A La Grande Trip
By Tamara Vallejos
Portland-based singer-songwriter Laura Gibson loves her home state. To her, Oregon’s identity is rooted in exploration, over 150 years after intrepid settlers traveled along a 2,000-mile trail to get there. So it makes sense that for Gibson’s third and latest album, one that adventurously pushes her usually hushed style to a new level, she drew inspiration from home—specifically, the small town of La Grande, located in Oregon’s northeastern corner.
“I go down these rabbit holes of Oregon history, and I took a trip out to La Grande right around when I first started working on the record,” says Gibson. “At first I got interested because I was researching a train wreck that happened there, but I was also thinking a lot about moving forward in my life, and I saw these hopes and fears reflected in the history and landscapes of this place.”
Spurred on, Gibson penned the song “La Grande,” which kicks off her album of the same name.
It’s a haunting track, conjuring up gothic images of a dusty Wild West, and driven by precise drumming that could easily mimic the pattern of a train steadily chugging across miles of track into the unknown. The immediacy and richness is a step in a new direction for Gibson, whose music has often featured just her quiet, lovely vocals atop a lonely guitar.
“When I was thinking about the kind of record I wanted to make, I decided that my goal would be to err on the side of confidence,” she explains. “‘La Grande’ was the first song I began recording and it felt very real and important, so I thought it would be a nice title for the record.”
The title track for La Grande also featured themes that recur throughout the album—particularly the notion of moving forward and taking charge of one’s desires. In her quest to be more confident, Gibson incorporated into her lyrics motivational statements she had jotted down for herself, such as “I am not a lamb, I am a lion.”
True, Gibson isn’t exactly rocking out on La Grande, but with music as delicate as hers, the extra bits of assertiveness stand out.
“My first record came at a very hard and lonely time in my life,” she says, contrasting La Grande with her 2006 debut If You Come to Greet Me. “It was dreaming of another time and place, and it’s very sparse. You have a feeling of being in the room with me while I sing, and the second record, Beasts of Seasons, was also really intimate.”
If the creation of La Grande was meant to challenge Gibson, its lessons have extended beyond the recording studio, and to her live performance. In the past, she could get away with solo shows, but now her backing band is more essential than ever. Plus, she’s had to get used to tougher guitar parts for herself, and the inclusion of new instruments and effects pedals.
Perhaps this means Gibson won’t have to worry about being drowned out by her audience, which has happened to her in the past.
“That’s one of the challenges of playing live, because it doesn’t always work out to be a quiet room—though I’ve been really fortunate to have some really great audiences,” she says. “But there are times that environment really brings out more in me than I knew was possible. So in that way, those types of shows can be a real blessing.”
Laura Gibson with Breathe Owl Breathe at Pappy & Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Rd., Pioneertown, (760) 365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com. Thurs, Feb. 9. 8PM.