One day during a month-long visit to South Florida in February, singer-songwriter Laura Gibson trudged through a cypress dome at Everglades National Park, seeking wisdom from the wilderness. Here, on Miccosukee land not far from the cabin where Gibson spent her Everglades artist residency, were clusters of tall, slender pond cypress trees that formed a canopy, and Gibson spotted lazy alligators and blooming orchids. When Gibson returned to her cabin, she started writing music in a frenzy.
“My brain was just on fire with new, exciting facts and observations,” Gibson recalls by phone from her part-time home in Portland, Ore. “When you’re in that place for an extended time, you see patterns emerge. I tend to write mostly about human experience, so I’m using the Everglades as a way to reflect my own experiences. Or maybe there will just be a bunch of alligator references.”
For Gibson, the Everglades trip was overdue. On her most recent album, “Empire Builder,” a bold, autobiographical collection about ambition, independence and shedding her old life, Gibson revisits a series of hardships and tragedies. The album begins with her 2014 ride aboard the Empire Builder Amtrak train from Portland to New York. “This is not an escape,” Gibson sings on the album’s title track, her soft voice sounding world-weary and pensive as she describes leaving behind her longtime boyfriend for new adventures. “But I don’t know how to hold someone without losing my grip.”
Gibson, who will perform Wednesday, April 26, at Gramps bar in Miami, says “Empire Builder” is the sound of someone starting over.
“I made my relationship a long-distance relationship. I was feeling bored with the idea of making another record and touring that, and I wanted to write prose,” says Gibson, who enrolled in a graduate creative-writing program at Manhattan’s Hunter College. “It can feel really lonely on the train by yourself, especially in the West, and I ended up a writing a lot, and not sleeping much, and that became the lyrics for ‘Empire Builder.’ ”
On her first day at Hunter College, Gibson broke her ankle descending the stairs of her apartment in the East Village. Then, in 2015, Gibson awoke to the sound of a gas explosion in her apartment building. She dashed outside without her belongings as the building burned, killing two people and injuring 19 others. Gibson lost her possessions, including ID cards, musical instruments and the new music she wrote on the Empire Builder train.
“They’re better for having gone through that fire,” Gibson says. “Four days after, I woke up really early and wrote out the name of every song and everything I could remember, which wasn’t hard, since I obsess over my lyrics so much.”
Despair, but not self-pity, lingers on “Empire Builder,” although the album is punctuated with hopefulness. “We covered our bodies in the mud and moss/Drunk on the rhythm of a cricket's song,” she sings of her relationship in “Damn Sure,” her voice carrying an old-timey fragility against a spare backdrop of violin and piano. Gibson appears to reconcile her loss on the song “Louis”: “Now I’m staring at the Hudson/I am humming to the passing trains,” she sings. “And I no longer miss the silence/But I miss your eyelids flickering.”
At first, performing the deeply personal “Empire Builder” felt like an embarrassing chore for Gibson.
“What felt most difficult was to play the first shows back in Portland in front of my friends, and then again in New York, and that felt very personal,” Gibson says. “It felt hard, but I could pretend I was telling a story outside of myself a little bit. It’s not as painful anymore, and I feel like I can visit that time in my life from an observer’s perspective.”
“Empire Builder” came together with help from Neko Case’s drummer Dan Hunt, violinist Peter Broderick and Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Dave Depper, all longtime friends. Two songs recorded during the “Empire Builder” sessions, the moody “Animals” and “The Easy Way,” were released via Gibson’s website on April 14. But what occupies her mind most these days is her Everglades residency, which she describes as a “mind-blowing” experience.
“I’m sort of walking through this marsh, where this entire universe that I couldn’t have imagined somehow exists,” Gibson says. “There’s something about discovery, about being led into another world, that all feels perfect to me now.”
Laura Gibson will perform 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, at Gramps bar, 176 NW 24th St., in Miami, opening for headliners Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Tickets cost $20-$25 via Ticketfly.com. Call 305-699-2669 or go to Gramps.com.
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