ACCORDING TO THE US Census Bureau, La Grande is a small town in Northeastern Oregon that is 91 percent Caucasian, with a depressing number of senior citizens living alone. Unromantic human statistics aside, however, the hospitable Grande Ronde Valley once served as a resting place for weary souls traveling the Oregon Trail. Here, wide-eyed settlers would replenish waning stores before making that final push to their fabled destination, the fertile expanse of the Willamette Valley. Similarly, it's here that Laura Gibson stockpiled energy and inspiration for her own journey, one that also traversed unknown terrain.
"I took a trip out to La Grande when I was first attempting to write new material," says the Portland songwriter. "It was there that I decided this endeavor would err on the side of confidence; I would abandon my inhibitions and assert my being into the world."
Long heralded as a chanteuse of quiet spaces, Gibson has a history of calming rambunctious crowds to a tranquil bay of steady breathing, the peace interrupted only by an occasional bottle clink. However, where 2009's Beasts of Seasons might have knocked politely and padded timidly into a room, La Grande—Gibson's third solo album—barges in wailing and lawless, towing her along in its wake.
"I don't know that I can look back and see as tangibly a time where I felt so fully engaged in making music," Gibson says. "Making La Grande felt like being pulled forward by my belly with a string."
While the album's opening (and title) track asserts itself immediately with a barrage of percussion greeting a listener at the door, the third track, "Lion/Lamb," takes care to explicitly state Gibson's confidence. Amid a cool sway of bossa nova charm, her warm voice careens through lyrical affirmations: "I am no doubt/I am no shade of blue/Clear as any story time will tell you/I am not a lamb/I am a lion." Fittingly, this song was one of the first (along with "La Grande") to come about in an exploratory studio session with Adam Selzer at Type Foundry. "Part of me thought, 'Well, maybe this is the year I get an MFA.' I had become really interested in writing outside of music. But that day at Type Foundry, with these songs happening so easily, made me excited about what new possibilities awaited. I immediately booked all of his free days from there."
Topically, much of Gibson's past work dealt with mortality. In Beasts of Seasons' "Spirited"—a song that still warrants repeat plays—she vividly sings, "When the seasons settle in our lungs/They'll harden us, they'll cover us in crows." And that's one of the more hopeful tracks. Meanwhile, La Grande plunges joyfully into life and its possibilities, celebrating desires as they pull us in various directions. Perhaps "The Fire" and "Skin, Warming Skin" are the pinnacles of this, the former beckoning a listener toward a staggering flame, while the latter admonishes the fear of death and intimacy over a swelling panoply of sound, including Gibson's own voice 15 times over, layered and woven throughout.
"There is a part of me that wants to be centered and home, engaged in relationships; those things that are binding are also your greatest gifts," Gibson says. "And there is this other part that seeks to follow every whim, to live with ultimate freedom and wildness. I indulged them both in this record, and I have yet to reach any conclusions."