It’s easy to picture Laura Gibson strolling wide-eyed through Portland’s neighborhood streets, looking skyward and just completely digging autumn’s shifting palette. She says she loves to watch the leaves turn colors, loves to feel the air turn crisp, then cold. Something about seasonal change brings out the best in her. The pensive 27-year-old folk artist doesn’t sweat the small stuff—she thrives on it.
“None of my songs are huge, dramatic events,” she says, her young nephew chattering in the background. “I think that life is really grand with the pain and romance and all that. I definitely view the world as grander than a day-to-day grind. But I’m enchanted by little things: random people you meet; conversations that you have. That makes me really excited and inspired.”
Passion for detail pays off big time on If You Come to Greet Me, Gibson’s full-length debut on Portland’s Hush Records. Strapped with her trademark nylon-stringed guitar, she brushes the album with spare, intimate strokes of insight largely sourced in her late grandparents’ romantic writings.
“I moved back to my hometown, to my mom’s house, for a month. She told me about these two huge boxes just packed with letters between her mom and dad when he was in the Navy. I never really knew my grandparents on either side, and I was going through this period where I wanted to know who I was and where I came from,” she says, adding that reading their words revealed much about their and her own personalities. “I’ve always liked that era—the ’40s and ’50s—so I kind of got caught up in their world for a while.”
The ties that bind aren’t delivered point-blank on Greet Me, with lyrics lifted directly from one letter or another. Instead, Gibson’s fascination with Billie Holiday and buried ancestry winds through the album’s occasional waltzes and the overall nostalgic feel that perfectly complements her timeless voice. Since teaming up with Norfolk & Western’s Adam Selzer—a collaboration that led her to Hush—Gibson has fine-tuned her delivery for stronger, more self-assured effect. The result is several heartbreaking moments of understated genius strung along bits of musical saw, violin, lap steel, trumpet, upright bass, accordion and other instruments played by herself, Selzer and a crew of polished indie-folk musicians. When asked if their relationship is a natural extension of Portland’s hip, thriving music scene, Gibson laughs. Not exactly, she says.
“When I first moved here, I didn’t get that Portland had such an amazing music scene. My understanding of indie music and bands was just like, ‘Oh, they are really cool and that doesn’t seem like my thing at all,’” she says, adding that she’s never been one to pursue new, cool groups. “I could never keep up. I love music, but it’s more music that finds me.”
Which isn’t to say Gibson’s not proactive—or cool in her own right. How many artists get their start performing in convalescence homes? Gibson picked up a guitar eight years ago but didn’t play out until five years later, booking gigs at senior centers while pursuing math in college. When she moved to Portland, resolving to make music full-time, she wanted an outlet more meaningful than traditional concert venues. “My father had cancer from when I was 11 to 14. He passed away. We did a lot of hospice in our home,” she says, adding that she always hoped to work with similar programs in the future. She met a woman who ran a hospice for patients with late stages of AIDS and began performing every Tuesday. There, she established a bond with the audience that carries over into nearly all of her shows today.
“I’ve played a few shows in loud bars where you just don’t feel that connection,” she says. “I always have this understanding of me giving something to the audience and the audience receiving something. There’s an interaction there that’s hard to put into words.”
It might seem like an obvious perk of musicianship, but many bands overlook the unique opportunity to connect with strangers on a very personal and emotional level. Gibson says she is not an entertainer, but she loves to be onstage. Some interpret her stage presence as quiet and shy, which is only true to the extent that she never walks into a room and shouts “Yo! Let’s get crazy!” Pay closer attention, however, and you’ll notice Gibson’s charming speech—a spontaneous, wayward ramble between songs.
This is the sort of unpretentious, non-self-aware quality that helped endear Gibson to Hush Records. At Selzer’s prompting, she sent an e-mail to the label’s co-founders who, in turn, listened to her demos. No hoops. No fuss. And, one year later, they released her debut. “The people and timing were right,” she says, acknowledging that it’s not always so easy.
And, of course, there’s more work to be done. Gibson recently recorded an EP which she plans to distribute on tour, but not to reviewers or record stores—just a little something for the audience. She’s also working with a composer in hopes of producing a more planned-out, orchestral sophomore album.
“I have a certain aesthetic that’s just me that will remain on the next record, but I’m excited to try different songs,” she says, adding that planned collaborations might add an interesting twist to her solo work. “I’m always going through different processes and trying to approach things in new ways. You just never know how it’s going to translate.”
LAURA GIBSON @ Kilby Court, 741 S. 330 West, Wednesday Oct. 17, 7 p.m. 24Tix.com