Laura Gibson’s surreal narrative truths

Laura Gibson w/ Stelth Ulvang

The Mill — Thursday, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m.

Laura Gibson plays the The Mill on Jan. 17. — Parker Fitzgerald

Laura Gibson returns to Iowa City on Jan. 17, accompanied by Stelth Ulvang, for an 8 p.m. performance at the Mill. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. I spoke to Gibson about her experience of recording her latest album, Goners, as she enjoyed a rare sunny day in Portland, contemplating outdoor activities available before getting back to touring after a month off.

Gibson looks forward to visiting Iowa City, saying she thinks it would be “a good place to live — the literary history, and so many brains and spirits have been cracked open at The Mill at different points in time” and that it “really feels like an oasis within the Midwest” where she can honestly enjoy the conversations she has after the show.

You’re accomplished in a wide range of musical and narrative forms, including your recently completed MFA in fiction at Hunter College, and Goners contains a complex wealth of both poetic and narrative elements. Can you describe how the more formal education in narrative creation altered your approach to instrumentation?

It’s interesting because I think instrumentation follows a narrative —
even songs without words. I wanted the record to have a feeling of me being alone in the room, or the listener being alone in a room, but I also love lots of sounds. Finding the contrast of feeling intimate and sparse versus … the instrumentation feeling otherworldly, where each song had its own logic and set of sounds, and that the record as a whole contained its own dream logic in terms of sounds.

Often when I approach instrumentation, I see [the instruments] as characters coming in and out — the strings, for example, I had playing the same melody lines but in octaves, making them feel like one beast, together. I wanted the character to come in and out through the record. Because I wanted to set the songs in a surreal landscape, I ended up building affected piano loops and also looping layers of vocals — so some songs have 20 ambient vocal tracks.

I chose instrumentation that made it feel like you’re dwelling in a vast, surreal landscape and at the same time tried to keep that kind of intimacy. It’s interesting to think about how narrative affects instrumentation — it’s a little more intuitive, or something I’ve moved toward.

To follow up: This sounds like reading.

That’s nice — I like that. The songs for me begin alone and my songs are largely about being a person alone in the world and holding that truth of being alone with the truth of being connected — and how loss is therefore painful.

I read all the time, and I’m used to having vast landscapes in my head. It’s neat to think about it — I like the idea of when someone is coming up with a visual picture of a song that it feels like a person alone with a wide, imaginative universe around them.

Do you think that there’s a difference between sonic narrative and a written narrative when it comes to producing that wide, imaginative universe … in terms of the constructive work of the imagination?

Timbre can help make something feel like a wide space — reverb. You can do a lot with only a few tools to make the space feel open and big, or small and contained. It takes more words to describe. Sonic landscapes — you have some quick tools at your disposal. You can make something feel warmer or colder. Sound is so immediate to your other senses and triggers them, whereas words … although words contain sound also, those sort of immediate sensory triggers aren’t available within a written narrative, or they have to be built in through the poetry of it or the objects used.

In other reviews and interviews for Goners, the term “fable” comes up quite a bit as a way of describing some of the thematic elements you juggle. How would you correlate this form of micronarrative to other forms of micromusic you’ve composed — like commericals, or songs for the Tiny Desk Concert?

I kind of do think that fables — the ones I heard growing up — they take place within the home. They’re small in scale in that sense: an old woman at home. The stage setting is rather simple in some of those fables. Many of them are home based, or wilderness/forest based. I was reading some Russian folktales and thinking of books I read in the past few years, or while I was writing Goners — Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. They’re all so specific to the moment and the character. Samantha Hunt’s The Dark Dark, too. I read a series of very beautiful short story collections that all felt like they took place at night, and most of them involved women and navigating strange circumstances … and a reckoning with their own sense of being in the world.

It was nice — those books just sort of happened to fall into my reading world while working on these songs. I was trying to tackle the subject of loss, and the things that have moved me most when dealing with loss and grief tend to dwell in these strange, surreal universes because it is so hard to approach that in normal, realistic, everyday stories. There’s such an epicness even within the small, intimate moments within relationships and an epicness within loss that I wanted to travel into.

How much was influenced by about Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women who Run with the Wolves?

There’s a whole interestingness to stories that repeat themselves — like women and wolves. I didn’t think too much about the whole history of women-wolf narratives. The first time I really wrote down something about wolves I was walking alone on Mt. Hood and sorting through a hard moment in my life and went up to the mountain — it was summer, and there was lupine blooming, and I thought about the flowers in connection to wolves, and I wrote down “wolflike” and felt wolflike in my sense of myself.

Literal wolves have just been returning to Mt. Hood, and I’ve been obsessing over it on the Internet. It came, and I kept digging and having these moments — dogs kept coming into things I was writing. I came to it naturally, not really borrowing from this tradition … and since then, the Estés has been there. I also talked to Karen Russell, who had a book about young girls raised by wolves, and all these other folktales. It feels like one of those collective consciousness tricks. I don’t know where that comes from.

