THE SOUNDS OF SOLACE Laura Gibson

The
Portland-based singer/songwriter learns to embrace the intimacy.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

 

Oregon offers
one of the last refuges of an older America, a ruggedly beautiful
expanse where it’s still possible to escape the buzz of modern civilization and
breathe in the quiet, indomitable beauty of Mother Nature. It gives echoes of
another place and time, when an air of expectation might linger in the air and
a visceral sense of change and transition accompanies the unfolding of the
seasons. It creates an indelible sensory impression, the feeling that one’s
environment still impacts daily existence and life moves with slow deliberation
and circumspect so as to soak it all in.

This is the setting that inspired the latest album by Laura
Gibson, a Portland-based singer/songwriter whose intimate reflections parallel
the shrouded ambiance of the state’s atmospheric environs. Her new album, aptly
titled Beasts of Seasons, was written
over the course of two years in a room overlooking a creaky cemetery, and its
themes are cloaked in a twin veil of faith and mortality.  It’s a fragile balance, but Gibson treads the
divide with supple aplomb, offering weary observations that are pensive as
opposed to troubled, fragile and yet quietly assured, reflection that might
draw on something very specific or simply the realization there’s something
greater which lies beyond.

 

“It wasn’t so much of an incident, as a theme that hung in
the air,” Gibson says in retrospect. “I would have conversations every day
with friends about mortality. Myself – and many of my friends felt – and
still feel, rather apocalyptic. Many of the songs came as a need to
reflect on the urgency of life, the need to understand that there is much
hope.  That said, I definitely don’t look back on these years as dark
times.  I felt really happy for the most part while I was making these
songs.  Perhaps I felt strong enough to tread in more weighty territory.” 

 

Curiously, Gibson admits that the process of conveying these
heady subjects was an organic one, inspiration slowly seizing her spirit and fueling
her muse.  “There was nothing deliberate,
initially,” Gibson maintains.  “I just felt compelled to write about this
particular theme of death and dying.  It sounds funny, but I almost felt
that for that time period, I was only able to write through the eyes of an old
woman.  I was a good way into writing the record before I really felt
aware of a unifying theme.  Then, it was a matter of finishing what I
started. Overall, I never felt I had to tailor any of the songs.  It came
together pretty naturally.”

 

That gradual shift seems to fall in line with Gibson’s
trajectory overall. She claims she didn’t necessarily set out to make music a
career.  In fact, her earliest musical
memories aren’t all that dissimilar from those of any child coming of age in
the American heartland – “Classic Disney movies, Julie Andrews, olden hymns
sung in wooden churches.  I didn’t grow up in a musical family, and never
really understood that I could play music or sing until I was in college. 
The two musical foreshadowings of my childhood were writing a lot of poetry and
playing TV theme songs on a little pastel yellow keyboard.”

Inspired after immersing herself in old Delta Blues and the Appalachian folk music
parlayed by the likes of Elizabeth Cotten, Mississippi John Hurt and the Carter
Family, she learned to play guitar in traditional finger picking style by
invoking those age-old melodies. “I’ve always felt very connected to the
idea of folk music or folk art in general,” she confides.  “I especially
love early American folk music; people making music for no other reason then
because there is music in our bones.  I think music will always play a
role in social consciousness, at times very overtly, and at times in more subtle
ways.  It’s amazing, the role folk music played in the ‘60’s in raising
social awareness.  I’m not sure if I can say what role the folk music of
my generation will play.  In the ‘60’s, the act of listening to music
seemed more of a communal experience.   Nowadays, everyone has there
own personal I-Pod, and new music travels across the internet every five
minutes.”

 

That said, Gibson’s early career path followed an
unconventional course. “The first two years that I lived in Portland, I
believed my musical outlet would be playing for people who were sick and/or
dying, and my only ‘shows’ took place for residents of a AIDS care facility,”
she recalls.  “It really didn’t occur to me to play in clubs.  I
spent a lot of time alone in my room writing songs.  Finally, I felt I had
a good collection of songs to record, and with much encouragement, began
playing humble shows in Portland.” 

 

Even so, Gibson’s decision to turn her avocation into a full
time career wasn’t an immediate one.  “It
was something I talked myself into gradually,” she insists.  “I don’t
naturally identify with being a performer.  I really had to come to the
belief that playing shows and making music as a living wasn’t just
self-indulgence.  Much of that was fear manifested itself as responsibility. 
I’m so eternally grateful that I’m on the path I’m on right now.”

Beasts of Seasons is Gibson’s second album
following If You Come to Greet Me,
her low-lit debut released in 2006.  This
time around, the imagery is more striking (“I kept seeing images of our bodies
slowly bending over, of lines forming in skin, of organs losing their
function.  I think that kind of imagery comes naturally.”).  And while the arrangements still procure a
remarkably soft sheen, the tones and textures seem to burrow deeper below the
surface, revealing new layers with each successive hearing.  She enlists a notable support crew, with
producer Tucker Martine
(Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens) and members of M Ward’s band, Bright Eyes, the
Decemberists and her own steady backing band creating shimmering soundscapes
and a haunting, wholly seductive motif. 

“It was half planned out, and half a collaborative process,” Gibson
recalls. “Much of the time, we would have the musicians hear the songs and
present their ideas, and then I’d share the melodies in my head.  I have a
tremendous amount of respect and awe for all of the musicians that
contributed.  I wanted them to give life to the record.  There were
some parts I felt certain about prior to recording, and some things, I just
wanted to take shape in the process.  I like the energy that comes from
improvisation.  But of course, I also like to be as prepared as
possible.  Having a few things left a mystery going into a record keeps
things exciting.”

 

Still, it’s seems somewhat of a gamble to bank on
introspection these days, especially given the fact that these gentle musings
must compete with all the racket that occupies the marketplace these days.

 

“I suppose it’s always a leap of faith, to make
something you feel compelled to make, hoping that there will be people out
there who connect to it,” Gibson concedes.  “I made the record I needed to
make for this season in my life, and couldn’t have made any other
record.   Various insecurities passed through my head at different
times, but I just had to trust that if making these songs brought me so much
hope, then people would find hope in listening to them.  Actually, I
really love the idea that that it requires a bit more time and a longer
attention span.” 

 

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