BY JONATHAN VALANIA Earlier this spring, Portlandian indie-folk antiquarian Laura Gibson released La Grande, a mesmerizing collection of otherworldly torch songs, ghostly Americana and haunted folk/blues. La Grande is Gibson’s third album and features cameos from Joey Burns of Calexico, members of The Dodos and fellow Portlandians The Decemberists, is currently topping our favorite albums of 2012 list. We are not alone — Mojo, Uncut and Q gave it rave four star reviews. Recently we got Laura on the horn to discuss love, death, math, folk music, cataclysmic genocidal tsunamis, the secret to being the state high jump champion and why she ‘put a bird on’ her first two albums.
PHAWKER: So you were the Oregon state high jump champion for a time?
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah, good research.
PHAWKER: What was your secret? Flubber?
LAURA GIBSON: I worked really hard, I practiced and worked out a lot and think I had a bit of determination in me.
PHAWKER: What was your highest jump?
LAURA GIBSON: I went 5’6” in high school and almost 5’7” in college then I started to have ankle problems.
PHAWKER: This is the thing where you run and turn around backwards and flip over the bar, right?
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah it’s such a strange skill to spend so much time perfecting, it often seems really strange.
PHAWKER: I don’t think it’s all for naught, I am sure that skill comes in handy all the time. So you went to college on a math scholarship, now you’re playing spectral indie-folk. What happened along the way? Most people become musicians precisely because they suck at math.
LAURA GIBSON: I feel like math somehow is really connected to making music, that part of my brain that loves math and loves putting puzzles together is the same part of my brain that’s making words and sounds add up.
PHAWKER: At one point you decided to turn away from math and high jumping and pursue music…
LAURA GIBSON: I got injured and needed ankle surgery. I started learning to play guitar because I had all this free time on my hands and started writing songs. I decided to take a year off from school and moved to Portland. I always wanted to do some volunteer work with either hospice or a hospital, and I had this idea I would play music for people who were sick or dying rather than play shows at clubs. So I started playing music every Tuesday night at this residential care facility for people in the late stages of AIDS.
PHAWKER: That’s very noble and a beautiful story, but I can’t say that’s a good career move in terms of building a long term fan base. I mean, the dying only buy so many albums…
LAURA GIBSON: That’s true.
PHAWKER: You grew up in the small town of Coquille, Oregon?
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah, it’s a little logging town near the coast. Coquille is a French word which means “shell.” A lot of towns in Oregon were named by French-Canadian trappers. The native people in the area all wore shells around their neck and so when the trappers came in they said, “these are the coquille people, these are the shell people,” and so they named the town settlement Coquille.
PHAWKER: Are there any Native Americans living there currently?
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah, there is. A lot of that population was supposedly wiped out long long ago by a giant tsunami but then it grew back up.
PHAWKER: There was a cataclysmic tsunami that wiped out hundreds or thousands of people?
LAURA GIBSON: That’s what they think, there aren’t official records but that’s from the writings that have survived. I’m not actually sure when that was, quite a while ago before the white man came and settled the area.
PHAWKER: I read that during a month-long visit back to Coquille, you intentionally didn’t bring any music and instead vowed to just rely on music you could find in the public library. It was there that you discovered Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, and Elizabeth Cotten, all of whom I can actually hear in your music – a lot of people say they’re influenced by them but I don’t hear it – but with you I do.
LAURA GIBSON: Definitely, the way I approach playing guitar is from teaching myself Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt songs. I’ve always been inspired by folk music and the stories of those people that really played music for no other reason than, you know, there’s music in their bones. I think that is folk music in the truest sense of the word.
PHAWKER: I was gonna ask you what you learned from each of those people but I guess you just answered that question.
LAURA GIBSON: Definitely guitar style and I also think that definitely I’ve always been inspired by folk music and the stories of those people that really played music for no other reason, you know, there’s music in their bones. So I think that’s ‘folk’ in the true sense of the word.
PHAWKER: So I’m guessing you’re familiar with Elizabeth Cotten’s story? How she wrote her most famous song, “Freight Train,” when she was a teenager then put music aside for many, many years. She wound up being a maid for Pete Seeger’s family…
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah she was a maid for the Seeger family and they kind of discovered her, really quite late in her life — like in her ’60s or ’70s.
PHAWKER: That’s such a special song.
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah, I love that song. I do that at sound checks a lot to warm up my fingers for playing guitar, I just love that song so much.
PHAWKER: Is there a recording of you doing that anywhere in existence?
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah there is actually. I did a limited edition tour EP of old blues and traditional songs called Six White Horses, I think it’s on iTunes.
PHAWKER: Also, during that same visit back home to Coquille, you read a lot of the old love letters your grandparents sent to each other for inspiration. I’m curious why and what did you learn from that you didn’t know before?
LAURA GIBSON: This all happened right around when I was making my first record If You Come to Greet Me. I don’t have a lot of extended family, my grandparents all passed away, my grandma had Alzheimer’s when I was young so I never got to know her. My father passed away when I was in high school and I never really got to know his story. It came at this time that I really wanted to know where I came from, I was talking to my mom about family and she said, “Well you can always read the boxes of letters,” and I said, “What? What letters?” and she said, “They’re up in the attic.” She never told me there were these two boxes full of letters between my grandmother and grandfather back in the 1930’s when they were first dating as teenagers and lasting a 20 year span.
PHAWKER: So was there any big revelation you took away from that?
LAURA GIBSON: Yeah, I really hadn’t gotten to know my grandparents at all because my grandmother had Alzheimer’s when I was young, it came at a time I was really longing to know my family history and the roots I came from and so it was this way of getting to know both my grandparents that I never had before and their relationship was very romantic and very loving. At the time I was really interested in love in my life and throughout the history of love and mothers and my family I guess, my parents had a wonderful relationship but my dad was very sick for many years so I never got to witness that romantic kind of love. So reading these letters between my grandparents felt like my existence came from this history of love which is very important to me.
PHAWKER: May I ask what illness your father had?
LAURA GIBSON: He had kidney cancer, it came back over the course of about four years and then he passed away when I was14.
PHAWKER: That’s rough, I’m sorry to hear that. Last question, you live in Portland. What’s your verdict on Portlandia?
LAURA GIBSON: Everybody is asking these days. To be honest, I don’t have a television so I’ve only seen a few of the sketches that have been online. I think they’re coming from a place where everyone – whether it’s Portland or Brooklyn – I think everyone can recognize their roots and all of the sketches can relate to a lot of things. I think it’s a kind of a ridiculous place, it can be funny sometimes. I’ve laughed a few times watching those sketches. I don’t feel offended in any way being a Portlander, “Oh, yeah I guess I fit that stereotype,” I do have birds flying on a couple of my record covers.
PHAWKER: Ha! Busted!
LAURA GIBSON: (Laughs) Guilty as charged.