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Laura Veirs

A Conversation with Laura Veirs

Laura Veirs

Photo by Alicia J Rose

The family entertainment market is so saturated with artists venturing over from the “grown-up” music world that I’m not sure there’s any such thing as an unexpected candidate for a kindie record anymore — but having said that, I have to confess I raised my eyebrows when I found out about Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children.

Part of the young, Pitchfork-approved crop of neo-folk artists who have helped breathe fresh life into the traditional music scene over the last decade, Laura Veirs is actually a perfect fit for a record like Tumble Bee, which sits public domain favorites like “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” and “Jack Can I Ride” alongside newer family-friendly numbers like “Jamaica Farewell” and “All the Pretty Little Horses.” The warm fragility of Veirs’ voice has often acted as a softening agent in albums like Year of Meteors, which add icy textures and hard angles to folk forms, but here, it’s cut from the same weathered cloth as the music.

I love Tumble Bee, in other words, and I think your kids will too. Veirs offered her perspective on the album during our recent conversation — here’s what we talked about.

One of the big differences between the kindie scene and the broader pop marketplace is the way covers albums are received. Outside this little bubble, they’re usually something an artist does to fill out a contract or kill time between new material, but it’s still a really vital tradition for family artists.

You know, I can tell there’s a stigma attached to this record already, with friends of mine who don’t have children. Their eyes will glaze over and they’ll be like, “What else is going on?” There’s definitely a divide there. And in doing our research for this, I felt the bar…you know, there’s mediocre music everywhere, in every style, but I think the bar is often set lower for children’s music. Or it’s just aimed at really young children, so it isn’t as interesting to adults. In fact, it can be annoying.

So I’d say those friends are probably thinking I went and made one of those goo-goo, ga-ga records, but I didn’t. I wanted to make something parents could enjoy with their children — or without them, really, but maybe that’s too much to ask. It’s really more of a covers record than a kids’ record. I think a song like “Prairie Lullaby” is strong enough to capture anyone’s attention.

We tried to do these songs in our own way, but we realized some of them have been around for 500 years. I can see how some people would say, “Oh, I’ve heard this.” But not all of them — some songs were technically traditional, but we found them in places like Peggy Seeger’s Animal Folksongs for Children — so we were familiar with the words, but had maybe never heard them in those arrangements. Just from a folklore perspective, doing that research was a lot of fun.

You’ve been pretty prolific as a songwriter so far. What made you want to take this detour into covers now?

Well, I have an 18-month-old, and when I was pregnant I toured with him — both in the womb, and after he’d been born. So after that was done, I felt like I needed to catch up on sleep [laughs], and I’d also made the choice to cut back to part-time music. I’d block out four-hour days in the backyard studio, and that’s how we made this album — four hours at a time, which took awhile.

So there was that reason. I felt like I’d just created this human being, and toured my ass off, and I needed to recover myself in some way and just relax with music. I enjoy songwriting, but in some ways, it’s much harder work. I didn’t feel like I quite had the juice for that.

You spent some time in China when you were younger. Did that affect your relationship with American folk music at all?

Well, that was a long time ago, and although I was obsessed with learning Chinese, I never really became enmeshed in the culture, so to speak. If anything, I think it was more a question of having a lot of Buddhists in my family, and I’m not a religious person, per se, but there’s something about that philosophy that appeals to me as a musician. I like music that has a lot of space, and that toys with the fantastical surrealist aspects of life, and I think there are interesting parallels there.

If being outside the U.S. has affected my relationship with American music, I think it’s probably happened because I’ve toured Europe a lot — I’ve really dedicated a lot of time over there, and gotten a lot of really positive feedback because of it. I hear their perspective on America while I’m there, and how a lot of them are horrified by things like healthcare, the military, the school system — but they’re fascinated by our music, and our overall culture. And they should be, because it’s awesome. African-American rhythms, Irish melodies, the birth of rock ‘n’ roll — they don’t have that melting pot.

And we also have these vast wildernesses, these huge untouched tracts of land. I grew up doing a lot of camping with my family, and I think that has probably had a bigger influence on my music, as well as my lyrics.

What was your research process like when it came time to decide which songs you were going to cover on the album?

We listened to the whole Harry Smith folk anthology, which we’d done before, but never with something like this in mind. We listened to a lot of Neil Young, which didn’t make it onto the record, as well as a lot of friends of ours — like Karl Blau, who wrote the title track. Harry Belafonte was a biggie, as well as Peggy Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger…you know. My husband has a ton of albums — he’s obsessed. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed, so he did the bulk of the searching.

You did a stint on a major label (Nonesuch), and now you’re releasing albums independently again. Is Tumble Bee part of an overall plan, or are you just taking things as they come?

