The singer-songwriter observes where nature, science, art and activism intertwine on her 10th solo record ‘The Lookout.’
The Lookout is an electrified ecosystem of songs set under sapphire skies, in desert canyons and moonlit meadows, on sunlit oceans and over starlit landscapes, flush with color in burgeoning green, gold and red, and filled with the sounds of campfire, wolf howls and painted winds. Veirs’ harmonic vocals resonate like calls through a canyon . . .
Lenore. is a dark planet with twin satellites of ethereal voices orbiting around it…Nature-inspired, dark folk songs like “Ether’s Arms” and “Dig” are sharp and shining—the glinting edge of a spade in the garden. Songs about the moon, sun, ancient trees, the seasons, and explorations of darkness and light resonate throughout this purely Pacific Northwest creation of lyrical magic and vocal alchemy.
They’ve opened up from wrist to cuff a silver channel in the forearm of the prairie. This, so the black ink flows faster to the hand that writes the checks which leave us dry thirsty and poisoned in a future of rubber bullets and bird feather shields.
“If you don’t have a song to sing
you’re okay you know how to get along humming . . .”
“Waltz (Better Than Fine)” — Fiona Apple
On the last day of the year, an Anna’s Hummingbird appeared, perching gently on the edge of a cut rose bush stem. I loved the way The Cornell Lab of Ornithology described them “no larger than a ping-pong ball and no heavier than a nickel . . .with their iridescent emerald feathers and sparkling rose-pink throats, they are more like flying jewelry than birds.” Their Anna photos also use a thorny perch and float on the edge of a twig.
“Anna’s Hummingbird was originally named Ornismya anna by René Primevère Lesson in 1829, based on specimens collected by Paolo-Émilio Botta and owned by the duke and duchess of Rivoli. Lesson regarded it as one of the most beautiful hummingbirds, on account of “the bright sparkle of a red cap of the richest amethyst…” on the male’s head, and so named it after the duchess of Rivoli, Anna de Belle Masséna. Gould (1861) placed it in a new genus, Calypte, for “not only the throat, but the entire head as glitteringly resplendent as if they had been dipped in molten metal”. Calypte is greek (Кαλυπτη) for covered or hood (Holloway 2003), a reference to the male’s iridescent crown. Males turn their head from side to side as they sing, flashing the brilliant iridescence as a signal to other hummingbirds.”
I leaned against our window into the garden and took a few photos as he visited the rosebush and feeder.
a piano in the woods
the milky way with a silhouette skirt of treeline
a blue satin ribbon holding the skull
of a ruby-throated hummingbird
a lone honeybee painted on a swatch
of Victorian floral wallpaper
vermilion, gold, periwinkle and jet
two orange and black tail feathers from a Northern Flicker
in a two-inch terracotta pot
three blue and green peacock feathers
in a wooden vase
snowflake obsidian and hematite
a small, coiled shell worn away to iridescent nacre
a pressed, beige, star-shaped flower
a grey stone with white spots shaped like a heart
a turtle carved in amber
a lichen branch
a tuft of dried seaweed
A miniature mahogany Buddha on a mirrored pedestal
a black pebble with a silver-winged dragonfly
signed, HANK on the bottom
gifted in apology for panhandling a dollar
a story about a crime lab for animals
legal and illegal global trade in wildlife
they are searching for evidence that will link human suspects
to animal victims
see: corporate farming, your dinner
“I’ve never drawn a chalk line around a butterfly,” he jokes
their paper wings ignite on headlamps
and metal filters
as we fly wingless,
day or night.
Algorithms and word clouds are good for poetry. This one is supposed to represent my most frequently used words on Facebook in the last year.
David at my center,
dark blue time to my left and pale blue thing to my right, years gone sideways.
Below me, the entire garden and found light in flowers and forest.
A wolf person producing water
underneath home goldfish, dolphins
a language dance, deep and large
and a word so small, I cannot interpret it.
Clinton / Sanders campaign
a paper cowboy picks freedom
country and world float above golden choice
people and change loom large in violet
with small and dark floating thoughts
feel good song,
drunk and pretty.
Last week, I had a particularly strange dream. The image of the monstrous seashell building is still tumbling around on the ocean floor of my brain.
