Three things I know about Laura Gibson: (1) She wrote all the songs on her new album, Beasts of Seasons, while living next to a graveyard. (2) She toured with Colin Meloy and sings on the Decemberists frontman's Sam Cooke tribute EP. (3) And her repertoire includes "All the Pretty Little Horses," a creepy little lullaby that's been recorded by both Nick Cave and Coil.
Let's begin with No. 3. Judging by the Portland, Ore., singer-songwriter's delicate voice and gentle demeanor, I'm guessing the Nick Cave and Coil versions weren't the first she'd heard.
"No, I actually heard it on some old Alan Lomax recordings," says Gibson. "It's sung in so many different ways — I listened to the Nick Cave version of the song, and I found the Calexico version. And, oh, Peter Paul & Mary did a version where instead of 'Birds and flies / Just peckin' his eyes,' it was something like, 'Birds and butterflies / Fluttering around his eyes.'"
No wonder Nick Cave sang it.
"Yeah, I know, it starts out as such a sweet lullaby and then it turns into this kinda creepy cowboy song," Gibson says. "So I went back and forth on whether I should sing it as is, and just thought I should go for it. A lot of the old folk songs that kids would sing on the playground were often very dark."
Gibson, who's currently touring with a band, writes songs with a quietly compelling quality that combines childlike innocence and seasoned wisdom.
"Yeah, I've always felt like a bit of an old soul," she says. "On this particular record, I felt like I was writing through the eyes of an old lady a lot of the time. And my first record was written more though the eyes of a child."
From her earliest gigs onward, the singer-songwriter has taken a different approach from most of her musical peers.
"I had this idea that I wanted to play for people who were sick," says Gibson, the daughter of a forest ranger and kindergarten teacher in a remote southern Oregon logging town. "My father had cancer when I was growing up for four years, and we had a hospice volunteer who really became part of the family. So when I started playing music, it seemed like the natural outlet was playing for those who are bedridden."
Upon moving to the big city, Gibson began playing at a residential care facility for people in the advanced stages of AIDS: "Those were actually what I consider my first real shows, Tuesday nights at Our House of Portland. Most of the time I played for just a few people out on the smoking porch, which is where a lot of the residents like to hang out. I feel like that is something really important to me. It was before I ever set foot onstage at a music club, and it gave me a good perspective on playing music for people."
While Gibson remains more interested in "forming some kind of connection rather than impressing people," she's actually gone on to do both. Among her fans is Meloy, who was so impressed with If You Come to Greet Me, her 2006 debut album on his former Hush label, that he invited Gibson to get on the bus and be the opening act on his solo tour.
"I felt like I had so much to learn from Colin, and he's such a good guy to travel with," says Gibson, who went on to meet the rest of the Decemberists and to enlist Nate Query to play standup bass on Beasts of Seasons. It's an album that lulls the listener in its chamber-folk embrace, only to defy expectations with a number of left curves — including the falsetto vocal hook on "Spirited," which Gibson calls a "whirlwind of a song."
As whirlwinds go, it's actually pretty gentle, but with a definite pop appeal. Other highlights include the 7½-minute opener "Shadows on Parade" — its acoustic strains mixed with washes of gentle noise — and the mournfully elegaic horn (and saw) accompaniment on "Funeral Song." All of which is appropriate for an album that Gibson says is about mortality.
"I've since moved from my cemetery house," says Gibson, "but I'm thankful for the two years spent living there. It was actually kind of surprising what a joyful location a cemetery can be."
For Gibson, maybe ...
"No, no, no — see, when I initially moved there, I had a lot of hesitation, because I'd wake up and see all these trees and then I'd see all these gravestones underneath. But after a while you notice that there's all these people having picnics. I heard more laughter coming into my room than sadness.
"Maybe sadness is just quieter."
Laura Gibson performs "The Longest Day"