch) and you hear wildly literate descriptions of holding thunderheads, backwards-blooming flowers, dark pools and starry nights.
This isn't hippie-dippy treehugger shit. For the photography-obsessed kid who grew up in Colorado camping with her family, stuff like melting snow and storms become stand-ins for Big Themes like transience and making art. Veirs has a scientist's eye for nature and a poet's knack for metaphor.
"It's unfortunate sometimes - wherever I am, I'm trying to find something to write about. I can't just sit on the beach and enjoy myself," she laughs ruefully. "I have to figure out how I can capture that moment in a lyric. I sound tortured and overly dramatic, but it's not that bad."
The lyrics may alienate some - critics have tsk-tsked her songs for being alternately inaccessible and too directly earnest - but Veirs's writing is as economical as it is erudite.
Credit an appreciation of Zen aesthetics that stems from living in Asia. No, not the post-grad cliché of teaching English in Japan. After high school, Veirs took time off to travel in Malaysia and hang out with her cousins, who were studying Buddhism in China. Drawn to the "musicality and tonal qualities" of the Mandarin dialect, she majored in Chinese at college and went back East.
Worn down by the lasting effects of the Cultural Revolution, what she calls the "human issues," Veirs ended up picking up a second major in geology, but the Asian fascination stuck.
After a mini-existential crisis soured her stint working as a translator on a research trip, she ended up working out her frustrations on a crappy $5 Chinese guitar. Never a huge music geek, she was suddenly writing songs - inspired, of course, by her surroundings.
"If you look at Chinese or Japanese paintings, there's tons of open space," Veirs explains. "There's room for interpretation, and most of the time there's no vanishing point."
She's shocked when I suggest her lyrical idiom has a strangely calming effect - even when she's name-checking Cobain, Basho, Woolf and Monet in the course of a single song.
"I don't feel that calm and centred - I'm a total stress case," she moans. "But when I'm writing music, when I'm in my zone, it's the most calming time for me - it's the best thing ever. It brings me peace of mind. I forget time and I forget the world."
Underneath that stripped-down peacefulness, though, there's a dynamism - a little Cat Power, a little Iron & Wine, a little Pinback - that harks back to her first days in bands. Inspired by the DIY self-starters in the Pacific Northwest, Veirs formed an all-girl punk band at her Midwestern college.
The underground community fired her up, but it was the unabashed aggression of Riot Grrrl bands, Veirs says, that kicked her ass.
"People say there's no such thing as middle-class punks, but we were. Being women, getting together and playing really loud music and making our fingers bleed on our guitars cuz we were playing so hard was totally powerful. It inspired me to move to Seattle and try to make it work as a musician."
She's maintained her feminist principles by teaching young girls music and volunteering at local workshops like the super-cool Chicks Play Hard mentorship program (her next goal is to help out at the Rock Camp for Girls), and stayed true to the DIY ethos by starting her own label, Raven Marching Band Records, on which she released her first two albums.
And her music's evolved from brash, angry punk to old-timey folk to distortion-fed blues to Carbon Glacier's current evocative brew, which she claims is all about messing with tradition.
"My thumbpicking style is very influenced by old country blues, people like Elizabeth Cotten, a DIY queen who started completely on her own and wrote all sorts of genius songs at age 12," she effuses. "She played upside-down and backwards.
"My boyfriend saw her when he was, like, a year old, and his dad got her to sign a record that I treasure. People like her and Mississippi John Hurt have formed the foundation of my technique for now. But I don't want to just mimic the past, so I've tried to twist some of their ideas around into my own thing."
Veirs's fucked-up fusion confounds a lot of people. Her tunes owe enough of a debt to folk and roots music to make indie rock labels like K and Barsuk think twice before taking a chance on her, and although the Americana-obsessed UK's been drooling over her for a while now, it wasn't until recently that Nonesuch woke up and gave her a North American deal.
Even Veirs has a hard time figuring out where she fits in.
"I could say alternative folk, but that cheapens it," she muses. "I do think people are sick of super-polished electronic everything. They want real sounds and real people. They want to be reminded of humanity. When you hear an acoustic instrument and a real voice that's not pitch-corrected, you relax a little."
For all the hoopla about the Space Needle City being the birthplace of mainstream alt-rock, Seattle's been known to overlook some of its more interesting underground artists. Laura Viers is one. Here are a few more. The Walkabouts Ace strummers signed to Sub Pop in 89 but failed to mesh with the revered indie's roster's burgeoning punk scene and the harder-edged acts. A surprise Euro hit and a deal with London's Glitterhouse records cemented their rep abroad, and they've thrived on European tours for the last two decades.
The Sharpshooters Light in the Attic-signed hiphop production duo have a solid rep amongst headz in the city, but like most local rappers who aren't named Sir Mix-a-Lot, they rarely get name-checked when folks talk about Seattle music.
Jesse Sykes Veirs's pal, the dusky-throated alt-country belter shares lauded producer Tucker Martine and has a similar history of staying underground in North America while winning glowing press and packed houses across the pond.