Laura Gibson's first two solo albums, If You Come To Greet Me (2006) and Beasts of Seasons (2009), were noted for their hushed intimacy, but for her third release, the Portland, Oregon songwriter wanted to "err on the side of confidence" and set a new challenge for herself.
The result, the more assertive La Grande, out now on Barsuk Records, is still bathed in Gibson's delicately-phrased poetry and gentle observations, but the sound is bolder, more experimental and layered. Although raised in the logging town of Coquille, Oregon and a longtime inhabitant of Portland, she was inspired by the eastern Oregon town of La Grande, a city with historic ties to the Oregon Trail that Gibson says, "really represents the American West in a way that deals with movement forward and the tragedies involved, especially the Native American population."
Late last month, Gibson and her bandmates — Johanna Kunin (piano and woodwinds), Brian Perez (bass), Matt Berger (drums) and Jill Coykendall (clarinet) — visited The Alternate Side for a intriguing and candid interview and you can listen to the session tomorrow, Friday, February 17, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. ET or streaming on The Alternate Side. They continue their tour of the States through March 10, including a special show in La Grande, Oregon on March 1.
Below, highlights of that interview plus video performances of songs like "La Grande," "Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed" and "Feather Lungs."
Kara Manning: There was an idea, with this third solo album, that you needed to make a “confident” record.
Laura Gibson: Yeah, I just had this moment of thinking through all that I wanted to make and where I wanted to go, both in life and in my music. I just set this goal for myself that I would err on the side of confidence, not even knowing what that would mean or how that would play out. I just didn’t want to look back and have a record. I wanted any failures that I had, failures of trying something instead of failures of timidity. In my own life, it was trying to transcend timidity.
Kara: With your other albums, there was always a feeling of listening to a secret, or someone whispering in someone’s ear. This record is gutsier, more visceral, there’s even times you rock out a bit. Were you self-critical of the other two records?
Laura: No, I really feel those records are a meditation on fraility and I feel like that’s the strength of those records. I’m very proud of those records and they do have a certain intimacy that’s very much of me whispering a secret in your ear. I think what really moves me, in terms of listening to music and making music, is that intimacy. But this time around, I wanted to explore other ways of achieving that. I feel there is a sense of intimacy that is whispering in someone’s ear, but also this sense of being really free and letting the listener in on that. I kind of took it on as this experiment with the goal of being free and confident. There’s ways on this new record that I was able to give more of myself because of that approach.
Kara: The town of La Grande [in Eastern Oregon] was a major catalyst in the making of this record.
Laura: I got really interested in the history and felt that there were all of these layers of history still asserting themselves in this place, the world. At the time I was really thinking about the ways I assert myself in the world and about my own movement forward and I just had this startling moment where this place really as reflecting back all of these things that were inside of me, all of these desires and fears. So I wrote this song “La Grande” about that experience. It was really out there that I came up with this goal of errring on the side of confidence. When I came back and recorded this record and it came time to name the record, I thought, “La Grande” was the first song we started recording and it just felt like a really important bedrock to this record. I made this goal of erring on the side of confidence and if I call the record La Grande then someone in France might pick it up, read “La Grande Laura Gibson” and think it was called, The Great Laura Gibson. It was almost an inside joke to myself. I liked the double meaning.
Kara: You use this really interesting microphone, what is it called?
Laura: No, a fellow hand-makes them down there. I used it a lot on almost every track of the record. I layered a lot of my vocals on this mic and really fell in love with it. It became the sonic theme of the record so when it came to do the shows live, I thought I really needed the microphone in the live setting. Luckily, it works really well in both.
Kara: I’m interested in the duality of it. There’s a duality to the album, like “Crow/Swallow,” “Lion/Lamb,” the shifting of the mics or shifting between characters. Is there a shifting for you? The dark Laura, the light Laura?
