As fresh as an Oregon forest

Indie singer/songwriter Laura Gibson is making up for lost time with her modern take on a classic rootsy sound.

Laura Gibson 370 (photo credit: Parker Fitzgerald)
Laura Gibson 370
(photo credit: Parker Fitzgerald)
If it wasn’t for an ankle injury, Laura Gibson might never have picked up a guitar. But track and field’s loss became music’s gain when the lanky student high jumper at Oregon’s Linfield College was forced to have surgery after a bad landing.
“During the recuperation process, I picked up a guitar and started to teach myself by writing songs. It was a way for me to understand myself and the world, but I had no idea when I was doing it, that it would turn into a career. It was a nice surprise to discover music when I was 20,” said Gibson last week from Oslo, where the acclaimed Portland-based singer/songwriter and her four-piece band were in the middle of a European tour, opening for eclectic indie rockers Calexico.
“I decided to sign up for an Introduction to Guitar course at the school, but when I got to the first class, there were 50 people in the room strumming G and C chords. ‘All right,’ I thought to myself, ‘I can probably do that on my own.’”
Gibson was accurate in her assessment, as over the course of two stirring albums and various side projects, she’s emerged from Portland’s indie music scene as a new voice, merging finger-pick-guitar rudiments, jazz vocal expressionism and honest poetic lyrics that drew upon sources as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Delta blues guitarist Elisabeth Cotten and personality-driven rootsy folkers like Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams and Aimee Mann.
Not bad for a young singer/songwriter who honed her chops playing a weekly gig for more than two years at a local AIDS hospice. Today, members of touring partners Calexico, as well as Oregon favorites The Decemberists, line up to collaborate with her, and she can headline her own shows in such far-flung places as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where she’ll be performing tonight (October 9) at the Ozen Bar and Wednesday night, October 10, at Jerusalem’s Uganda club.
Raised in a Pacific Northwest coastal timber town, Gibson grew up with solitude and stillness, unencumbered by pop culture and trends. So when she began to explore the process of making music as an adult, her influences were nature and beauty, and not American Idol.
“I didn’t grow up in a musical family, and I guess I didn’t see music as an option. I would sit down and mess around with the piano, but I was always too shy to think about singing and performing,” said Gibson, whose natural shyness and unaffected manner shine through even on the phone.
Having neatly skipped the teeny bopper stage and grunge period, Gibson graduated directly to the masters.
The artists that piqued her interest in emulating were Cohen, for songwriting, and Cotten, for guitar playing.
“Since college, I’ve really wanted to learn to craft words in the same way that Leonard Cohen does, and musically, one of my biggest guitar influences was Elisabeth Cotten – much of my technique is derived from learning her songs,” said Gibson.
Moving to the relatively big city of Portland after college enabled Gibson to meet like-minded musicians and become part of the thriving musical community there, a community that has nurtured and encouraged her.
“Portland has a really supportive music scene, and I’ve been thankful to have had so many generous musicians share their wisdom with me. Everybody is willing to play on everyone else’s records, and it’s a place where I’m really encouraged and challenged to be better at what I do.”
That encouragement has evidently done wonders because Gibson’s albums – from If You Come to Greet Me and Beast of Seasons to this year’s La Grande have shown remarkable growth, with Gibson evolving from a solo blues-tinged folkie into a confident multi-faceted band leader.
“I’ve learned so much from playing in a band, and it’s helped me grow as an artist,” Gibson said. “My ability to play and connect with other people and still be present in the song is definitely a growing process because I played solo for so long, but I love the experience. And it helps me when I go back and play by myself. Both situations have really informed what I do.”
Gibson will be performing in Israel with only her drummer accompanying her. She said that the shows were tacked on to the end of the Calexico tour because she expressly requested to perform here.
“I’ve wanted to go to Israel my whole life, and as soon as my booking agent mentioned it, I said ‘Yes, yes yes!’” said Gibson, adding that she received encouragement from the members of Calexico, who performed here in 2010.
“I’ve spoken to them about it, and they had a really amazing time in Israel, They loved the people they met and the audience at the show.”
While on her current tour with Calexico, Gibson said she’s been reveling in not only sharing the stage with her friends but also performing before audiences who aren’t familiar with her music.
“Being on tour with Calexico has been great fun. They’re such good guys, and the audiences have been really sweet,” she said. “I like trying to win over audiences – I consider it a challenge.”
Once they hear her music and her voice, the crowds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will likely be pushovers.