I run my label with my friend now, which has been great. I mean, I’m so grateful to Nonesuch for giving me a springboard into bigger budgets and real promotion, because I had no audience in this country when I signed with them. But financially speaking, it’s much better to have my own label. It was a risk — it might not have worked out that way, but it has.

We’re just going to run this label, hopefully put out some other artists’ music, and I’ll make another album. I’m working on that now. I may make another record for kids at some point — I think it’s been super fun, stigmas aside. Hopefully, I can add to the perception that this kind of thing can be as artistic and valuable as any other kind of album.

A Conversation with Chip Taylor

Chip Taylor and the Grandkids

Smithsonian Folkways Music

You may not know Chip Taylor by name, but you’ve certainly heard his work. As the writer behind a tall stack of hits for a list of artists that includes Willie Nelson, Bobby Fuller, Emmylou Harris, and Waylon Jennings — not to mention “Angel in the Morning” and the stone-cold classic “Wild Thing” — Taylor has been part of rock’s DNA almost from the beginning. Now he’s moving on to a new phase of his career, as the frontman for Chip Taylor & the Grandkids.

The project is exactly what it sounds like: Taylor, guitar in hand, fronting his three grandkids. It’s an adorable idea, but it’s also a pretty terrific album, grounded in Taylor’s trademark earthy (or, as he might put it, “sweaty”) aesthetic while still filled with all the carefree whimsy and lovely harmonies any kindie fan could hope for. Golden Kids Rules is out today, and you need to hear it — but first, read Taylor’s thoughts on the album and his long, storied career.

This is a really enjoyable album, and it’s also a really beautiful idea — in theory, anyway. I imagine there must have been a few moments when trying to make a record with small children seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

[Laughs] The whole thing was totally a labor love. The whole idea at the start was to surprise their uncle for his wedding, so I wrote a couple of songs and talked to the kids, and they seemed really excited. But yeah, it’s hard to get the three of them to focus on something for an extended period of time. It wasn’t easy, but they always liked the results. It was never one of those things where they didn’t want to do it again, but it was funny watching their attention wander all over the place.

And, you know, I’m the grandfather, but this wasn’t like just going out in the field and having fun; there were times when we had to buckle down. And little Sam, for instance, would pout and not want to sing, so I’d have to sit down with her and say “If I go in there with you, will you do it?”

We did our first big performance at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival a few months ago. We’d been rehearsing, but we hadn’t performed for anyone, and every week I’d go up there for an hour to work with them. You just never know what you’re going to get with kids. [Chuckles] One comes in and she can’t hardly move, she just wants to lay on the couch. I just love them so much, and they like working with me, so that makes it easier. The good thing I did, I think, is that when I rehearsed with them, I’d get everyone in their spot and I’d pretend my band was with me, playing. I’d talk to them — “John, will you pay attention back there? Tony, let’s go. One, two…” I’d get them going like that, so the kids would get the feel.

It was good, because when we did the festival, we ended up not being able to do a soundcheck. Right beforehand, I’d told the kids, “You’re each going to have your own microphone, and you have to soundcheck on it. You do it like this — ‘testing, one, two, three; testing, one, two’…you’ll have to tell us whether you’re hearing enough of your own voice.” Then when we got up there, they only gave us five minutes to set up, and all these people were in the audience — the place was packed — and we got up on the stage, I counted off with the band, and one of the girls walked up to her mic and said, “Testing, one, two…” [Laughs]

So I told the audience, “We’re just going to do a little part of one song here — this isn’t really part of the performance yet.” So we did our little warmup, and when it was over, all the people started cheering. That was it. The girls were like, “Oh, this is what it’s all about.”

But the whole thing of working with the kids — that’s part of the fun of it. It’s never perfect. You’ve got three kids with three different personalities, and they’re all thinking about different things. Underneath it all, they all want it to be good, but it’s about working through that, and working through your own emotions. That’s the fun of it. And it’s fun to hear them talk about what their problems are: “Okay, Kate, why do you have to lie on the sofa all day today?”

“Well, Peepaw, this is what I did today…”

“Well, you have to get through that, my dear.” It’s that wonderful back-and-forth where you have to work things out together.

I know you’ve said you didn’t come from a musical family, and I know that — at least according to some of what you’ve said in other interviews — you originally didn’t even intend to be a musician.

