In the soil that pushes up against the walls of Laura Gibson's old basement apartment, you'll find the bones of Portland's founding members. A tug of the blinds and you'll see the sun—or, more often, cascading rain drops—bounce off the top of graying tombstones. When you share space with an old cemetery, it's bound to seep in somehow. For Gibson, a Portland-based folk singer, it got her pondering mortality. Her second full-length album, Beasts of Seasons, is a hauntingly delicate nine-song meditation on that theme.
"I just kept on writing these songs about mortality, and it didn't really occur to me until after I moved from the cemetery that, 'Oh, I just wrote nine songs circling the theme of mortality as I was living next to a cemetery,'" said Gibson. "There are so many factors in my life and with the people around me that it felt like the theme of mortality was just hanging in the air."
Though somber at points, Beasts of Seasons never edges toward macabre. Gibson's crackling coo winds measuredly through prose that aches with humanity—collarbones, swaying bodies and frail hands—all backed by the slide-squeak of her nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. The album emerges as more of a tribute to the plights and longings of the living than a fixation on the inevitability of death. It seems even the cemetery couldn't quell Gibson's quiet optimism and wide-eyed wonderment.
"The thing that surprised me was how many sounds of life came down into my window. It's a really beautiful spot and there are so many different kinds of trees, and people go there for picnics a lot," explained Gibson. "So, I'd hear as many joyful sounds coming down into my room as mournful."
Divided into "Communion Songs" and "Funeral Songs," Beasts of Seasons wraps its white knuckles around the comfort of shared experience before releasing its grip in a flutter of hushed resignation. Songs like "Spirited" echo with a ghostly chorus and the upbeat warble of Gibson's words: "When the seasons settle in our lungs / they'll harden us / they'll cover us in crows / but cannot wash the laughter from our tongues." At other times, songs like "Sweet Deception" sigh in surrender, "Sweet deception / Oh, cruel, cruel, cruelest comfort / I have known the first / I have known the last / of your kind." Gibson sees the subtle distinction between "Funeral Songs" and "Communion Songs" as the difference between looking inside yourself and looking around at others and seeing yourself.
"I noticed in my writing that these related themes would come up, one being the idea of reaching outside of ourselves to someone or something and how that's such a part of facing mortality ... The other, just the idea of funeral songs and the finality of death and the idea of aloneness that we also grapple with in facing mortality," said Gibson.
Even with such weighty themes, there's something in Gibson's delivery that keeps Beasts of Seasons from sinking under the weight of its words. Gibson lingers on each syllable like a child running her index finger across a page, pronouncing each word like she's forming it in her mouth for the first time. While comparisons to Joanna Newsom might not be unprovoked, Gibson's hymns to the majesty of the natural world somehow shrug off fey tendencies, and instead, revel in a certain bones-and-skin simplicity.
"Lyrics are the part that I really spend so much time on and so much focus," said Gibson. "There are songs that I have gone back and forth for months between just one phrase or a few words."
But that's not to say that the album is a sparse assemblage of spoken word recordings. Working with producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens), Gibson gathered a handful of notable Portlandites—including Laura Veirs, Musee Mecanique's Micah Rabwin and Sean Ogilvie, Norfolk and Western's Adam Selzer and Rachel Blumberg and Menomena's Danny Seim--to add instrumental flourishes and backup vocals on many of the tracks on Beasts of Seasons. Though the album's instrumentation colors inside the lines of Gibson's songwriting, it never bleeds out and obscures the songs' underlying emotion.
"In writing these songs, I felt like I can't really speak about aloneness or can't speak about—or sing about, I suppose—these moments of intimacy and connection and have them served by this whirlwind of sound," said Gibson. "I wanted it to have the feel of moving through different landscapes or giving a setting to the conversation happening within the songs."
Currently winding her way back to the West Coast for a smattering of live shows, Gibson and tour-mates Rabwin and Ogilvie (who are also playing as Musee Mecanique) will set up their banjo, saw, melodica, drums, accordion and keyboard on Pengilly's tiny corner stage Saturday, June 27. But for all the instruments crowding the space, and all the fans surely crowding the bar, Gibson's quietly powerful reflection will hopefully ring louder than any of the chaos stumbling by on the streets.
"In the end, those moments of silence, I think, speak more than pop string sections," said Gibson.
With Musee Mecanique. Sat., June 27, 8 p.m., FREE, Pengilly's Saloon, 513 West Main St., 208-345-6344.