It’s been quite the journey. Gibson released her first record in 2006 and two years later was set to play a session at South By Southwest with a couple of folks from NPR there to listen. But the venue was loud and crowded, and she didn’t connect with the public radio people. Instead, Gibson arrived at NPR studios three weeks later to play what was jokingly referred to as a desk concert. The result was a heartfelt performance and the beginning of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series.
More recently, Gibson had been living in Portland, Oregon, when she decided to shake things up and move to New York City to earn her MFA in creative writing. In March 2015, a gas explosion destroyed Gibson’s Manhattan apartment, killing two people. Gibson lost all her possessions in the horrendous blast, including some of her musical work that would end up on her newest album, Empire Builder. It’s a personal and poetic collection that Gibson said she’s happy to share as she continues on her path.
Here’s more from my recent conversation with Gibson, who expands on her need to shake things up in her life, what it’s like working as a musician in theatrical and commercial realms, and what advice she has for anyone else seeking to land a Tiny Desk concert.
Q: A lot has been written about the changes in your life as you were writing the songs on your new album, so I guess my first question is: where are you now?
Gibson: I’m coming to end of the writing program that I moved to New York to be a part of, and now the record is coming out. The last year has been really crazy and I’m feeling like I’m just catching up with where I am. Moving felt like such a big risk for me, and looking back, it doesn’t feel so huge. At the time I felt terrified that I was making the wrong choice and stepping too far away from music and from this person I love, and away from family and community. It felt really hard. Now with the end of school and the beginning of touring this record, I feel like I’m coming to the end of a season and I’m not sure what the next season feels like.
Q: Why did you feel the need at the time to make such a big change?
Gibson: I felt I needed to shake things up. I was looking at next steps. I came into music thinking I would do it a few years and go on doing something else, but I’ve kept in it while holding onto these other goals. There’s a big part of my brain that wants to write and talk about ideas, and I just felt I needed some sort of structure to expand, and school was a good way to do that.
Also, I had been with this person I loved very much and who I’m still with. We’re both musicians and trying to figure out if it is possible to play music and have this somewhat absurd lifestyle of life on the road. I love making things in the world, but I also want to have really meaningful connections with people and specifically one person. It just seemed that those two desires were really butting heads. I felt stalled in both areas, and I wasn’t sure how what I wanted my life to look. In so many ways, it wasn’t working to do both things and I wasn’t healthy and happy. I had to break my life open in a way. I needed to look at what I was capable of.
Now I really feel confident about it. It’s hard to see benefits and consequences, but it already feels so right. In the moment it felt both completely right and completely wrong – like either causing destruction in my life, or setting myself up to make a better life.
Q: You’ve found success with writing songs for commercial use, and you’ve written songs for theatrical performances. What’s it like to write with those different hats on?
Gibson: In some ways it all relates. The commercial stuff I’ve just done here and there. The practice is really freeing because you’re not taking yourself seriously. It kind of opens me up to possibilities I might not have seen.
Q: What was it like working for PHAME Academy? (In 2015, Gibson worked with PHAME Academy, a Portland-based nonprofit that works with developmentally disabled people. Gibson was a composer and lyricist for a PHAME musical production.)
Gibson: I love the idea of writing for other performers. PHAME was such a wonderful organization. The performers are enthusiastic and approach songs with such care – in some ways, more care that I can give my own work, because I perform my work so often. With PHAME, it was so freeing and exciting to think about writing to people’s strengths. I had ideas about the performers and what they offered, and about how to channel those performers in a way that felt really exciting.
I’ve always wanted music and my artistic life to be broad in that way and not just me playing in clubs and putting out records. I love theater and hope to do more projects. This was a really great way for me to start. There are challenges in composing. There were a lot of new skills involved. I feel like year before last was saying yes to a lot of things I wasn’t sure I could pull off and one of them was doing this music for PHAME. I think it grew me in a lot of ways. It was such a joy. I completely cried through the whole performance.
Q: I can’t resist asking you a question about the Tiny Desk part of your resume. Do you have any advice for anyone hoping to score a Tiny Desk concert?
Gibson: So many of the Tiny Desk concerts are people being completely themselves and following their instincts creatively. You can do a lot of things to make something like that polished and shiny and unique, but I think following your instincts in what feels charged and alive to you in creating will end up being what feels charged and alive to the person watching or reading. My whole lesson in ending up doing that first Tiny Desk concert is that it was a terrible SXSW show that in the moment I thought I was done, that I was completely choosing the wrong life for myself. Then the worst possible thing became the best possible thing. You just never know and things like that cannot be dismissed. It’s nice to have that touchstone, to see that things come around and good things come of really hard moments or what seem like failures; they often lead to the great big things.
Laura Gibson will play The Grey Eagle on Wednesday with Michael Nau (of Cotton Jones). The doors open at 7 p.m. with an 8 p.m. show. It’s an all ages, seated show. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 on the day of the show.