Laura: In some sense there is. I’d never really thought of the microphones having that but I did want to have this call and response feel to a lot of the songs. Up until this record, I’d always had other people sing background vocals because I really wanted the purity of my lead vocal as the main vocal. But with this record, I wanted to see what my voice could do and use it as an instrument. It’s fine because I feel I get to play some other characters other than myself in this way. But there is a lot of duality. What I was thinking through at the time was desire and what to do with desire. I could see myself going down one of two seemingly opposite paths, one being this path of wildness and following your desires. The other path being a more domestic path, with home as a center and a more traditional lifestyle than I’ve chosen for myself as a musician. A lot of the record is me wrestling with what to do when you desire both of those things. Not that I came to any conclusions, but the me on both of those paths speak back and forth to each other. The songs that have really impacted me or songs where people wrestle through things without coming to a conclusion. The wresting in itself, for wisdom and truth, is what I find moving in music.
Kara: Your words are so important in your songs, in your phrasing. You coddle a song sometimes, in your phrasing. Are you very much a perfectionist as a lyricist?
Laura: Yeah, I think it’s 90 percent painstaking and the other 10 percent feels just easy and free. I really labor over my words and it’s probably the part that brings me the most satisfaction later on. I have a lot of friends who are poets and I read a lot of poetry and have these conversations about laboring over our words. Much of the time I feel like a cheater because I can coddle the songs and make a one syllable word turn into a three syllable word. There’s a lot of tricks like that. But I take great care with the words and great satisfaction. It always feels like a miracle to finish a song to me.
Kara: You produced this record yourself, this was your baby?
Laura: Well, I collaborated with Adam Selzer who has a great studio called Type Foundry and it was with Adam that I recorded my first full-length record, If You Come To Greet Me, so that collaboration, for me, was really magical. I love what Adam does. But this time around, I really felt like I had to be the gatekeeper and decision-maker. I was really involved in the production of my other two records, but there’s this sense of taking it on, on my own, that was different than those. I’m very indebted to all of the musicians who were part of it.
Kara: Which included Nate [Query] and Jenny [Conlee] from The Decemberists, Joey Burns from Calexico and The Dodos, both of them.
Laura: Yes! Logan [Kroeber] and Meric [Long]were actually in Portland and came in. I sang on their Visitor record and they said, well if we [can ever] return the favor. They happened to be in Portland when I was recording so I said, "C’mon down!" They added some of my favorite parts on the record. Everyone on the record brought so much life and made me laugh.
Kara: You didn’t grow up in an area [Coquille] that got [a lot of bands coming through], so I’m curious what band or artist you might have seen for the first time.
Laura: I got into singer-songwriters in college and one of the first, although I haven’t listened to her stuff in a long time, is Patty Griffin. I got really into her. She has a wonderful way with words. I saw her play and she has a very powerful voice. That was one of the first real big live shows. Being in college, there was always someone sitting around with a guitar and playing and a little coffee shop that had shows. Before I really started singing, I secretly wanted to make music and sing, but I just didn’t know it was a possibility because I didn’t grow up with it.
Kara: Your dad died when you were very young. You, in turn, were very compassionate about playing for hospice patients. Is there always that sense of music saving you from aspects of grief? And moving into another plane?
Laura: That happened much later then when my dad passed away, but we had a hospice nurse in our house for quite a while growing up. Her presence and her role in our family really impacted me so I always had this vision of working with people who were in the last stages of their life. When I moved to Portland and I’d recently started playing music, I thought, well this is what I’ll do. This is how the vision will realize itself because I’m playing music. I met this woman who ran a non-profit residential care facility for people in late stages of AIDS called Our House of Portland. Before it even occurred to me to play shows or there was this thriving indie music scene in Portland, I played for my first two years at Our House of Portland. I think it really impacted my understanding of sharing songs with people and what music can be. Now that I’m having a more traditional trajectory with playing shows, I still feel really connected to that experience. To be honest. I don’t know if I’d be playing music or have the same connection with playing music had I not had that experience.