Well, what it was — I didn’t come from a musical family, at least insofar as my mom and dad didn’t play any instruments. But they loved the arts. We loved going to movies, listening to singers like Bing Crosby and stuff like that. So it was floating around the house, but what really got me going was when my parents took me to a musical in New York — My Wild Irish Rose. I didn’t want to go, but they couldn’t find a babysitter — I was seven or eight years old. All I remember feeling is that when I heard the music start — heard that orchestra start, right up against it, watching those people create that sound — I got a real buzz. It was like when you fall in love for the first time and you don’t want anyone interrupting your feeling. That was it. We had an hourlong drive back home, and I didn’t want my parents to talk. I just wanted to keep feeling that feeling, and I knew I wanted that to be my life. That’s always been a part of me, and all of my career decisions have been based on that feeling.

That’s what it was like for me when I discovered country music for the first time. You know, it was the sadness that I liked. The warm thing that…the pedal steel playing, you know? I never liked that clicky, poppy stuff. On this record with the kids, we did a song called “Quarter Moon Shining,” and that carries some of that tone. Same with “Magical Horse.” It’s got an honest kind of thing to it. That’s the way I talk to the kids about music, and they love it.

Do you see some of that ambition starting to take root in your grandchildren?

You know, these days, there are so many things kids do. Every minute of the day, they have some activity that they’re going to, and they usually like all of them, but I don’t know if they have enough time to think about what they really want to do. I don’t know that they know that yet, and I don’t know that they’re given a chance to know. Their lives are so filled.

It’s all healthy — swimming, basketball, soccer, band, and all that good stuff. But do they love one more than another? I don’t know. They sure do love performing, though. They love the applause, and the idea that they sounded good.

You’ve seen the best and the worst of the music industry, and you got started at a relatively young age. Is there a limit to how big you’re willing to let this project get?

I don’t have concerns about it. I see such beautiful things in these kids, and they aren’t spoiled by this kind of attention. I’m not worried. Every once in awhile, my wife or the kids’ mother will say something to the effect of, “I don’t want them to grow up like so-and-so young star,” but I can’t see that happening. I know we want to keep doing it. Lately, whenever we’re together, singing or just kind of fooling around, when something silly happens I’ll start writing a song about it. I’ll start to sing, but I’ll leave lines open for one of them to add something, and before you know it, we’ll have a song. They love doing that, and if we get the chance to make another album after this one, it’ll include more co-writing. What a wonderful thing that is.

I think for a lot of artists, it might be frustrating to be so identified with one of your earliest, simplest songs…

You’re talking about “Wild Thing.”

Right. But you seem to have used that simplicity as a lesson, particularly on this album.

Well, I’m a simple guy. [Laughter] When I was younger, the songs I liked the most were the ones that just got to the heart of things. I never liked clever ones at all. Anything that sounds too worked-on, I don’t like. The early country singers, and guys like Elvis — they were just singing with real emotion. So when I started writing, you know, my first hits were for Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, the Brown Family, and Waylon — I wrote for people like that before I started rockin’. “Angel of the Morning” might have a few more chords in it, but it has a very honest movement. It just goes where it goes. I felt a chill when I wrote it — it was just a feeling.

And that’s “Wild Thing” — it’s just a feeling on tape. And you can play it anywhere. I remember being in this little town right above Milan, sitting near this mother and her two young kids, and I started playing that groove — the kids were bouncing back and forth. Looking at me and grooving. There’s a magic to that. I never look at it as a lesser song — it’s one of my most powerful songs.

Those chords are elemental. Putting them together must have felt like discovering fire.

It’s the way the strum goes. It’s a sweaty kind of thing — I like sweaty songs. To me, that’s one of the better ones. I loved all those covers of it. Jimi Hendrix totally got it.

It’s a song that has everything it needs, and nothing more — and I think being hardwired into music at that fundamental level might make you uniquely qualified to record music for kids.

To me, all great music is about feeling. It comes from me as the writer, but it also comes from the people you’re performing with — and for me, that’s the beauty of this album, is coming together with the energy of the kids. That’s what this represents. Their performances are wonderful, and the musicians who worked with us aren’t playing down to kids — these are soulful players, and they’re just playing songs.

A Conversation with the Nields

For as long as the human race has been able to hear music, we’ve wanted more. And once upon a time, we quenched that thirst by picking up an instrument — or gathering around someone else who had one — and making music happen.

Over time, we learned to develop technology that helped us satisfy our craving — and as more of us learned to use radios, record players, tape decks, CDs, mp3 players, and smartphones, and grew accustomed to a world in which music was never more than an arm’s reach (or the click of a button) away, the further we drifted from that innate urge to create. For a lot of us, music has become something we’re meant to passively consume.

I don’t think it’s supposed to be this way, and neither do a growing number of artists dedicated to reconnecting families with the joy of making music for its own sake, including Nerissa and Katryna Nields. The veteran folk duo recently released All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family, a book/CD package with something for homestyle musicians of all ages, and they were kind enough to take a few minutes out of their busy promotional schedule to talk to us.

