The sea, and things related to the sea, are splashed all over Saltbreakers, Laura Veirs’s sixth solo release. Its title refers to ocean waves, and the Portland, Oregon–based songwriter’s lyrics are full of nautical and aquatic images. In “Pink Light”, a fraying marriage is compared to a ship with tattered sails; in “Ocean Night Song”, the “herds of the sea” call for the narrator much as they did for Herman Melville’s Ishmael; and in “Drink Deep”, gratified desire is compared to a long, cool draft of water that’s “gasping for your mouth”.
Later on in the record—one of 2007’s best—the oceanic theme embraces the natural world as a whole, with nightingales and the night sky offering Veirs solace. But watery images predominate, and the disc concludes with the singer salvaging her shipwrecked heart and finding “Something to love/In this broken place”. At journey’s end, she’s found peace, and if this discovery rings true, it’s because it is true. As Veirs explains from her home, Saltbreakers is both a metaphorical voyage into the brine and a beautifully poetic journal describing the end of one relationship and another’s beginning.
“I was interested in salt, and where you find salt: in tears, in sweat, and in the sea,” she says. “And salt has worth, it has value—the word salary comes from salt. So there was a salt thing happening, and the sea was the perfect place to explore that. The drama of the sea; the restlessness of it; the crashing, destructive behaviour of the sea; the alluring, seductive behaviour of the sea; and how it can just clear a beach”¦As a writer, it’s just a wonderful place to go. And for me, I was in an emotionally really turbulent time, and I felt the sea was a good place to go to explore the feelings I was having.”
Much of that turbulence, she confides, was due to the fact that she was falling in love with her long-time friend and collaborator Tucker Martine. The technological mastermind who produced the Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, Mudhoney’s Under a Billion Suns, and a score of other exceptionally well-made recordings was also falling in love with her, so this was a happy development—but it was nonetheless a plunge into the unknown.
“We’ve been together a couple of years now,” Veirs says. “That’s been fun—and it’s been challenging, like any relationship. But it’s been really neat”¦because we’re both artists and we have a lot in common creatively.”
Martine’s studio wizardry plays a big part in Saltbreakers, which offers new depths, musically and lyrically, with every listen. And making a record that deserves concentrated attention was very much Veirs and Martine’s intent.
“It’s good when someone takes that much care and pays that much attention to the recording,” says Veirs, who’s no fan of digital downloading. “It’s like music is becoming just something to be listened to in the background, fast,” she continues. “Like, ”˜Get it all on your iPod, don’t really look at the record. You don’t even need to get the artwork; just get the music and then listen to a couple of songs.’ But you know, if you stop and settle down and maybe get the vinyl and look at the art and sit down like teenagers used to do and obsess over these records—the records that Tucker’s made with lots of people—you’ll hear really amazing things. And I think that’s a part of music that maybe is suffering now, when everyone has decided to start recording themselves in their basement.”
Still, everyone’s heard amazing-sounding records with little emotional depth. Why Veirs’s records with Martine—which, with Saltbreakers, include the almost equally impressive Year of Meteors and Carbon Glacier—work so well is that she’s mastered the art of balancing her own personal specifics with a more open-ended approach to narrative. Each song is anchored in some emotional truth, expressed in such a way that attentive listeners will find their own truths in her words.
“I’ve written songs where the truth is like a wandering image, or like a little short film where something happens but snow is falling and it’s a little hard to relate to what’s actually going on,” Veirs says. “And then I’ve written lots of songs with really clear stories. But I kind of like to be somewhere in the middle, so my personality’s in there but other people can relate.”
Veirs adds that she’s a prolific writer, but keeps only those songs that “catch me in the gut a little bit, or in my heart”. Saltbreakers is full of such tunes, as even a casual trawl through its depths will reveal.