Her first week in New York, on the way to her first classes in the creative writing program at Hunter College, Laura Gibson stepped off a curb and broke her foot. To some, that would register as a bad omen, but the formerly Portland-based singer-songwriter mostly took it in stride. "Now," she says, "everything seems like a breeze." But life has a way of upping the ante when you least expect it: Minutes after getting off the phone for the following interview, a gas-line explosion consumed Gibson's East Village apartment. She escaped unharmed, but lost all her possessions—including notebooks containing lyrics for the record she's been working on between semesters. Though her life changed immensely in the moments after speaking with her (and she's canceled her homecoming show this week at Mississippi Studios), many of the things we discussed remain almost eerily relevant.
Willamette Week: Did the idea of living in New York match the reality?
Laura Gibson: In general, it gives me such a charge. I think people in New York are unapologetically ambitious, because you have to be. I feel like, to have these different perspectives on life and work, and going back and forth between [New York and Portland], is pretty helpful. It was helpful when I lived in Portland. I'd come to New York and get recharged and return to Portland and feel like, "I've got to do stuff. I've got to make things." It's nice now, when I go back to Portland, it feels really relaxing, and I can take that productive pace and get a lot done.
In what ways has living in New York affected you as an artist?
I'm still figuring that out. But it's fascinating for me being here, because I think so much of making music in the past has been this way of filling silence. So much of my creative needs have been to have silence. Now I live in the East Village, and I just heard a siren as we were talking. It's so stimulating and so noisy, and I think I've been thinking about what it means to sing into the noise, and how that may be different from singing into the silence, and I'm not quite sure. I don't feel super engaged with the music community [in New York], because I've been so busy with school and writing stuff. But I think a lot of the act of leaving Portland and stepping away from the people I love the most in the world has been a bigger artistic source than the actual geography, maybe.
You've been working on a new record. Did those songs exist prior to the move to New York?
Some did, a lot have been written since I moved here. It's funny because I wrote a lot of them on residency at Caldera in Central Oregon, which is very removed, with no Internet and no phone, and a lot I've written here, and there's actually quite a bit with city imagery in them, and really specific. I always tended to use a lot of nature imagery, but I feel like I may be writing fiction has made me want to be more specific in my references than I have been in the past. So there's a lot of New York places and objects in these songs.
You've said that focusing on fiction has made your songwriting more personal. Why is that?
In some ways, writing fiction you can trick yourself into revealing more of yourself. I've often done that in writing songs, writing from a character perspective and by the end of the song, I'll look at it and realize, "Oh, that's about me." In this case, there's also the sense that, because I'm focusing on this other area, all of a sudden music becomes more shiny when it's an act of rebellion rather than the thing you should be working on. Again and again, I've rediscovered music and the way that it saves me. I don't know if this rediscovery is different than the last few records, because I always feel like I'm coming back around and rediscovering how life-giving it is to put words together with melodies. Singing through so much, and going through so much to get here, I've turned to music as this life-giving force, and it's felt like more of an outlet. Also, so much of my brain is engaged with writing fiction, and going and putting sentences together and thinking of ideas. I've dedicated my word-puzzling brain to this other endeavor, and what's left has been more emotional, and I've engaged in songwriting in a more personal way because of it.
Have you been often to play out much in New York?
I feel like I'm just starting to draw more connections and be plugged into what's happening here. In Portland, I felt so plugged into everything that's going on in a way that's wonderful and satisfying. But here, part of my being in New York has been working on my thing, so I guess I haven't really sought out having any sort of place here. It almost feels like I'm on this extended retreat.
You've been recording this record at the Oregon Coast, correct?
I recorded some in Portland. I started it last summer, just for two days recording with John Askew in Portland, and thought, "I'll just keep working on this throughout the year." But moving was such a big deal, and I broke my foot the first week I lived in New York—my very first week. That was a big part of my transition. I was on crutches for a month and a walking cast the next month. It was on my way to my first day to school. I stepped off a curb and somehow just stepped wrong and broke my foot.
Wow. You didn't think, "This is a bad omen?"
I live on a fifth floor walkup, too, so with crutches, going up, was really hard. Now, everything seems like a breeze. So that was a big part of my transition. Starting school and getting around this already difficult city with a broken foot for a couple months physically slowed me down and slowed down a lot of things. I've just sort of put the record aside for my first semester as I was figuring stuff out. I had all of January off, and I thought, "Maybe I should just wait and put the record off until I'm done with school." I had set up time with Peter Broderick out on the coast during that January time, who was part of my original band in Portland. I thought it'd be fun to go play music with him. Once I got back and started working on the record, I just dove so deep into it. ISo it went from me being like, "I'm not sure if I should make a record," then I just really went for it. We're almost done. Right now I'm nudging lyrics into place, and I have a lot of vocals to record.
You're in the middle of this graduate program. Why did you feel like embarking on a new record at all?
Part of me thought, "This is a silly idea. I should just wait." But there were songs I wrote in the process of deciding to leave [Portland], about a lot of the things I was wrestling with in terms of being an artist in the world. Choosing this strange lifestyle of making and writing and playing shows, I think a lot of my ideas and language and articulation of that wrestling came out in the form of a few songs that felt really meaningful to me. Had I not written those few songs, I wouldn't have felt as compelled to do the project, and I wouldn't have believed I had anything meaningful to say. Part of the reason for me going to school was I just didn't think I had anything new or exciting to give to the music world. Not that I'm proclaiming this record to be anything new or exciting, but I just felt a little tired of the form of songwriting and wasn't sure I had anything new to offer myself. But then I wrote these songs within that decision of coming here, and all of a sudden—who knows what the songs will mean to anyone else, but I felt like I was narrowing in on something I at least needed to tell myself, or at least other people. I don't want to sound self-important, it's just about having something to say to myself.
Other than your friends, what do you miss most about Portland?
I really miss being in nature, and the mountains and clear water and green trees. You can find nature around here [in New York], but the minute I get back to Portland, all I want to do is go hiking, even if it's raining. I didn't even realize how much I would long for trees and fresh air until they weren't around.
What do you miss the least?
I do miss and I don't miss the small town-ness. When I broke my foot, as hard as it was to get around, every day there was 100 tiny kindnesses from people who I've never talked to in my life, and there's something really amazing in that that you can't experience in a place where everyone knows who you are. New York can make you really frustrated with humanity, but it can make you really believe in humanity at the same time.
Will you eventually return to Portland?
I think so. I may stay for a little bit longer, but I'll at least go back to Oregon. I think once I've gotten the city life out of me, I might go to a smaller town. But I think I'll eventually go back there, either after the program or not long after the program. More and more, in the work I'm doing, even the fiction work I'm doing, you'll have workshops, and so much of the feedback I get is, "Oh, you're such a Western writer." I've really learned in moving to the East, and I think you can say this about music too, so much of what I make has to do with landscape and place, so it's funny that so often I'm told from my teachers and peers, "You write about the West."