The Great Laura Gibson

The name of this Portlander’s new album is part inside joke, but it speaks volumes.

Laura Gibson doesn’t want to be told she’s quiet. Or timid. Or shy.

The Portland-based singer songwriter says she’s tired of the “soft-spoken songstress” tag that her delicate indie-folk has earned her over the years and she’s made an entire album to escape it. While her last record, 2009’s Beasts of Seasons, proved that Gibson was an excellent songwriter, it also may have positioned her as just another tender Pacific Northwest whisperer.

Her new record, La Grande, released late last month, displays a fresher, louder and more confident singer. Which is what Gibson says she’s always been, even if critics and fans didn’t quite agree.

“I’ve played in front of a thousand people solo and afterward people will comment on how shy I am. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, I just got up by myself in front of a thousand people and shared a part of myself.’ That’s not timid or shy, in my opinion,” says Gibson, calling in from Tucson, Ariz., where the latest leg of her marathon U.S.-to-Europe tour has landed her on a recent Friday evening.

You can’t necessarily blame anyone for pigeonholing Gibson as shy. Over the phone, her voice suggests someone younger than her 32 years. And in her music, Gibson’s vocals are just above a whisper.

That said, the first few seconds of the title track and opener of La Grande are hardly meek. The song begins with rumbling drums, leading into a punchy number that’s perhaps the most head-bobbing thing that Gibson has ever produced. And it was these few opening seconds that let Gibson know that she was onto something.

“I was letting rhythm become a backbone. I think I just wanted to do away with my own limitations,” says Gibson.

It was the first step in achieving the goal she set for herself when she decided to make a new album.

“I’m just really driven to make the best work, and I’m really driven by growth. So, I did want to make work that’s ultimately unique to what I’ve made before,” says Gibson.

“I had a feeling that I was either going to go for it or I was just going to retire and do something different when I was going into this record.”

Retire? Really? That seems drastic.

“Not that I’d ever retire, necessarily, but it was that I was just really going to go for it on this album. I wanted to err on the side of confidence,” she clarifies, after a pause.

That confidence is heard on the album, which got a boost from Portland engineer/producer Adam Selzer. Gibson initially booked just two days with him, but after laying down the foundation for La Grande — big drums and all — she quickly booked up as many of Selzer’s openings as she could.

After those first two days in the studio, Gibson — a lifelong Oregonian who grew up in a tiny logging town on the state’s southern coast — made a trip out to the desolate eastern side of the state, to a city called La Grande, for which she says she’s always had an affinity.

“I felt compelled to be out there, and that was where a lot of things clicked into place. ... It felt like a real catalyst for the record,” she says of the trip.

She was able to weave some images from the cowboy town into the first song on the album, then decided to name that track, and the record, after the relatively obscure city.

But there’s a double meaning to be found here — an inside joke of sorts.

“Someone in France would pick up the record and think that I was calling it The Great Laura Gibson,” says Gibson, with a laugh.

“It’s almost an inside joke to myself because, again, I want to err on the side of confidence. I would never call my record The Great Laura Gibson, but it was a nice double meaning for me.”

Let’s not get carried away — while Gibson has definitely stepped beyond her perceived limitations and incorporated far more rhythm, this isn’t an arena rock album. Her attitude has changed, but Gibson retains the silky, jazzy vocals on which she’s built a career. So, you could say she’s still folky, just not as folky.

The resulting tracks on La Grande are excellent in their execution and gorgeous in their complexity, which is exactly what Gibson seems to have been going for.

And when she talks about this achievement, Gibson sounds more like a life coach than a songwriter. This is, however, what makes a conversation with Gibson so refreshing.

“It’s such a great human endeavor to re-explore your own potential and realize that it’s much bigger than what you may have thought. I think everyone experiences that in different ways in their life. I felt like this was me fighting to believe in my own potential.”

Laura Gibson with Breathe Owl Breathe. Tue, Feb. 20, at 8 pm. The BellTower. 125 SE Spring St., Pullman. $7-$10. All-ages. Gibson plays with the Vagabonds Fri, March 2, at 7 pm. A Club, $10. All-ages. 624-3629

Too Slim and the Taildraggers @ Stormin' Norman's Shipfaced Saloon

Sun., Aug. 8, 4 p.m.
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About The Author

Mike Bookey

Mike Bookey is the culture editor for The Inlander. He previously held the same position at The Source Weekly in Bend, Ore.