I know it was fueled in part by my neighbor. She was preparing to attend a beach wedding over the weekend and as I watered the garden at dusk, she called out over the fence to ask my opinion on the best dress of three. A mini fashion show ensued as she popped in and out the front door in short order, doing a quick pirouette each time. I suggested the comfortable stretchy number with the peacock feather pattern over the short cocktail dress or the thing with the trailing wrap skirt and bodice that would require stitching and extra boob support to make it work. Why make an outfit more complicated when you need to be comfortable near the ocean—because . . . sand, saltwater, and wind.
Later, she awaited her frantic friend whose son was getting married to arrive last minute to help prepare wedding favors—seashell ornaments. Piles of them. All of which needed a dab of hot glue, ribbons, and hole-punched tags with the bride and groom’s names attached. It would be a late night of of production for her and as it happens, for me as I slept.
In the dream, I rowed a small boat out into a wide canvas of ocean. There, I saw a large metal spike rising from a soft ripple of water and bubbles. I slipped into the water to swim towards it and grasped it with one hand, my legs floating behind in a gentle current. I touched the top of it, and found it sharp and tapered as a needle point blade.
Then I looked down into the ocean below and felt a strange wave of fear and nausea as I discovered what I was holding was a spire attached to an enormous building that went down for miles. It was shaped like a turrid shell, more specifically, Turris babylonia: the Babylon turrid or Tower Turrid. I could see endless windows spiraling into oblivion, casting golden whorls of light out of the black-green hulk of bone-metal. The windows were an inverted negative of the pattern on the elusive Scaphella junonia: the junonia shell, or Juno’s volute.
I battled two opposing instincts—swim down to see if there was more to the cityscape; or get back in my little red boat and find the nearest land. Somehow, my sense of the building was based on a faint memory from a previous dream. It did not feel like a livable, underwater Utopia, but a submerged and dark-tinged Atlantis. This seashell skyscraper was merely a glittering prison tower.
The morning after the wedding and my dream, I asked Terri how everything turned out.
“Oh, we were up ’til one in the morning,” she said stiffly, “but they turned out nice. Hold on, I’ll show you.” She ran back into the house to retrieve a sample.
She dangled a few shells on silver and gold ribbon between two fingers, one of them a Babylonia. The dream swam up and flooded me with remembrance.
Later, I read that people who attend beach weddings often receive seashell favors, bought in bulk from a craft store, just as these were. Sometimes, brides want that extra stagecraft to their ocean side ceremony and purchase cheap bags of foreign shells to scatter along the beach or create aisle runners. They often get left behind, run out with the tide, and wash back in to the minor annoyance of pros or the sheer delight of amateur shellers (yes, a name for people who collect seashells) depending on their knowledge of where the shells originated. But most people who buy them have the innocent intention of spreading them on local beaches so their children and grandchildren can go hunting and find a rare treasure—albeit, not a local creature that has fled its conical home. Shellers call these castaway orphans and refugees “Wedding Shells.” Still others want to rid themselves of their old beach comber collection with similar meaningful ceremonies that return them to the sea, even if it’s not the same water.
I look at some of my own collection on my nature altar, recalling the sandy coastlines and aquamarine water I dove in to collect them—even who I was with when I found them. California. Florida. Oregon. British Virgin Islands. Once, I opened a box on a dresser at an estate sale to find a small clutch of shells, which promptly went home with me. I wondered, where had they gone to find all these? What memories were attached to all these nature objects? Were any of my prizes wedding shells? Certainly not the brain coral or the banded tulip shell, not the dried urchin or the sand dollar—I found those in their native spaces.
And what of all those holey stones aka Faerie Stones, Hag Stones, or Witch’s Amulets I have a knack for finding? Or for them finding me. It is said that they offer protection by placing them on a nail near doorways. Faerie stones provide a window into other worlds as you gaze through the naturally made hole eroded by time and water, or clam-like shelled creatures called piddocks, known by the sweeter name, angelwings.
Piddock shells are divided into 2 or 3 sections, one of them with a pointed beak that contains a set of ridges or “teeth,” much like a grinding plate for spices. They slowly drill their elliptical shells into rocks, creating tubular burrows, rhythmically contracting the muscles attached to their wings, siphoning water and holding it in to create an expansive pressure, and extending a fleshy foot that grips the stone surface of their home to rotate the shell. As they grow, they enlarge their hole, carving out space to live in and protect themselves. They remain in their stonehouse hidey-hole their entire lives—5 to 10 years. Because of their foot and their siphon hose, they can never quite fully retract into their shell halves and close their wings. They are a mouth with teeth on the outside and feet on the inside! Those muscles fusing the wings together become weak, and the rest of the shell fragile, making it rare to find angelwings on the shore with both halves still intact.
