Laura Gibson's music isn't exactly upbeat.
"Everything I've ever written deals with grief in some way," says the singer-songwriter and Oregon native. "Even my purest love songs have grief as a current running through them."
Since 2006, Gibson has been weaving whispery vocals and gentle guitar melodies into indie-folk gold. Her fifth album, Goners, which is out this Friday on Barsuk Records, delves into dark corners, and explores grief with dreamlike logic and mythical storylines. "[For Goners,] I wanted to make something that stared directly at the idea of grief—both personally and as a culture," says Gibson. "It's about the way we as humans are together in pain, the way we come together and nurture one another, but also the ways we put up walls and act against each other."
However free-associative Goners' idea of grief may have become, its initial inspiration was pointed. Gibson began crafting half of the album's final 10 songs during a monthlong residency at Everglades National Park. Surrounded by the sublime, lush greenery, Gibson found herself away from home during the tumultuous by contrast 2017 presidential inauguration.
"I was grieving for our country," she says. "It was a strange time to be alone, and to be stepping back from this fight I wanted to be a part of."
She channeled that grief into her lyrics, along with the grief of losing her father at a young age, and the pressures of societal expectations. "As a woman and an artist," she says, "sometimes I don't feel like I quite fit within the greater culture's markers that let you know you're progressing the right way in the world. I don't even know how to conform to those markers."
The result is an album that deals with personal grief though the abstract. Many of Goners' songs tell fablelike stories with Gibson's fantastical literary language. In particular, the recent return of wolves to Oregon—after the species was hunted and trapped into near extinction in the 1940s—caught Gibson's fascination. In the summer of 2017, a mating pair of wolves were spotted on Mount Hood for the first time in a half-century.
Inspired by the symbolic parallel to the stories she wanted to tell, wolves seeped into many of Gibson's lyrics. The album's first single, "Domestication," tells the story of a wolf trying to live as a woman. In the end, she fails and returns to the wild. "I was born a wolf in women's clothes," Gibson sings against a palette of thundering drums and otherworldly harmonies.
For the music video, Gibson drew inspiration from a photograph of women from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, wearing pastel dresses in front of a picture of their leader. "I thought it would be amazing to build a world, and tell a story within that world, that looked like this picture," says Gibson. "'Domestication' took its name from the process of wild dogs becoming domesticated. For the video, I wanted to use it in a sense of women and home life."
Donning pastel dresses, their hair in milkmaid braids, Gibson and her female counterparts re-created the aesthetics of the FLDS world. The opening scene shows Gibson singing amid a choirlike formation of 12 expressionless women. Their hands folded in front of them, they move only to worship the photo of their fictitious leader. In the final scene, sitting around a sprawling dinner table, the women rebel. After they tie their leader to his chair, they begin to behave like wolves—laughing while devouring and throwing handfuls of food with wild abandon.
Gibson co-directed the video alongside acclaimed Portland photographer and director Alicia Rose. "I've always been more comfortable in the position of being the one gazing instead of feeling gazed at," Gibson says. "It was transformative to be able to create my own world, and see myself surrounded by this group of strong, beautiful women I really love."
Another challenge Gibson set for herself was trading her signature guitar for keys on many of the album's tracks. "I needed some other sounds, so I ended up playing a lot of piano and Wurlitzer," she says. "Some of the songs started on guitar, but they didn't really take on life until I played keys on them. It just served these songs, and opened them up in a different way, sonically."
The result is Gibson's most imaginative—and perhaps strangest—creation to date. But Goners signals a new era for Gibson, not a final zenith.
"I'm not sure what the next season of music and creative life will look like for me after touring this record," she says, "but I'd like to be playing and making songs for my whole life. I feel like I'm just now getting to a place where I have some important things to say."
HEAR IT: Goners is out Friday, Oct. 26 on Barsuk records.