When singer-songwriter k.d. lang had a notion to form a supergroup, her inspiration was the Traveling Wilburys, an act that counted the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne as members.
So she shot emails to two contenders: Neko Case, whose breathtaking lyricism and soaring voice has leaped out of speakers since her 1997 solo debut, and Laura Veirs, whose delicate guitar melodies and way with a phrase have earned her acclaim and devotion.
Both had a similar reaction.
“Come on, you’re not going to say no to that,” said Veirs on the phone during a recent conference call with lang. Veirs said yes despite having had her second baby that same week. “That’s a lot to take on, but I’m not going to say no.”
Case laughed as she described receiving the message: “I remember replying to it before I even finished reading it,” she said in a separate interview from her home in Vermont. “Like, ‘Duh, yes. Sign me up. I’m in.’ ”
The result of that invite is the new trio album “case/lang/veirs,” 14 songs that marry classic American song craft with ethereal three-part harmonies and wondrous lyricism.
But that doesn’t mean the process was all roses.
After starting work on the project in 2012, convening in either lang or Veirs’ Portland, Oregon, living rooms at semi-regular intervals over the next three years, the trio quickly butted heads. As solo artists, each was used to having veto power.
“It was never easy,” lang said. “As individual and accomplished singer-songwriters, all of us in our own right coming in to collaborate and not having a singular leader presented a lot of obstacles.”
The Grammy-winning artist lang described “very tense moments” over specific words and lines, as well as quibbles over arrangements or tempos. But that should have been expected. Before the collaboration, they didn’t know each other except as fans and certainly weren’t friends.
“I think I probably offended everyone pretty quickly,” Case said. “Of all of us, I would say that I am probably the clumsiest and the most blunt and rude.”
Case described scratching out lines and calling out cliches before she realized she needed to tone it down. Her role, she added, was as “the pollinator. I made up a bridge, or changed something around or wrote some new words.”
For “Supermoon,” for instance, Case describes “hijacking” Veirs’ lyrics by merging them with one of Case’s works-in-process.
“My version is kind of about venture capitalism, and I think her version was a really nice song about her son, Oz,” Case said.
Lang’s faith in the process was centered on her sense of Veirs and Case as people.
“I trusted in who these people were fundamentally and morally,” lang said, “and I think that we all knew that we trusted where the person was coming from – that the music would always be first, that the ego would be overridden in service of the song.”
The record is proof of her conviction.
An album that mixes standard instrumentation with ethereal arrangements, “case/lang/veirs” isn’t too much of a stylistic departure for any member of the trio. Each tackles twang-tinted folk and country music from a different perspective, but there’s enough complementary overlap to provide a solid foundation.
“Song for Judee” is a love letter for the late folk singer Judee Sill, a lesser-known Los Angeles artist whose work has become a touchstone for young musicians. When they performed the song recently in Los Angeles, Veirs took a moment to acknowledge the moment by dedicating the song to Sill, who, said Veirs, “lived in these parts and died in these parts.” Pointing in the distance, she said, “I think her spirit’s up in that tree.”
Asked whether any tension from the sessions remains and how that might affect the tour, which began last week in San Diego and carries across the country throughout the summer, lang said she wasn’t worried.
“Our managers are coming,” she said, laughing.
“We each have a bus, and we have our lawyers with us. We only talk through our managers.”
Case added that while lang will be flying from gig to gig, she and Veirs have arranged separate transportation: “We’re going to take donkeys.”
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