I talk to a lot of artists who express the ideas you’ve written about here. This book seems to be part of a movement.

Nerissa: Yeah. Well, that’s a nice bit of serendipity for us. One of the things we say in the book, and it’s absolutely true, is that it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I heard the recorded versions of a lot of the folk songs I’d grown up with. My dad did have a turntable, and he did play a lot of music, but he was playing what he wanted to hear — ’70s country LPs he’d bought, and occasionally classical music. Mostly, the songs we knew, we knew because he played them on the guitar. That’s how we learned them. That’s how you make a song your own, by passing it down through the oral tradition, rather than making a recording out of it.

I have a lot of respect for recording, too — obviously, we’re recording artists. But in terms of raising kids, I think it’s so wonderful to make a song your own. And that’s kind of what we do in all realms — we’ll take a beloved folk song and change the words, and encourage the kids to make their own versions.

Katryna: Observing art can be a transformative experience, but making art is almost always a transformative experience. And I think people are starting to realize that again. I mean, a ukulele…you can pick one up and really know how to play a song in probably three months. That’s an exciting and liberating gift that it seems like people are beginning to rediscover.

I think my favorite story from the book is the one about the woman who inherited a mountain dulcimer and didn’t even think about learning how to play it until a random stranger suggested it — and then watched as music became a huge part of her child’s life.

Nerissa: Isn’t that amazing? I think it’s so inspiring.

It’s inspiring, but it also speaks to this weird disconnect we’ve developed in our relationship with music, where we can have an instrument literally in our hands and not think about playing it. Do you have any thoughts as to how we got to this point?

Katryna: Well, there was a time when the only way you could hear music is if you made it yourself. Even when we were kids, we had a turntable, but even then, it was a little bit of a cumbersome thing to put it on the turntable, get up and change it after 22 minutes or whatever it was, and in our cars, we had AM radio, and that was it. Now, it’s easy to carry a million songs around. You can see someone not wanting to learn how to play an instrument because all you need is an iPod.

Maybe, though, the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. I know that when I go to singalongs now, people often like to have iPads in the room so they can have the lyrics and chords handy. The marriage of that technology with the simplicity of the guitar is such a cool thing to see.

Nerissa: I do think that our relationship with technology tends to move in a wave pattern. It takes a few leaps forward and we all go whoa, and then we catch up and make it our own, and then it leaps forward again. I think we’re in a catching-up phase right now. I think it would be interesting to chart the ebb and flow of folk music’s popularity against the technological tide — I wonder if one has anything to do with the other.

I often think about an old quote from Pete Seeger where he talked about being ambivalent about making albums, because he was worried that he was sort of tacitly encouraging people to be passive. We take recorded music for granted now, but at the time, it was a real decision for an artist to make, and I think it’s still thought-provoking.

Nerissa: For me, the two things definitely went hand in hand, because I remember being really daunted, as a teenager learning how to play guitar, by the things the Beatles were doing. I think it all depends on the attitude you take, and hopefully, what we’re giving people with this book is a “yes you can” attitude.

I wanted to talk about that message. Reading it reminded me of a time in the ’90s when I was talking to a producer about the way newly affordable recording technology had led to an explosion in self-released albums, and his response was that everyone thinks they have a right to make music, but they’re wrong.

Katryna: Well, that’s just commerce getting in the way.

Nerissa: I wouldn’t even say it’s commerce — I’d say it’s ego. I have a writer friend with whom I had a similar conversation in the early aughts, when self-publishing was starting to take off, and they had the same basic response. But good work rises and falls on its own merits.

Katryna: And also, the idea that every reader and every listener…I mean, is Lou Reed a good singer? I don’t know. But there are people who are moved beyond words by what he does, and how tragic would it have been if he’d decided he couldn’t sing and just not done it? It’s silly to think there’s a good and a bad when it comes to art. Some of the most moving recordings I’ve ever heard have been by complete amateurs.

I think when you invite this kind of stuff — writing, drawing, singing, crafting — into your life, what you’re doing is instilling a love of creativity in your kids. And no matter what their job ends up being, they will have that as part of their vocabulary. This way of not seeing the world as a boxed-in, linear thing, but something full of possibilities.

Nerissa: Right. The benefits of having music in your life are well-documented, but they bear repeating. It really pays dividends in terms of how it shapes the brain, and the heart, and the soul, in ways that are incalculable.

Katryna: I think one of our main theses with this book is the idea that by using music, you’re forging connections with your children that will hopefully remain throughout your family’s life. Some people do it by watching baseball with their kids. For us, it’s been music — that’s been the glue. It’s created pathways for us to communicate, and to remember that we’re from the same world. That we can be helpful to each other.