But perhaps what I should be doing with the stones with holes in them drilled by nature to see through time with, is what the mystics did—thread them with a black cord and put them near the bed to ward off nightmares. Especially nightmares of buildings in the shape of a cutting shell rising above the water’s edge.
The singer-songwriter stepped away from music to pursue an M.F.A. in fiction and returned with her most personal sonic document.
“I’ve taken to exploring the land around me, finding lakes hidden in the pine trees, getting lost, learning to feel comfortable not knowing where I’m going,” wrote Laura Gibson from an A-frame cabin in the mountains of central Oregon during the winter of 2013. Equipped with snowshoes and solitude, Gibson was focusing on her fourth album while also taking time out to teach songwriting to middle and high school kids in Sisters, Ore. Those thematic echoes of teaching, pine trees, solitude, being lost, and searching for a dark lake would reverberate on her new album, Empire Builder.
Gibson didn’t initially think of herself as a writer. “I had great science teachers and math teachers but I didn’t know what words could do,” she explains. “It wasn’t until I started writing songs that I grew myself into a writer. It was only a few years ago I started to believe that I might be able to write something outside of music.”
With that belief, she boarded a train headed east on the famous Empire Builder Amtrak route. She left behind her boyfriend, family, friends and her Portland music community to teach undergraduate writing and pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing at Hunter College in New York City.
The Brothers Comatose: Alex (left) and Ben (right) Morrison. Photo by Jessie McCall
Ahead of their performance at Revolution Hall on March 12, Vortex spoke with brothers Alex and Ben Morrison by phone, covering topics from the rapid evolution of their home base, San Francisco, to wilderness exploration.
The Brothers Comatose are nothing like what their name implies. Actual brothers Ben and Alex Morrison on guitar, banjo and lead vocals deliver energetic bluegrass-folk shows with a backing ensemble—described by Ben as “a Southwestern-tinged, rowdy string band”—that includes Gio Benedetti on upright bass, Philip Brezina on fiddle and Ryan Avellone on mandolin. As for the “comatose,” while playing the banjo, Alex gets so deep into the music that his eyes roll back in his head—hence the origin of their name.
City Painted Gold is their newly released third album, written in and about San Francisco and crowdfunded through Kickstarter with a hilarious video of them trying and failing at musical styles before finding their sound. Fine musicianship and playful humor are hallmarks of their performances, but when you get right down to it, the brothers and their string band are as friendly and fun-loving as they come and always deliver a raucous hoedown dance party.
“I’m sad,” I tell her, looking for analog
in a world of constant digital connection.
“I know,” she said, “you used to write
great letters, too, and you know a lot of people,
but you just need your roots.”
“Go outside and listen,” my mother advises.
Outside, I see all the life looking for hands,
all the living things that need me back,
and I understand what they want—
flowers for vases, tomato vines withering
but weighted with so much pendulous red.
It’s all thirsty, even the sunflowers nod and
hang their heads.
The fires are burning still, more now every day
acres of smoke closer still than farther away.
It’s hard to see, so I listen.
Windchimes in a dusty breeze, paper crisp rose edges
and black spotted leaves. A dog barks, children scream
playing near dark, screeching brakes, and the Jade District
festival thick with voices and music, pounding echoes,
War drums sound, apocalypse theater, Taiko, large and loud. I reach for shears,
and go to ground. I pull the small dandelion fluff of lettuce tops
into a silver kitchen bowl, swirl until the seeds release
the temple drums continue, the clouds go grey
the rusty gate opening screech call of a Scrub Jay
pecking black seeds from under the yellow bonnet,
the neighborhood, haunted.
The early dusk, a yellow-green cyclone sky,
wildfires make for softbox sunsets in the summertime,
the dried up lake beds reveal ancient forests,
the grass has all died, save for the clover.
We may need them when this is all over.
“Go outside and listen,” she said.
I don’t see any people,
but I hear them all.