Sunday, January 22, 2012

Laura Gibson Tells Her Tale of "La Grande"

I first heard Laura Gibson's music when she opened for a solo performance by Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) at the Music Hall of Williamsburg a few years ago. Performing alone on a dimly lit stage, Ms. Gibson's unique voice, nimbly-punctuated guitar playing, and intimately sparse arrangements captivated the crowd for the duration of her set. I was blown away by her performance and compelled to hear more.

At the time, Laura Gibson was touring for her last full-length album, Beasts of Seasons, a record split into two parts: "Communion Songs" and "Funeral Songs". Her performance at MHOW and her recordings that I would later acquire, had such an impact on me that when I started Uprooted Music Revue, I wanted to try to speak with her for one of my first interview features. Since Ms. Gibson was not preparing a new release or touring at the time, my request was politely postponed.

So, in the meantime, I continued to work hard to find the voice of Uprooted Music Revue, and unbeknownst to me, Ms. Gibson was hard at work on her next album. Last December, I received word that she had a new record ready to drop, along with a live performance scheduled in Manhattan for the end of January 2012. Well, the emails began to fly, I quickly received my advance copy of the album, AND the opportunity to schedule an interview!

This week, Laura Gibson returns with her excellent new album, La Grande, which will issued via Barsuk Records. As a fan of Laura Gibson's work, my goal for the interview was to learn about her personal experiences, creative processes, and the crafting of each of her recordings, up to, and including La Grande. As you will read, Ms. Gibson was eager to share, and as you can probably imagine, I was very grateful. Here's our discussion:

Can you discuss when you began learning and playing music? What was your first instrument? Which artists/ records/ experiences inspired you to pursue music?

Laura Gibson: Unless you count playing TV theme songs on a tiny Casio keyboard when I was a kid, I didn't really play music growing up. I did write poetry when I was young, and I feel like that experience, the love of putting words together, feels really connected to what I do now.

I began playing guitar and writing songs in college, when I was about twenty. That realization that I could process and react to the world and my experiences by writing songs really changed my life.

I've loved a lot of old folk and Delta blues music, like Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten, and much of my guitar playing is influenced by those old songs. I also was really influenced by the great singer-songwriters, especially Leonard Cohen. I have always been drawn to the way he strings images together to form meaning. I probably wouldn't be writing the songs I am writing today if not for Leonard Cohen.

How did growing up in Oregon influence your musical sensibilities?

Laura: I grew up in a small and somewhat isolated town called Coquille. I've always felt pretty content in the silence, and spent a lot of time under tall Douglas Fir trees. By growing up in such a slow and quiet place, solitude and stillness were easy to come by.

Not a lot of new music came to Coquille (other than country pop), so I was never one to be up with music trends and never experienced live bands. When I began exploring the process of making music, I didn't have a lot of contemporary influences to draw from.

Much of my imagery comes from so much time spent in nature. Oregon is breathtaking, and I am constantly pulled towards paying attention to my surroundings, because there is so much beauty. There is also a certain spirit of exploration and optimism that people have on the West Coast. It's an openness to try new things. That openness is a big part of Portland's identity, and I think being there was a big reason I felt able to explore playing music in the first place.

When did you begin writing your own music?

Laura: I began in college. I actually learned to play music in order to realize the songs that were in my head. I wrote only a few songs in the first five years of playing. I was very "on and off" with my playing. Then I really began writing songs, and thinking of myself as a songwriter a few years after living in Portland. It took me a while to take myself seriously.

Can you discuss your experiences leading up to and including the writing and recording of If You Come To Greet Me and your Six White Horse EP?

Laura: If You Come to Greet Me was my first full-length record. I began writing those songs after going back to my hometown for a month. They were some of the first songs I ever wrote, and when I listen back to them now, I hear a lot of longing in them, for another time or place.

Six-White Horses was a limited run EP of old Blues and traditional songs. They are all covers and were recorded over the course of a weekend. It was meant to tide fans over before my second record, Beasts of Seasons. So I didn't write any of the songs on Six White Horses, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could play them.

How did you and Ethan Rose decide to work together? Can you briefly discuss your collaboration, Bridge Carols?

Laura: It began as a conversation about making music, and out of an appreciation of each others' processes. Ethan was always the person I'd run into at a party and end up talking for hours. We would talk so deeply about making music, which always surprised me because the music we make is so different. One day we just decided to get together just to see what would happen, and that lead to a year long collaboration. 

We tried a bunch of different processes, but we found the most exciting way of working together was for me to sing phrases and words off the top of my head over loops Ethan had recorded, then Ethan cut and paste them into new phrases and meanings. It really served as a palate cleanser. It really uprooted my understanding of how to bring songs into being, and also gave me a chance to explore my voice in ways I couldn't do in my more traditional songs. 

