With a bit of context, listening to Laura Gibson's "Empire Builder," her terrific new album, becomes an even richer and more nuanced experience.
Gibson, a Portland, Ore., native who'll open for David Bazan at the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden on Wednesday, July 6, recorded several tracks with engineer John Askew and three musicians she admired: drummer Dan Hunt (Neko Case), violinist Peter Broderick and guitarist Dave Depper (Death Cab For Cutie).
Soon, Gibson learned she'd been accepted into Hunter College's MFA creative writing program.
"It was one of those things where I thought, 'Well, there's no way I'll get in, but if I get in, I'll have to do the crazy thing of moving across the country,'" Gibson says. "I got in and I felt I had to do it."
From the beginning, Gibson's time in New York was cursed. She stepped off a curb and broke her foot on the first day of class. She became socially isolated.
"I was doubting my decision to move there," she says. "There was a lot of loneliness in the first few months and questioning of what I've done in the songs."
The songwriting bug, meanwhile, returned in a big way. "I had so many feelings to explore and so much to try to wrestle with," she says. "I always come back to songwriting as this way of expressing myself that's really for me, and so that happened."
On school breaks, Gibson returned to Portland to record.
"I felt like I would recharge within the work of making music and recording it," Gibson says. "When I was in school, it was really hard to play much music, so I'd kind of forget just how awesomely delightful [it was] to make music with friends."
Then tragedy struck: in March 2015, Gibson's East Village apartment building exploded and burned to the ground, killing two people and injuring another 19. Though Gibson wasn't harmed, she lost everything, including her musical instruments and notebooks.
"I was in the building and I'd never dealt with any sort of trauma before," Gibson says. "I had this sense of, like, 'What was I kind of going on whining about in these songs?'"
A few days later, a couch-surfing Gibson went about trying to re-create what she'd written for the album. She'll never know how much each song was transformed by the fire.
"It was probably five in the morning and it was really the first time I was alone," Gibson says. "I woke up that morning and just wrote the song titles, or working titles, on 12 pages and just tried to write as much as I could remember from each song. ... I like to think that they're better for having had to re-work a few of them."
"La Grande," Gibson's previous album, came out in 2012.
"I really let myself explore making a record without any boundaries," she says. "I just threw everything I could possibly try and produced it myself. It was a really great education in how to produce a record."
Starting work on "Empire Builder," named for the Amtrak train that transported her eastward from Portland (and also the name of a song on the album), Gibson wanted to set some sonic and instrumental limitations.
"I really wanted the melodic component and the chamber component to be just strings instead of having strings and horns and woodwinds," Gibson says. "I just decided it was going to be high strings, violin and viola. That's really it, with electric guitar, making that choice: Here's the palette I'm going to use."
Once you know the back story, it's possible — and probably too easy — to trace a narrative arc through the collection; Gibson's cross-country journey into the unknown, the innocence and confidence of young love ("Damn Sure," "Two Kids"), fraying relationships (from the title-track: "so hurry up and lose me / hurry up and find me again"), the dark, cumulative despair of being in strange city ("I'll confess I do not wish to die alone, alone, alone," she sings on "Caldera, Oregon").
Songs are expertly constructed; you can imagine Gibson performing songs like "Five and Thirty" alone, with just an acoustic guitar. And yet the recorded full-band versions, with Hunt's claptrap drums and Broderick's imaginative string figures (listen, for example, to the interlude on that same song), add unexpected shadings and textures.
Gibson has been playing with Broderick, Depper and Hunt for years. "In a sense I've really grown up with these guys as a musician," she says. "We've all gone and grown in our careers and then have come back together and put new skills together."
To create the string arrangements, Gibson sang parts to Broderick, who recorded lines on violin and Gibson's viola (which was lost in the fire). "We did a lot of octaves on the violin and viola, which had a really neat Bollywood sound," she says. "It was fun to have the strings be the harmony voice in a lot of places."
Instead of grief, Gibson feels a sense of comfort when she hears her destroyed instruments on "Empire Builder," including her main nylon-string guitar.
"It's really the only guitar I've played for every show and every record," Gibson says. "Because I lost that guitar, we kept the demo tracks, as rough as they were, as a nod to that guitar. It actually makes me really happy that those instruments made it onto the record and had that last bit of life in them."
And although Gibson still rents an apartment in New York, she's unsure where to go from here.
"However I decide will probably be the next album," Gibson says.
LAURA GIBSON opens for David Bazan at the Ballroom at the Outer Space in Hamden on Wednesday, July 6, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $25. manicproductions.org