In terms of commercials, it feels more like doing a crossword puzzle than anything else. It’s a puzzle — there are so many directives and it feels far … I feel protective when I put my emotional self into music, and I tried to contain this within what feels like my own art. But it’s tricky because I want everything I do to be good and thoughtful. It’s more of an intellectual exercise than an emotional one.

How have your experiences with the marginalized in society — including your choice to work on [the play] Up The Fall for performers with developmental disabilities — focused and/or reinforced your understanding of what it means to be human that you portray in Goners?

That project was really wonderful — and just thinking what it means to compose music for a community of adults with disabilities, and it ended up being more about the performers’ strengths than disabilities. Some of the performers were not verbal at all, and so I could think about movement and how I could pay attention to movement within a musical piece, which isn’t something I’d thought about before.

Thinking through what kind of performer can express themselves only through movement, not words — and what can they express that would be meaningful and compelling and true that someone that has verbal capabilities couldn’t express — it became an amazing practice in connecting to individual strengths.

It was a really sweet, amazing community … It’s hard not to be thinking of the marginalized all the time right now because the threat feels very clear — it’s something on the minds of everybody, but particularly artists and writers, and especially how to include all sorts of people but also make something specific and true to your own experience tends to be a challenge.

My record is about loss, and shared loss — and I think that’s about as universal as it gets, even more than love. Hopefully everyone experiences love, but not everyone gets romantic love. But every person experiences loss, and it is the most true part of being human, and so … I just sort of focused on that, within music.

Songwriting is an easier form — it’s a little more universally appealing, and written narrative is a lot more challenging to know how to consider the marginalized within your stories. I’ve tried in my fiction to think about my own blindspots in my work.

The last song on the record is “I don’t want your voice to move me.” It’s about a lot of things and inspired by a recurring once-dream and now-visualization that I have when I feel like a person that I love feels unreachable (whether emotional or through death), and that song — I imagined a lot of people in my life, including my mom, sister and I when we lost my dad when I was young. I thought about it a lot and tried to convey when you’re not able to speak to someone because of pain.

In relationships — when you care about someone deeply, but when you trudge through something together that’s painful and feel separated by the pain — it’s a very specific feeling of the small movements we make within those movements toward each other that can feel psychically epic. Often when there is a giant lake of pain between two people, it can be the focus of the story or the picture, and on Goners, and that song in particular, it felt like an anchor that tiny acknowledgements — eye contact, or OK-ness — can be very epic human moments.

I think that is a strength. You don’t think of those things as being strengths, or being big human stepping stones, but I think that they can be. I feel like that is what I was sort of trying to capture within the idea of shared loss.

What is the meaning of human existence that you try to develop throughout the logic of Goners? How do you believe that music enables humans to reconcile experiences of loss with a willingness to continue forward? What is the space of joy that’s unearthed?

This is the first time anyone’s pushed me to really give that sort of answer, and I do feel committed to coming up with a good answer because it hasn’t yet felt articulatable. In thinking through these things, my own loss, I found myself surprised at how accessible those people still are within my life even though they’re gone. My father, for instance — I still live on with him. He died when I was a kid so I had more of a dream logic sensibility, maybe, but individuals that we lose … they remain accessible in life, whether artists or just humans.

Also loss through breakups or fallouts or those kinds of losses. I have some experience with these … I’ve always found a sort of peace within dream logic because it does feel like those lost are accessible in some ways … I’m not speaking supernaturally, but within the realm of the imagination and the subconscious I think; I meditated on that idea a lot in Goners within our psyches, and how … loss can still contain more and give more, many years later. The idea of moving toward joy, or taking joy …

We have a really huge capacity to hold other people within our psyches and dreams and our imaginations and our art, and Goners as a project really felt like my own kind of excavation of that capacity within my own self and life, and it is easier to point to that lyrically, but I know that it is part of the sonic DNA of the record, too. This is something true about the record I haven’t dug to yet in a more philosophical plane.

In the process of making Goners, you mention doing a lot of experimentation that sounded cool but would have been difficult to recreate. When you compose and record albums, how much do the practical restrictions of recreation restrict your choices? How sonically faithful do you desire to be in terms of your process?

I tend to work best when I think of it as making demos and then realize that it is the real thing. I’m always setting up the mental games in order to make a thing, and a lot of that is taking the pressure off. We did experimenting with layering my voice, and any time I tried to construct the things I did by accident, it never succeeded, and the accident or experimentation sounded more interesting than what I tried to learn and recreate.

You can recreate notes and sounds and melody lines, but it’s really hard to recreate discovery when it happens in a recording session and I the discoveries are often the things that feel better within a record to me. I don’t know how much I consciously think about experimenting, but the parts that made the record sound as it does came from what felt like play and nerding out on sound.

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