Music

The Great Laura Gibson

The folk singer's new album is a grand gesture

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Confidence looks good on Laura Gibson. Whereas the Portland, Ore., folk songstress was once known for her introspective whisperings, her new album, Le Grande, flickers with a fiery boldness and nuanced maturity. Gibson doesn't tentatively step out on a limb with this record, she glides out all hips and red lips. But blot away that bold veneer and you'll find the same blushingly sincere musician underneath.

"I think there's this sense of just being free that I felt in making this record. ... In some ways, it's very upbeat and, at first glance, might not feel as personal as my other work, but I feel like in some way, allowing myself to really take pleasure in making these songs allowed me to give more of myself than I had in the past," said Gibson. "Almost in the way that a person writing fiction can say the things that are unsayable."

From the first spur-rattling stomp of drums on the Western ghost town opener "La Grande," with Gibson's empty-train-station vocals booming above, it's apparent this record is a wild departure from 2009's hushed and delicate Beasts of Seasons. According to Gibson, she gleaned inspiration for the title track on a trip to the sleepy city of La Grande, Ore.

"I just had this really magical day, and I think there are these moments when you go to a place and you see all your own hopes and desires and challenges kind of reflected back in the landscape and the history of the place," said Gibson.

The song kicks up dusty swirls of imagery--dancing halls, burning sage, planks and rails, bone-white clay--that help to set the mood and ground the album in the galloping wide open West.

"Someone reading the record in French would think I called my record, The Great Laura Gibson, which is definitely erring on the side of confidence," Gibson laughed. "As almost an inside joke to myself, I really liked the double meaning and it felt right to center these songs in a place."

But just as quickly as Gibson spins out with "La Grande," she pivots back with the album's second track, "Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed." The song establishes a sense of vulnerability that pairs nicely with her newfound confidence. Amid twinkling piano, she slowly sings: "For love has got you hanging on my hips / like a well-worn out dress with my skin showing through."

"I think so much of the record is ... about desire and movement forward. So one of the really important themes was wrestling with these two paths--one being ultimate freedom and wildness and this other one being centered and calm and in relationships; this very domestic path," Gibson said. "I felt having 'Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed' early on, it kind of gave the presence of relationships, and I think I needed to add that element early on in the record."

Gibson shares a house with long-term boyfriend Sean Ogilvie of Musee Mecanique. Appropriately, the album is littered with love songs--from the sexy track "Skin, Warming Skin" to the love-drunk "Red Moon," where Gibson sings "I want to carry your torch / and drink up your poetry."

But those songs are balanced out by songs like "Lion/Lamb," where Gibson's fiery confidence is back at the forefront. Even when she sings, "I am not a lamb / I am a lion," it's with a rippling, shallow pool croon and a Bossa Nova beat. Flutters of flute and summer raindrops of piano give the song an ethereal mood that both plays with the genre and stays surprisingly true to Gibson's style. She mixes it up even more on gospel-tinged "The Rushing Dark," singing "I could not stop trembling" in an early lo-fi radio warble, amid a chorus of humming women.

"I got really excited about all these different kinds of music that I'm really inspired by, and I think I had to really give myself license to trust that I would be able to pull it together and make it my own and really let myself indulge a bit," said Gibson. "And just trust in the end product--I know myself and I know that my desire is to make something sincere."

In perhaps one of the most-sincere songs on the album, "Crow/Swallow," Gibson juggles the pressure of settling down and starting a family with her career path: "And when they march by in their motherly smiles / and swaying their motherly hips / I cannot follow / I cannot keep their pace."

"I feel like I'm in the right place much of the time when I'm touring, and I know I'll look back on this time with fondness and this lifestyle with fondness, but it is so nontraditional. ... There's both excitement in that and there's this determination in me to really follow that path I'm on well. But then there's also this other path that is often calling out to me, and I think a lot of this record was me wrestling with what to do when you desire both of those things."

You can watch Gibson wrestle with these intimate themes and kick up her restless heels at Neurolux on Sunday, Feb. 19, with opener Breathe Owl Breathe.

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