Bearberry leaves (medicinal plant Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) in wooden bowl, from Brian Laidlaw's piece in our Winter 2023 issue, 'Kinnikinnick Kink'

Inhabiting Love Songs: Interview with Poet and Songwriter Brian Laidlaw

A conversation with singer-songwriter Brian Laidlaw

THE CURRENT ISSUE OF Orion features an essay by Brian Laidlaw, a singer-songwriter and poet, on the ways in which the land can reveal new depths to our relationships. We spoke with him about how the process of writing music can also be a reflection of the space around us.

I’m interested in the trickle effect of recording locations. Is there music whose place of origin shines through the songs?

The first one that comes to mind is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. Supposedly he mixed the songs through a piece of equipment that had fallen out of a canoe and spent some time at the bottom of a lake, before being dried out and resuscitated. I think you can hear the lake. You can definitely hear the barn where Neil Young recorded Harvest. I’ve loved the sense of physical space on all of Joan Shelley’s albums, especially Like the River Loves the Sea, which she recorded at a spot called Greenhouse in Iceland. 

I once recorded in the “Tom Waits Room” at a farm-turned-studio in California that used to be the room where they butchered pigs (and was where Tom Waits tracked all his vocals) and sure enough, it sounded like a bloodbath in there.

The microphone is a spectacular instrument. We talk about places, and about albums, having a certain “vibe,” and at first blush that word sounds wishy-washy and vague, but the microphone is literally a sophisticated ultra-high-fidelity vibe-capturing device. The imprint of the room’s history, the bedrock on which it’s built, the singer’s facial expressions, the bandmates’ body language, I really do believe it all gets registered by the microphone capsule. When it comes to recorded music, “vibe” is a very real, perceptible haunting.


In your essay for this issue of Orion, you reflect on the ways in which place can open up forms of expression we might previously have been closed off to. You write of how this changed the nature of your interactions with your partner; but has it also changed the way in which you write lyrics?

Like a great many songwriters, I often look to the natural world to provide sensory images that reflect my inner state. But this newly deepening sense of place, and widening vocabulary for the processes that happen in the landscape, mean that when I’m writing lyrics, I’m able to use richer and more precise external analogues for what’s going on in my mind and heart. I mention learning the term “senescence” from Annie in the essay; after she taught me that word, I wrote a song based around the concept, tying together the plants’ seasonal rhythms and my own rising and falling (and rising) spirits through the arc of the year. My metaphors are becoming more granular and more scientifically informed. And they’re becoming dynamic – as ecosystems truly are – as opposed to the static, decorative, somewhat artificial way that natural images usually occur in songs. 

As far as the songwriting process goes, I’m also seeing the directionality change; it used to be that I’d have an internal feeling, and then look outward for an image that captured it, but now I’m seeing things in nature first, and looking inward for a matching story or sentiment inside myself. In other words, I’m starting songs with the opposite side of the metaphor.


How about song structure? Are there places, for instance, where you were inspired to construct a song in a new way?

A lot of contemporary pop songs are structured around big contrasts: lower dynamics and registers in the verses, then a leap to higher dynamics and higher notes in the chorus. Recently I’ve found myself writing in a new form (which is actually an old form, one that predates the modern verse-chorus mode) that’s just a string of verses, without any chorus. Or sometimes there’s a bridge, for sonic and thematic contrast – so it’s an “AAA” form, or an “AABA” form. 

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the Marble Mountains, in far Northern California, and I recently wrote a song about a lovely, special, exceptionally calm day we had up there. We had walked to this gorgeous granite basin with a little lake in it, gone swimming, looked at cute newts ambling underwater. Drank tea from a thermos. I wanted to capture the stillness of the day in a song, and it wouldn’t have worked to have dynamic, sharply contrasting jumps between a verse and a chorus, because the day itself didn’t have any sharpness or loudness to it. It ended up as an AAA song.

There have been a lot of days like that – AAA days – full of stillness, slow-unfolding. The resulting songs are a bit less catchy, in terms of their form; they don’t have “hooks” in the modern songwriting sense. But because the images themselves are dynamic, portraying gradually changing selves in a gradually changing world, I think these songs still end up having satisfying arcs. They work more like poems with a melody.


Could you speak to a few of your favorite lyrics? Who paints the most evocative portraits of their surroundings to you?

Joanna Newsom is one of my all-time favorite lyricists, and her work is exceptional in how she uses landscape to activate her songs. Her diction, particularly from the natural and scientific realms, is extremely lush and extremely precise. Most songwriters feature people (especially people in love) as the centerpiece of what they write, and inasmuch as the environment appears in their songs, it’s only as a backdrop to the human action. But Newsom’s environments are more than just settings, they’re participants in the narrative. 

Neko Case’s album Hell-On was one of my favorite albums of the last several years, and the way the landscape appears on that record is so mind-blowing and exciting to me that for a while I thought I might write my dissertation about it. It’s ecofeminist, post-pastoral, deliberately blurring the line between human and non-human: 


And me, I am not a mess 

I am a wilderness, yes 

The undiscovered continent for you to undress 

But you’ll not be my master 

You’re barely my guest 

You don’t have permission to take any pictures 

Be careful of the natural world 


It’s a millennia-old trope – one still very much in use – to use capital-N nature as a stand-in for “purity” in songs, but Case’s nature is often ugly, dangerous, and contaminated. Haunted. I’ve always loved her line, “I want to go where my urge leads no more, swallowed waist-deep in the gore of the forest;” it’s refreshingly unrefreshing to walk through her woods and to stand on her shores.

Special thanks to the NRDC for their generous funding of Orion’s Winter 2023 issue, Romance in the Climate Crisis.


Brian Laidlaw is a poet-songwriter whose books include The Mirrormaker and The Stuntman, both of which were released with a companion album of original music. He tours nationally as a solo folk singer and with his band The Family Trade. Read his essay on love language in the Winter 2023 issue of Orion.

This is a collection of Orion Staff contributions.