Back to reality, where the bookish, bespectacled Veirs is relaxing in the kitchen of her Seattle home, slipping back into her usual collected manner of conversation as she explains that, for the past few years, she's been supplementing her income between tours by teaching the craft of songwriting -- as well as giving guitar and banjo lessons -- to self-doubting locals.
"This one really repressed 45-year-old German guy came to me and was like, 'Ach, I vill nevah write a song,' and I was like, "Ohhh yes you will, you'll do it ... in fact, let's write one right now!' So we sat down and wrote it -- it was just some silly song about the tree outside, but he got a sense of, like, 'Oh yeah, it actually is just a few chords and some words put together with a melody.' And the next week he came in and was like, 'I feel like my glasses have been cleaned off!' He had this new song he'd written, and he felt like he was seeing the world in a whole different way."
She concludes her story with a sigh and a chuckle. "And then, of course, he got frustrated and became obsessive about his songs and wouldn't finish them -- he became one of those people. He was a classic case."
Veirs, however, has no such problems. Despite getting a relatively late start in the music business -- she only began to seriously pursue a professional career about five years ago -- she's already got five albums to her credit; the latest is Year of Meteors, released in August to the best reviews of her young career. Her prolific streak has come not only from a wealth of terrific ideas, but also from a steady, workmanlike approach in making them come to life. Though Veirs says she's habitually compelled to write music, and cares deeply about it, she far from fits the profile of the tortured singer/songwriter for whom life, death, and validation hang on every single couplet and melody.
"Growing up, I was never one of those people for whom music is the be-all and end-all of everything," Veirs says, explaining that during her formative years in Colorado Springs, she was never particularly interested in going to shows or spending hours in her room listening to records, instead spending her high school days immersed in her studies, as well as in photography and captaining her swim team. "That really worked to my benefit because now I'm not precious about my songs. I just try to get them out, and I love when a song is done, because then I have a sense of accomplishment, and then I do another one. I take them each as a little project, a little fun thing, and not something that I'm crazy obsessing about."
Even if Veirs' creative process seems dispassionate, the 12 songs on Meteors hardly come up short in the emotional heft department. If you've never heard her sing before, though, you might think otherwise when her voice arrives over picked nylon guitar strings on opener "Fire Snakes" -- neither breathy sweet and sensual nor cracked and desperate, hers is a dry, husky, somewhat flat delivery, one that at first encounter seems a bit glacial. Yet as the album progresses, a gamut of feelings punctures that curtain of detachment, from her joyful outbursts on "Magnetized" to the pensiveness inherent in "Spelunking" and the gutsy determination that bursts through "Black Gold Blues."
The bed of instrumentation on which her voice rests is similarly wide-ranging and just as compelling. "Fire Snakes" pulls off the neat trick of surreptitiously adding layers of stuttering machine beats, organs, upright bass, viola, and harp to its acoustic beginnings until it reaches a climax that's both dense and floaty -- like Stereolab without the metronomic pulse. "Secret Someones" is a breezy bit of urbane dream-pop that wouldn't be out of place on an Ivy album, while the jagged, electric guitar-centric rock formations on "Galaxies" and "Black Gold Blues" -- the former intersected by squiggling synth lines, the latter by tenacious strings -- align Veirs with Cat Power and Helium's Mary Timony.
Where Veirs truly distinguishes herself from the pack is with her lyrics, all vivid imagery and the music of language tumbling together in stunning bits of poetry that never come off as pretentious. So much of it is drawn from the natural world -- her songs are packed with skylarks, bears, eels, "white spider stars," and "the cliffside's heart bubbling red and deep"; water is everywhere, and gravity, as she sings more than once, is dead. Simple ruminations on romance are transformed into peculiar and fantastical things -- on "Spelunking," cave exploration stands in as a metaphor for the uncertainty of revealing one's foibles and flaws to a lover: "If I took you, darling/ To the caverns of my heart/ Would you light the lamp, dear?/ And see fish without eyes/ Bats with their heads hanging down towards the ground/ Would you still come around?"
"When I first started out I was coming up with all this really confessional stuff, then it turned into these folk narrative songs, but still always very explicit about what they meant," she explains. "Now I've moved into being more interested in the area between the surreal world and a very practical situation. I like being in that place, because I don't wanna write songs that are completely out there and where no one has a clue what I'm talking about, but I also don't wanna write, like, 'And then the sun moved across the sky,' because that's so boring."
That the album should swim in all that nature imagery is of little surprise given Veirs' background. When she was 11, her parents -- both teachers -- pulled her and her older brother out of school for a year so that they could all travel (in a "hippie bus," she laughs) throughout the U.S. and Mexico. Struck by the varying landscapes she encountered, Veirs later decided to major in geology at tiny Carleton College in Minnesota (where she also learned to speak Mandarin Chinese). It was during a geology department-sponsored trip to China, in fact, that she picked up her first guitar and began to compose songs, and by the time she graduated in 1997, Veirs realized she didn't want to pursue her chosen field of study anymore. So she packed up and moved to Seattle, where she took a series of odd jobs, began playing solo acoustic gigs at dive bars or wherever there was an open mike night, and recorded a lo-fi, self-titled disc to sell at shows.
"It was scary," she admits, "but I have a sense of adventure and a curiosity about things that never seems to get satisfied, so it was something I felt I had to try."
Seven years, one band (the Tortured Souls, a name Veirs now giggles at), and three albums later there arrived last year's Carbon Glacier, a huge European critical and commercial hit behind which Veirs and her fellow musicians spent many months touring overseas. With Year of Meteors, Veirs says, she hopes to replicate that success in the U.S., where the going has been a bit tougher.
"I do feel stressed financially. I mean, I'm looking at this as an 'investment period,' but we'll see how much longer I'm able to tour here when I'm not making any money doing it, you know?"
Still, Veirs adds, whatever happens is OK with her, since there's no chance she could abandon her passion for music now, no matter what the financial rewards.
"Everyone has it in them to do something like this," she says, thinking back to her German friend. "And I think people are so capable -- and so scared of being capable. It's harder to take risks and be vulnerable and scared and alive than it is to be safe, secure, and basically dead. ... You've only got this limited time on the planet and you've gotta do something about it, you've gotta find out what you have to say and then figure out a way to really live. And when I'm really in the flow of writing, I just feel so alive."