Empire Builder (April 1, 2016)
Empire Builder, Laura Gibson’s second record for Barsuk/City Slang, and fourth LP, is named for the Amtrak route Laura took while moving from Portland, Oregon to New York City in the summer of 2014, after deciding to enter graduate school, to move away from a supportive community, a close-knit family and her long-time boyfriend. Out of her comfort zone, she found even more of a challenge than she’d envisioned. Immediately upon arrival, she broke her foot and barely left her 5th floor apartment for the first two months. Then, on March 26th, 2015, her East Village building burned to the ground in a horrific gas explosion which killed two people and left many homeless.
Gibson escaped from her apartment unharmed, but lost everything: all identification, eyeglasses, musical instruments, years of notebooks and every word she had written in response to her move. She spent the next few months rebuilding her life, bouncing between friends’ couches and guest rooms, finishing her second semester, and all the while rewriting the lyrics she’d lost. A financial recovery was made possible with help and support from hundreds of friends, fans and strangers. It’s no surprise that Empire Builder stands as her most personal record to date.
But while the making of the album was cathartic, it’s not just an auto-biographical mirror-gazing exercise. Through her fiction studies in grad school, Gibson has found her legs as a storyteller and these songs hit hard, separate from their backstory: it’s a huge leap forward for Gibson as a songwriter, composer and producer. Equally raw and focused, Empire Builder captures a life blown open, an individual mid-transformation. Gibson gathered a stellar band of old friends to complement her songs: guitarist/bassist Dave Depper (Death Cab for Cutie, Menomena), drummer/percussionist Dan Hunt (Neko Case) and composer/violinist Peter Broderick. Other contributors include Nate Query of the Decemberists and vocalist Alela Diane. Gibson co-produced the record with John Askew (The Dodos, Neko Case), spending her school breaks in his home studio and in Broderick’s studio on the Oregon Coast.
Empire Builder grapples with independence, womanhood, solitude, connection and aloneness. Amidst trauma, loss and recovery, she rediscovered songwriting as a means of understanding her own life and choices. If Gibson has a thesis, it’s perhaps within the final words of the title track: “Hurry up and lose me / Hurry up and find me again.” With clear-eyed honesty, urgency and warmth, Empire Builder succeeds in capturing the moment between loss and rediscovery.
La Grande (2012)
La Grande (pronounced in the way of the American West, without any hint of French inflection – “luh grand”) is a town just east of the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon where native Oregonian Laura Gibson found inspiration while writing the songs that would become her new album of the same name. Gibson describes La Grande as a place that “people usually pass through on their way to somewhere else, but which contains a certain gravity, a curious energy.” She’s done more than her own fair share of traveling, playing over 200 shows in North America, Europe and Asia since the release of 2009’s acclaimed Beasts of Seasons (Hush Records), andLa Grande is, in part, an album about journeys and transitions.
The energy of the title track kicks off the record with a battering ram beat, hitting the ground like a herd of galloping horses. With a Tropicalia pulse, dirt-kicking distortion, whimsical woodwinds and heart murmur hooks on “Lion/Lamb,” and rail-jumping rhythms, majestic melodies and beyond-the-grave broadcasting of “The Rushing Dark”, La Grandeplays like an imaginary film score. It’s an album about strength and confidence – about the tension between wildness and domesticity and the courage required to embark upon either path, about asserting one’s will rather than submitting – and it’s a significant departure from Beasts’ subtle meditations on frailty.
The thematic notion of aggressively taking matters into one’s own hands was at the front of Gibson’s mind during much of the process of developing La Grande, a period in which she also took on the task of transforming a 1962 Shasta trailer into a makeshift studio/private writing place. The twin projects of restoration and transformation – all that sanding, painting and do-it-yourself problem solving – seeped into her music, a sometimes surreal blend of styles that doesn’t belong to any particular decade or genre, but leaves the listener with the distinct impression that something old has been repurposed in a brilliant new way.
One reason the sound of La Grande is so purposeful is that, for the first time, Gibson remained in the producer’s chair throughout its making, bouncing between home- recorded vocal sessions – piling as many as 15 Laura Gibsons on certain tracks – and proper takes at Type Foundry Studios alongside engineer and good friend Adam Selzer (M Ward, Norfolk and Western) and some great players including Calexico’s Joey Burns, members of The Dodos (Meric Long and Logan Kroeber) and The Decemberists (Nate Query, Jenny Conlee), clarinetist Jilly Coykendall, and the drumming duo Rachel Blumberg and Matt Berger (affectionately known together as “Blumberger”). Don’t get the wrong idea, though. While La Grande’s stage is shared with some very special guests, Gibson is at the center of every last note; contributing bits of bass, guitar, piano, pump organ, vibraphone, synthesizer, marimba, even a marching drum. The result is richer and more revealing than any of her previous records – two solo albums and an experimental LP with Ethan Rose – but it never loses sight of her start as a young singer-songwriter who felt more at home playing in an AIDS hospice (where she had a standing weekly gig for two years) than in Portland’s vibrant (and overwhelming) indie music scene.
