"This is not an escape." So begins the title track on folk singer Laura Gibson's fourth album, Empire Builder, with "this" alluding to her move from Portland to New York by train (the source of the album title) to complete an MFA in creative writing at Hunter College.
Gibson talked to the Inlander one week after she turned in her thesis, a "hodgepodge" of stories, and nearly two months after Empire Builder was released, milestones that a year ago seemed nearly unachievable.
On the way to her first class at Hunter, Gibson broke her foot. A slight setback, as she used crutches to get around ("By the end my arms were fantastic," she jokes), but she finished the semester and spent her winter break back in Portland working on Empire Builder.
Less than two months after she returned to New York, in March of 2015, Gibson lost everything, but was thankfully unharmed, when her East Village apartment building exploded because of an illegally tapped gas line. (Two people were killed in the fire. In February, five people were charged for their involvement.)
As she watched her building burn, Gibson considered moving back to Portland, feeling defeated by all that New York had thrown at her. But a lack of any identification prevented her from getting home, which ultimately was a gift.
"Because I was forced to stay, I felt very cared for by my friends here and my classmates, and also reconnected to the community," she says. "I'm really glad I was forced to stay and let the city take care of me."
A few days after the fire, Gibson wrote down what lyrics she could remember and continued the writing process from there. Once able, a still traumatized Gibson returned to Portland for a spring break recording session, coaxed back into the studio by producer John Askew.
"I'd like to think that they're better songs for having had to rethink them," Gibson says.
Though there are no direct references to the explosion on Empire Builder, Gibson says, listening to the songs now, she can hear how mentally and emotionally tired she was when she recorded, almost like the album is a scrapbook of the tragedy.
To anyone else, though, her voice is as pristine as ever.
With everything behind her, Gibson has come to love the city that put her through so much. She still lives in the East Village and plans to stay in New York for the time being. But an eventual move back to Portland, perhaps via another Empire Builder, is in her future.
"I like nature too much to be a lifer," she says with a laugh. ♦
Laura Gibson with David Bazan • Wed, June 8, at 8 pm • $15 • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174