We did very few live shows, half of which were in Japan. I learned so much about being present and feeling free to explore while in the context of playing for an audience. That was very liberating. More than anything, it was such a gift to peek into Ethan's creative world for a season.

Beasts of Seasons is a record split into two parts: "Communion Songs" and "Funeral Songs". Can you briefly discuss your writing process for the record, both lyrically and musically?

Laura: I wrote most of the songs on Beasts of Seasons in an apartment by a window facing the Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland. Those songs were really conceived solo, and the arrangements were drawn around them.

After writing a few songs for Beasts of Seasons, it became clear that I was exploring mortality, and I wanted to follow through with that exploration. So all of the songs on that record seem to dance around themes of death and dying. I suppose that's just what I needed to explore at that particular season of my life.

I'm not sure whether the location influenced what I was writing about, but it didn't occur to me until later that I was writing all of these songs about death and dying while living next to a cemetery. I like to think they are actually songs about being alive. Musically, I wanted a lot of space on the record, and felt the silence moments were as important as the notes played. It is, perhaps, a record about frailty, in all of it's forms.

Sonically, I found the arrangements on the album really intriguing. Can you describe the recording process?

Laura: I recorded Beasts of Seasons with Tucker Martine, at his house, on a 16-track tape machine. I had written all of the songs alone with my classical guitar, in my apartment which looked out over this beautiful old cemetery in Portland. I brought them to Tucker, and we worked out the arrangements as the musicians came in. I had certain ideas in my head, but also let the musicians follow there own instincts. There was a lot of spontaneity, which gave a lot of good energy to the process.

Let's move onto your new album, La Grande.

I read that you were working in La Grande, a town just east of the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon. Can you discuss how La Grande, as a location, community, and source of inspiration, influenced your writing and recording of the record?

Laura: I actually took a short trip out to the town of La Grande when I first started working on the record. It seems, for whatever reason, it was on that trip where I really began to understand the kind of record I wanted to make. I wanted to make a record about forward movement, and I wanted to err on the side of confidence, whatever that might look like.

I became really interested in the history of the La Grande area. It is a place that represents both the triumphs and tragedies of the American West: the Oregon Trail, Native American community, and the US railroad system. It feels like all these layers of history are somehow still asserting their beings into the world, and at the time I was trying to understand how I, myself, assert my being into the world.

Somehow, while I was in La Grande, it seems my own desires and fears were reflected in the landscape. I wrote a song about the town and area, and when it came time to name the record, it felt right to name the whole record La Grande.

I approached this record a little differently then I had in the past. I got really excited about the musical arrangements, and I wanted to run with that, so I let the music inspire the lyrics. Some of the songs were finished when I began recording them. But for most of them, I was still working on the lyrics up until the last minute possible.

As a whole, I see it as a record about moving forward, and about confidence (where does it come from?). I also seemed to write a lot about two seemingly opposite paths: one being this best towards freedom and wildness, and the other being a path bent towards domesticity, and bound by relationships.

What were you listening to when you were working on the new album?

Laura: I was listening to a lot of Brazilian music. Bossa Nova, and later, during mixing, Tropicalia music. I was also istening to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood duets, and also some more modern things like Tune-Yards. I listened to a lot of things, but also had a lot of silences where I listened to no music at all. I read a lot, which is perhaps more inspiring to me than listening to music, as much as I love music. I read Marilynne Robinson, Opal Whitely, and poems by Mary Oliver.

Was there a song or songs that steered the direction of the album?

Laura: "La Grande" was the song that had been around the longest, and was the song we first began recording, so that feels like an important start. That initial double-drumming rhythm made me so excited for what would be possible in my music. I think recording that song first gave me the courage to move forward.

The songs really found their sound and place as I moved forward. I started with a particular batch of songs in mind, but kept writing new songs throughout the process. I wanted to allow myself to explode outwards with ideas, and keep that "editor" part of me quiet until later in the process. It took a lot of work, later on, to pull together all of the songs so that they felt like one solid statement. 
There were a few sonic ideas, like how the use of lo-fi harmonies weaved throughout the songs, almost as their own instrument, and the importance of the percussion and woodwinds. Thematically, the songs felt naturally felt tied to each other. I did cut a few songs that didn't feel they made sense with statement I was wanting to make.

You work with a number of guests on the album. Can you discuss how you connected with these artists and your experiences working with them?

Laura: Joey Burns of Calexico has been a wonderful supporter of my music, and he happened to be touring through town opening for the Arcade Fire while I was in the studio. He is such a good studio musician, and it was such a joy just to watch him operate. He was both sensitive to what I wanted and also confident enough to try out his own ideas. He is a gem of a human being, and just having his spirit, let alone his beautiful voice and musicianship, on my record meant the world to me.

