Laura Gibson says she makes "grief songs," a fact about her career she's long accepted. Even her love songs end up painted with a wash of sadness. “When you experience big loss when you're young — your whole life,” she tells me on a Wednesday afternoon, "I’ve revisited that loss in every version of myself.”
Gibson lost her father to cancer when she was 14, a keystone event that marks her fifth solo album, Goners, out Friday. The album represents a series of doors that lead down contemplative pathways tracking how the event has influenced parts of her life — her relationships, her idea of being a woman, the question of childbirth. On Instagram, she thanked her fans in advance for “staring into the abyss” with her, but the abyss — as dark as it may get — is still a shimmering well of endless love and empathy.
On Goners, the stories spring forth like surreal fables from a storybook. Dogs and wolves play roles as shape-shifting protagonists, and inadequate women. Her writing is at its most slippery and elusive, partially owed to her recently-acquired MFA in creative writing; vulnerability is cracked open, and blood is a creek from wrist to drain. But coupled with weepy folk rhythms, Goners is so incessantly beautiful that one cannot help but want to gently crack it open to get to its beating core.
Laura and I met up at a cozy Mediterranean-themed restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, and over cheese, honey, and a smoky eggplant dish, we talked about the record as she frequently expressed a quiet awe at the power of songwriting — which, on Goners, takes the shape of a stunning and graceful reverie on human connection. “It's such a strange thing,” she said. “There was nothing, and then there was meaning in this form of rhymed words and melodies.” She paused. “I hope that's the case for my whole life.”
Did writing with surreal imagery help go through the process of rehashing grief?
There's this great Ursula LeGuin quote where she talks about how there's this human experience, and a dragon is the only way to convey this one truth of being human — there's no other way. I thought about that a lot. Although I have a lot of everyday images in my songs, [they] can't quite [fully explain it.] So it was a way for me to approach this hard topic, but sometimes that's the only way to really delve into such giant topics. The last song on the record (“I Don’t Want Your Voice To Move Me”) felt like an anchor song, and it's probably the one that most directly feels connected to my dad and grief. When he was really sick and very clearly dying, I was in middle school and into my freshman year of high school, and I just didn't have the capacity to really connect on that level with a person who was dying.
I often would imagine myself searching for him on this giant landscape, trying to build a whole world around this very difficult psychological connection. There was no other way for me to capture the epicness of trying to make that connection. The only way for my mind to make sense of it was to dream about crossing this giant landscape in order to find a person. It felt that huge — even though it was me being an awkward teenager and not talking to my dad, or only talking about books. A lot of what the record is how these small connections with people you love can, in some other realm of the brain, seem like epic journeys. A lot of it is about intimacy and how we scrape our way towards connection.
How was your relationship with your dad?
It was good. We were a really tight family. He was sick from when I was 10 or 11 to when I was 14 — that's as far as my memory of him stands. My mom tells lots of stories about him, and it's filled in a lot of gaps for me. One of the great gifts he gave me was that he was very verbal about the fact that he loved my sister and I. [Even] having these awkward teenage girls, he was like, "I don't care if it's awkward. I'm gonna tell them. They may walk outta the room.” But he instinctively knew that, both for himself and for us, it was really important to make it known that we are loved. Not everybody gets that from their parents.
How did you capture your father on the record?
It's hard to point and say, "That's him," because there's so much on the record that's about that relationship but also about me being in other relationships and trying to make sense of them through this parental relationship. There's a lot of dogs and wolves on the record.
There's the wolf on the cover, too.
That was a photo by this incredible Latvian photographer that I discovered looking through archives in a gallery in Portland. I was like, "That's, how my soul felt while I was making the record." It just felt right. I felt so obsessed with wolves and dogs because wolves weren't in Oregon — the last wolves were killed decades ago, and they've slowly been making their way back from Idaho. Just last summer, Mount Hood had their first mating pair of wolves. I did a lot of solo hiking and felt like the wolf became this spirit for me. Also, I love snowshoeing, and sometimes when you have to turn back on a trail and go home, I have a longing to keep going into the forest.
When my dad was in the hospital, I remember very clearly he kept thinking our family dog was at his feet, because he was in and out of consciousness and maybe on whatever they'd given him for pain. I've thought about that forever. I don't know what part of his mind made that happen, but I've thought about people seeing dogs a lot. When I finished the record, I hiked up to Everest Base Camp and back. There's all these adorable stray dogs along the trail that'll sometimes walk with you for a while. It's this beautiful, strange thing that happens.
A clear wolf reference is on "Domestication" — a parable of a wolf that tries to live as a woman. I thought about going through this loss and being a dark weirdo in high school and college while trying to fit in to what I thought a woman should be.
Does that extend to your feelings about whether or not you want to have kids?
It's a weird whispered topic, where people feel they're either entitled to know your small details about it or they avoid the topic of children altogether if you're a woman in your late 30s. I hate that there's shame where there shouldn't be. I made the decision to speak openly about the question of having kids, and it's led to the most incredible conversations of my life. I think my friends with kids feel pressure about what a mother should be. There's so much shame placed on women who are mothers, and so much on women who aren't mothers. The idea of creating life is a new and privileged question — there's not stacks of books dedicated to the topic. There's so many conversations to be had, and I'm just starting to see them conversations out.
You address the decision of childbirth most directly in the album's title track. The conversations with my friends about having children are always in the context of, "Do we want to bring a life into the world when the environment and political sphere is the way it is?" Did any current events influence the song?
They were happening in the background as I was thinking through these ideas. I wanted "Goners" to work on a couple different levels — about asking the question, "What does it mean to not procreate?" and about the state of the world. I wrote it in early 2017, right when it was starting to dawn on everybody how bad these four years might be. There's this straightforward, apocalyptic part, and this personal apocalypse of not continuing your DNA in a world.
Goners just seems like a good title for the record, in a tongue-in-cheek way. It's about loss, and people — and children, potentially — who are no longer with us. There's two different times we use [the word]: when someone's about to die, and when someone's been taken by love and lost themselves. That loss of yourself in love was something I wrote about a lot.
You described yourself as a dark child. Are you okay with your music being associated with that word?
I mean, that's the itch that I'm scratching. I certainly have a dark current within me, and my imagination — but I also think of myself as a pretty cheerful, hopeful person. I've always held joy and sorrow at the same time. That's the best place for me to write. What does it mean to hold joy and sorrow at the same time? That can be complicated, and also very simple.