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After A Tragedy, Laura Gibson Finds Kindness And Honesty On ‘Empire Builder’

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Photo: Laura Gibson album cover
Laura Gibson

The afternoon of March 25, 2015, changed singer-songwriter Laura Gibson’s life.

A gas leak caused an explosion that day in her Manhattan apartment building. Two young men were killed.

Gibson remembers it vividly.

"I felt the explosion and very clearly knew something was terribly wrong. So I just grabbed my shoes and ran out, looked for my roommate’s cat. As soon as I got out in the hallway it was filled with debris dust."

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The blast could also have been the end of her musical career. Everything she owned was destroyed, including her instruments and lyric notebooks.

But almost immediately, friends, fans and even total strangers offered help.

"I was talking to my mom on the phone about a block away. This woman overheard me and came up and gave me $40. She was like: ‘This is all I have in my pocket. You’re going to need it.' The incredible kindness and generosity of people from the start -- I’ll never forget that."

At the time of the explosion, the recording of Gibson’s fourth album, “Empire Builder,” was underway. Just three days after the explosion, she started rewriting the lyrics for the 10 songs that would make it onto the record.

"Some songs I had played live, so they were pretty fully committed to memory. Other songs I remembered just maybe one line and scrapped the rest completely. It's really hard to tell what the record and what the lyrics would have been had this not happened. I'm sure it would be different in some way."

Within a week, Gibson was recording new vocals in her hometown of Portland, Ore., thanks to the encouragement of producer John Morgan Askew. She says singing her songs so soon after the tragedy had a profound effect on the album.

"I can hear it in my voice. I just was so tired. So weary and overwhelmed and stripped raw at that point that I had no way of really performing. I just had to deliver these words as honestly and as raw as I could."

Gibson doesn’t directly mention the apartment explosion on “Empire Builder.” Instead, she incorporates fictional characters and events who ride trains, swim across rivers and dance under the stars.

Fiction comes naturally to her -- she’s an aspiring novelist who recently received a master's degree in creative writing from Hunter College.

But intentionally or not, elements from her life still turn up in the lyrics.

"There’s always a truth and a lie in them at the same time. Somehow the fiction can trick you into revealing more of yourself than you would if you were trying to directly tell the truth. I often find that I’m tricking myself into singing about myself when I don't intend to."