I sang on the Dodo's Visitor record, and Meric and Logan said if I ever wanted them on a record, they would be happy to do it. They also happened to be in town and came into the studio one evening. They made me laugh and laugh, and they added some of my favorite parts on the record, particularly on the song "Red Moon", but also on "La Grande" and "Time is Not" too.

Nate Query of the Decemberists played all of the bass on my last record, and it was a joy to have him back on La Grande. Nate is an incredible player, and he is also just so positive and supportive too. I had wanted an organ player on the song "The Fire" and I knew no one could shred the Hammond B3 like Jenny Conlee from the Decemberists. She is amazing.

Sean Ogilvie of Musee Mecanique helped me with the woodwind arrangements. This was the first time I really sat down and scored out parts before being in the studio. I would come home from the studio each night and sit at a midi keyboard and computer until 3 in the morning before going back in the next day. I couldn't have done it without Sean's help and advice. He actually wrote a few different arrangements for "crow/swallow" before we closed in on one that fit with the rest of the record.

Sean studied music composition, and he is really a composer above all else. Sean and I approach music so differently. He really plans things in advance, and thinks through how everything will fit together, where I tend to choose direction based on feelings and ear, and tend to compose as I'm going and place a lot of weight on being in the moment. I think Sean and I tend to balance each other out, and he's taught me so much.

More than just adding really good parts, I think having these personalities brought a lot of life to the record, and a lot of confidence to me.

As you reflect on your experiences, and that now the new record is finished, what would you say connects La Grande to your previous work, and what sets it apart most for you?

Laura: It's much more energetic than my previous two records, and a bit more expansive. But because it's me, with my particular tics and tendencies, it's not hard to find a connection. I think I've always been moved by music that had a certain intimacy, and I have always aimed for sincerity above all else. 

My first two records really feel like having someone whisper in your ear. In making La Grande, I had this realization that there is more than one way of achieving intimacy. You can have the kind of intimacy that is whispering quietly in someone's ear, but there is also the kind of intimacy that is just being completely free and fearless and letting someone else in on that freedom and fearlessness. I wanted to aim for that kind of connection with the listener. So what felt like distance, actually let me give more of myself to the record.

Being based in the Northwest, can you describe how your local music community influences your work?

Laura: I'm so fortunate to be surrounded by so many great musicians, and to have a mix of more experienced friends to look up to and seek advice from, as well as younger, wide-eyed artists who bring such energy to the community. It really helps me keep perspective. Sometimes the density of musicians and "music talk" can feel overwhelming, so I do appreciate my friends outside of the music world, and recognize the need to step away pretty often. Overall, I am really thankful for the community. 

What are your touring plans for the new record?

Laura: We're heading to Europe mid-January, and then hitting the East Coast late January. Then, the rest of the US in February and March (including SXSW), and then a longer tour of Europe in April/May. 

What can fans expect from your upcoming live tour? Will you be traveling solo and/ or with accompaniment this time around?

Laura: I'll be doing a lot of touring as a five-piece, with bass, drums, flute/piano, clarinet, horn, and lots of harmonies. The Europe shows will be mostly as a four-piece. The band I've been working with is amazing, I'm so lucky to be playing music with them. 

Well Laura, thanks so much for taking the time to discuss your work. I wish you the very best of luck with the release of La Grande, and with your upcoming tour.

Laura: Thanks so much for the interview, and for wanting to share my music. Have a happy new year!

Laura Gibson's La Grande will be released January 24th via Barsuk Records. For more information on Laura's work, visit her website:

Laura Gibson 2012 US tour dates:

01/23/12 New York, at Other Music
01/25/12 Boston, at TT The Bears
01/26/12 Philadelphia, at Johnny Brendas
01/27/12 Arlington, at Iota Club & Cafe
01/28/12 Norfolk, at The Attucks Theatre
01/30/12 New York, at Mercury Lounge
02/03/12 Portland, OR, at Mississippi Studios
02/04/12 Seattle, at Tractor Tavern
02/05/12 Eugene, OR, at House of Records, In-Store
02/06/12 San Francisco, at Bottom of the Hil
02/07/12 Santa Barbara, at Muddy Waters Cafe
02/08/12 Los Angeles, at Echo
02/09/12 Joshua Tree, CA, at Pappy & Harriet’s
02/10/12 Tuscon, at Plush
02/11/12 Marfa, at TBD for Marfa Book Store
02/12/12 Austin, at The Mohawk
02/13/12 Houston, at Fitzgerald’s
02/14/12 Denton, at Dan’s Silverleaf
02/15/12 Norman, OK, at Opolis
02/16/12 Albuquerque, at Low Spirits
02/17/12 Denver, at Hi-Dive
02/18/12 Salt Lake City, at Kilby Court
02/19/12 Boise, at Neurolux

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