Laura Gibson Live

“You must go change your life.”

Those words by Rainier Marie Rilke followed Laura Gibson as she boarded a train in the summer of 2014, the Empire Builder line that took her from Portland toward New York City. Ahead was an MFA program in creative writing and uncertainty; behind was a boyfriend, a close-knit family and music community, a city that fanned her songwriting and her life. It was a story that she had already written traded for countless blank pages. The train wheels scraped against the rails, shearing off a layer of dust, a rolling tabula rasa.
Back in Portland she had already started writing a new batch of songs, recording demos with engineer John Askew (The Dodos, Neko Case). She planned to finish in New York, but her entrance to the city was bumpy. Securing a fifth floor apartment in the East Village, Gibson continued work on the new songs and began her program at Hunter College, even as her long distance relationship started to suffer. Shortly after she arrived, she broke her foot, effectively barring her in the apartment while it healed. The songs she had begun to write and record in Portland began to feel more important, a way of understanding her situation. A new record was taking shape.

I changed my name the day I left I cut my hair, I hemmed my dress I was damn sure about it You were playing piano in an empty room Ringless finger, a calloused thumb
Damn sure about it, we were damn sure about it
On breaks from school, Gibson returned to Portland to continue recording in Askew’s studio, and with violinist/composer Peter Broderick on the Oregon Coast. Her rhythms were emerging in the studio, and in New York she was getting settled.

A fire changed all that. On March 26, 2015, Gibson’s East Village apartment building was consumed by a gas explosion and burned to the ground. Two people lost their lives, more were injured, and most were displaced. Gibson escaped unharmed, but in the wreckage was every piece of the life that she brought with her: the notebooks filled with lyrics, her instruments, including the guitar she had played on every album, every ID card and piece of paper that detailed who she was.

She bounced around. She slept on couches. Friends and fans and fellow musicians near and far supported her with guest beds, financial assistance, and encouragement. In the midst of trauma and recovery, the very act of writing and re-writing her lost lyrics connected her to who she was, and where she was going.

We are not alone and we are more alone than we’ve ever been So hurry up and lose me, hurry up and find me again
As the songwriting came together, the music and recordings did too, as Gibson gathered a band of her closest friends and most admired peers: Dave Depper (Death Cab for Cutie, Menomena) took up guitar and bass, building ambient loops. Drummer Daniel Hunt (Neko Case) layered percussion, and Broderick added string sections and sang with a sensitivity to match Gibson’s own silver voice. Contributors like Nate Query of The Decemberists and the singer/songwriter Alela Diane rounded out the studio time. Sharing the role of producer, Gibson and Askew pushed forward. What emerged is Gibson’s most personal record to date.

It is impossible to miss the effects of Gibson’s fiction studies on her songs. She writes with the narrative precision and imagery of Marilynn Robinson or Rilke, circling simple truth with powerful images, never sacrificing style for clarity or vice versa. On title track “Empire Builder” Gibson keeps a spare arrangement that makes uncommon use of space as the keys and guitar shimmer and flow, punctuating on the downbeats as she sings,

But you never liked it when I play dead And you wondered why my love songs were always the grieving kind Why I wander off to search for my reflection in the crowd

It is an album about womanhood; about looking your own ambition in the face and wondering whose eyes are staring back (“Not Harmless”), about the crushing certainty that nothing is certain (“Damn Sure”).

Gibson reflects, “This time around I didn’t wanted to settle for abstract phrases or leave things open to poetic interpretation. I fought harder to make the story clear, and I guess by story, I mean my own.”

A narrative made of a hundred moving parts, Empire Builder is suspended in the intricate moment between loss and recovery, a map to go forward, with pins in all the places we’ve left, and more in the places we’ve yet to go.

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