THE CENTERPIECE of Laura Gibson's new album, Empire Builder, is its title track—a stunning, slow-burning song about the distance between love, loss, and loneliness. Much of it was written while Gibson traveled across the country on Amtrak's busiest long-distance passenger train, from which the album takes its name.
The song is special to Gibson, so much so that she says she still "has the potential to get choked up" when she performs it. Its lyrics revolve around Gibson's decision in 2014 to move away from friends, family, and a boyfriend in her longtime home of Portland to study creative writing at Hunter College in New York City. "Don't wait for me to walk a straight line," she sings in the song. "You can only hold your breath so long."
Gibson, who grew up in Oregon, remembers the first time she realized "Empire Builder" was different from other songs she had written—this was back in 2014, when she performed it live at Disjecta as part of The New Shit Show. The song was so raw, direct, and personal, she at first believed it would never exist for widespread public consumption.
"My instinct as a songwriter is to write from this place of wise knowing and to just stand outside of a situation and observe it and be able to describe it well," she says. "'Empire Builder' was so different. I thought, 'This is its own thing.' But I felt very alive playing it in a way that felt important. I think somewhere in my mind I thought, 'This is important'—but I felt like it was important for me, not for my record."
Turns out it's both. "Empire Builder" is the heart of an album filled with gorgeous and gauzy folk songs draped in chamber-pop regalia by drummer Dan Hunt, violinist Peter Broderick, and guitarist Dave Depper. Opener "The Cause" swaggers soulfully before crescendoing into a storm of noisy strings. "The Last One" is a lovely, loping slice of shimmering classic pop, and the spacious atmosphere and somber keys of "Five and Thirty" recall Death Cab for Cutie (of which Depper is a member).
Gibson recorded the album in Portland while bouncing back and forth between coasts, all the while juggling schoolwork. And her two years in New York have been famously tumultuous. Shortly after she moved in 2014, she broke her foot and found herself pent up in her apartment for months. Then, on March 26, 2015, an explosion ripped through her building, killing two people and destroying everything Gibson owned, including musical instruments and pages upon pages of her creative writing. (Gibson was home at the time of the incident and had to run for her life.)
Laura Gibson has had an unimaginable couple of years: The train ride. The long-distancing of relationships. An injury. A life-changing trauma. Returning to school. Recording an album. Everything in between. She's still trying to process it all.
"I feel like I've lived so many lives just between leaving Portland and this moment right now. Even going through [the explosion], I felt like I was one person one day and another person the next," she says. "I think the record became this thread connecting those people and all those lives, and I'm happy to have had it."