Laura Gibson Is Giving the World a "Swift Kick in the Arse"
It's Thursday morning and Laura Gibson has only a couple hours left before the tour starts. She's almost due to take off from Portland, her home, and drive to San Francisco, where her five-piece band will make their first stop.
Before she heads out, there are songs to rehearse, a van to pack up and, I imagine, last moments of solitude to savor. Ahead for Gibson is a weekend as long as the Pacific Coast Highway, lined with gigs and people. And today it's my job to disturb her last moment of peace with a phone call and some questions about her third and most recent solo album, La Grande.
Upon its release last winter, The Quietus's Meryl Trussler called Le Grande "a swift kick in the arse of what went before." And that's about right. To anyone familiar with her previous work, La Grande surprises by flashing new teeth and sonic tinsel. Gibson's first two albums, If You Come to Greet Me (2006) and Beasts of Seasons (2009), played within a range of folksy quiet you could call thoughtful and self-possessed. Gibson's wordsmithery anchors these records. But on Le Grande, she has loosened up without losing her intensity. The clear watchword is one she's thought a lot about since her last album: confidence.
From the beginning, Gibson's music was rooted as much in her reading as it was in her musicianship. Since she was a teenager in smalltown Coquille, Oregon, Gibson dabbled in poetry she today sees as shy attempts to write her first lyrics. A self-described "late bloomer," Gibson's musical epiphany came when she heard a Leonard Cohen record in college. "I started to play music because I wanted a way to put words together and play with language," Gibson says. "So to discover someone who really labored over their lyrics as Leonard Cohen did made it seem a worthwhile thing to aim for."
In 2009, while working with Portland sound artist Ethan Rose on a largely improvised album called Bridge Carols, Gibson began to wonder what might happen if she took more risks in her own songwriting. The "kick in the arse" Trussler would eventually celebrate in her review of La Grande begins here.
"It's really easy once you start to make art of any kind to constantly fight your understanding of yourself," Gibson says, when reflecting on her newly broadened scope. "So, with Ethan, doing something that was so different and coming from this opposite perspective of making music than I was used to, it made me realize I could do good work from another angle, too."
An example from La Grande of where Gibson left herself more musically vulnerable than she had in the past is the song "The Rushing Dark", a record that flickers with the translucence and crackle of a field recording, circa Roosevelt's New Deal.
Gibson wrote the song while walking around Manchester, England during her 2010 tour with Rose. She didn't immediately feel the tune was something fit to record, its melody consisting of little more than a swirl of voices -- hardly the structural beast she had come to expect from herself. But Rose suggested she have an acapella song on hand in case the electronics on which the duo relied for their gigs crashed. When finally she recorded "The Rushing Dark" for La Grande it seemed to her "an important part of the puzzle" for how she wanted to stretch herself on the new album. It was during the 8-track demo session for the song that Gibson decided, as she put it, to "err on the side of confidence."
When I call Gibson, she's in her backyard standing in the shade of a big black walnut tree. She's taking care of some last-minute gardening before committing herself completely to the tour and crush of people just hours ahead of her. Though she's not entirely alone when she picks up the phone. Three chickens she cares for with housemates are enjoying the late morning sun with her, including the fowl Gibson herself is responsible to, Gertrude.
"I'm putting cages around the tomato plants," Gibson tells me, laughing at her own optimism for anticipating a robust enough harvest to require wire support. "We've got a little garden out here and I have a little trailer I set up as a studio space for myself. Because my boyfriend is also a musician and has a recording studio in the house that he uses to record a lot of other bands. So this garden and this trailer -- I just needed a little escape pod."