But Gibson doesn’t fuck around on the court.
“As soon as the game started, I was like ‘Rahhrrr!’” she says of her team’s Rigsketball run. “And it’s funny, because I don’t think a lot of people had seen that side of me. It was fascinating how fast I lost myself to just, like, be in it.”
Gibson learned how to play basketball long before she learned how to play music. She was a Red Devil at Coquille High School and a Wildcat during her first year at Linfield College. But confidence on the court didn’t immediately translate to confidence in her music. Before taking the stage for the first time as a Linfield senior, Gibson lost her voice. “I swear it wasn’t a mental thing,” she says now. “But it felt like it.”
When she moved to Portland after college, Gibson started following indie music for the first time, but the scene seemed intimidating. Instead of pursuing local labels, she found a creative outlet playing “informal music therapy” for late-stage AIDS patients. “I thought that’s what music would be for me,” she says.
But when she heard a Hush Records-signed folk-pop act called Norfolk & Western, Gibson felt a deep kinship with the band’s music. She wrote frontman-producer Adam Selzer and asked him to help her record. He agreed. But in the studio, when Selzer asked Gibson for direction, she’d defer back to him. “She knew what she didn’t want,” Selzer says now, “but not so much what she wanted. There was a lot of trial and error on the first record.”
“I had no idea that it was possible for me to make production decisions,” Gibson says. “It was far from what I had identified as my skill set.”
In the five years since that record came out, Gibson has vastly improved that skill set. She’s still soft-spoken in concert, but confident enough to lead the crowd in singalongs and crack jokes during the pauses. Her 2009 full-length, the Tucker Martine-produced Beast of Seasons, was a courageous departure that opened with a white noise-filled, 7½-minute opening tune and veered experimental throughout.
Gibson’s new disc, La Grande, is a different kind of departure. It finds the singer-songwriter tackling rowdy country tunes, charming sambas and Dixieland-influenced ballads. Her new songs cover love and sex and death and nature. But on songs like “Lion/Lamb,” “The Fire” and “Time is Not,” there’s another theme that comes to the fore—an embrace of the current moment and taking control of one’s own life. “There’s the type of intimacy that’s like sitting next to you and whispering in your ear, and then there’s this type of intimacy where you’re able to feel very free in front of an audience,” Gibson says. “I wanted to enter into this experiment to see if I could end up at the same place of intimacy and sincerity, but to achieve it by being completely uninhibited—and offering that to the listener.” The sentiment is a little more rock ‘n’ roll than what we’re used to from the once-shy Gibson, but it makes for her most engaging, brilliant full-length to date. It also helped her make decisions in the studio.
“This time I was like, ‘I’m in charge, I’m the boss,’” Gibson says, laughing as she describes her second go-round with Selzer. The production on La Grande was more collaborative than last time, and Gibson felt freed up to try new things in the studio (vocal effects and horn arrangements pepper the disc). The emergence of a bolder Laura Gibson couldn’t have come at a better time: La Grande is the singer’s first effort for respected indie label Barsuk Records, which sent Gibson on a headlining tour of Europe last month.
These days, Gibson doesn’t lose her voice before shows. “It’s not so much that I have learned to appear confident, I just trust the people who are listening a little bit more,” she says. “I think that’s where shows become a little magical, in that letting go.”
SEE IT: Laura Gibson plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Friday, Feb. 3, with Breathe Owl Breathe. 9 pm. $12. 21+.