Inspiration for Gibson’s work is also drawn from the geography and history of Oregon itself, as reflected in La Grande’s cover imagery. Raised in the logging town of Coquille, Gibson notes, “So much of my upbringing was tied to the forest – economically, visually, culturally.” The cover photo, revealing Gibson lit by a fire in the dark Oregon forest, conveys both the wildness and strong-willed-ness of the record. The blanket Gibson is wrapped in, which has resided in her family home as long as she can remember, also ties back to La Grande. Woven in the nearby Pendleton Woolen Mills, the ‘Chief Joseph’ design represents strength and bravery (Joseph was the Nez Perce chief whose people were eventually evicted by the American military from the Wallowa Valley just east of La Grande, but whose efforts both as a leader of resistance and as a peacemaker made him an icon).
Gibson’s previous work was praised for its timelessness, for the almost vintage quality of her voice. But of course her art and outlook aren’t solely influenced by the past. “I am someone who loves old things and could easily dwell in nostalgia,” she explains, “but I really felt this needed to be a statement about the future – about moving forward fearlessly – and I think the process of making the record and the finished album reflect that desire.” As Gibson sings on the ninth track of La Grande, “Time is not against us.”
Beast of Seasons (2009)
Beast of Seasons opens with a hum and drone, a veil of fog conjuring a sense of atmosphere not unlike the Pacific Northwest coastal timber town where Laura Gibson was raised. A plaintive strum emerges with a voice in tow; a candle, a tender and flickering wisp of a voice suffusing the space with a warm glow. This voice, registering as little more than a whisper, rises above the subtle and evocative instrumentation with uncommon intimacy. Coos and cracks, chirps and slurs, clucks and purrs all come into focus with perceptive musicality.
Steeped in the fingerpick-guitar rudiments of folk music, inspired by the expressionism of classic jazz vocalists, and finding common ground in the minimalism and ear-taunting of the avant garde, Laura Gibson alights on a branch of the music tree that no one else has found. Gibson reveals that her own singing is more informed by a sensitivity and self exploration than by training. “I like to feel the rumble in my sternum and the vibrations in the back of my throat when I sing. I tend to gravitate toward simplicity and minimalism, but I am very conscious of the particular notes I play.”
Equally deliberate, and as a nod to the vinyl record era, Beast Of Seasons is split into two parts. Part 1: Communion Songs, and Part II: Funeral Songs. “In looking back over these songs, I found two themes arising: First, reaching towards something outside of ourselves, be it a lover or god or family (Communion Songs) and second, grappling with the idea of ultimate aloneness and acceptance (Funeral Songs).” The songs isolate distinct and familiar emotions from the many reactions to death, ranging from fear (“Where Have All Your Good Words Gone”), and denial (“Sweet Deception”), to brave acceptance (“Funeral Song”).
As a whole, the record might be interpreted as nine meditations on mortality. This is not to say it is a work of philosophy, but rather a group of meditations, or gut reactions to the idea of death. Written from a room in a house overlooking the mossy gravestones and mature maples of one of Portland’s oldest cemeteries, Gibson notes she finished the last song just days before moving out. “When I was finished I felt a great relief,” she offers, as if an epilogue to the opening line of the album: “I have carried beasts for many seasons…”
Drawing on anatomical imagery (words like bones, skin, tongue, and spine appear multiple times on this record) Gibson updates the pastoral imagery of Appalachian folk and country blues idioms with the landscape of the body. “I feel the seasons changing in my lungs, and I recognize grief as a weight in my bones,” Gibson explains. On “Funeral Songs” she blurs this line, “Ask no greater pardon than the pattern time is carving in your skin.” Though each song dances around the theme of death, ultimately, they reflect the urgency of life.
Her accomplice for Beasts of Seasons was friend and Grammy-nominated producer Tucker Martine. The project offered Martine a departure from the grand visions of bands like The Decemberists and Sufjan Stevens. The computer in Martine’s studio was eschewed in favor of a vintage, slightly shaky, two inch tape machine. Limited to sixteen tracks, many things were recorded live. Instead of laying down multiple horn tracks, they invited all of their horn playing friends over one afternoon to collaborate. Instead of multi-tracked vocal harmonies, they formed a choir of compatriots.
In fact, many friends dropped in to contribute, including musical collaborator Rachel Blumberg (M Ward band, Bright Eyes), Nate Query (Decemberists), Adam Selzer (Norfolk and Western, M Ward), avant-garde violist and composer Eyvind Kang, solo artists Laura Veirs and Shelly Short, Danny Seim (Menomena) and many of the people who have formed her touring band over the past two years (Cory Gray, Sean Ogilvie, Dave Depper, Jason Leonard, Micah Rabwin). The evocative artwork was painted by Evan B Harris.
Sprinkled between the tracks are field recordings of a parade that interrupted a quiet session on a sunny Saturday. The stark contrast of recording sober (occasionally somber) songs of mortality on a beautiful sunny day as a parade went by was not lost on them. Martine and Gibson embraced the dichotomy, both thematically and personally, and wove these audio snapshots in as a counterpoint.
“Glory is found in those closest to you,” said Gibson. For her own part she offers, “As a writer, all I could hope to be, if nothing else, is honest and generous in spirit. I have been alive for exactly 29 years, perhaps not as old as the trees, but certainly older than the birds. There are days I feel like an old women, and I find that death is a calm and familiar presence. There are days I feel like a young child, where death seems so foreign and shocking.
Perhaps, more than anything, Gibson’s songs might be quiet reflections of the human body, reflections both of strength, and of frailty.” With Beasts of Seasons, Gibson offers up an intimate affirmation of mortality, both vulnerable and courageous, dark and illuminating, ordinary and extraordinary.