Getting to Know... Laura Gibson & Ethan Rose

Music Features Laura Gibson & Ethan Rose
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Bridge Carols treads in unmarked territory, its lyrics drifting between waking thoughts and dreams, its authorship suspended somewhere between the folk roots of vocalist Laura Gibson and the ethereal soundscapes of electronic composer Ethan Rose. Undaunted by the differences in the sounds and processes that have come to define their solo work, the unlikely pair of Portland, Ore.-based collaborators wanted to see what could happen when they worked together; Rose used everything from a ukulele to the slamming of a washer-dryer door to compose an instrumental backdrop, while Gibson relinquished control of her words, allowing Rose to dictate melody and meaning as he crafted a sonic collage with clips of her sung poetry. The resulting album (out now) is a stunning record that stretches conventional notions of songwriting. On the phone at Rose’s house in Portland, the duo recently talked with Paste about Bridge Carols’ unlikely impetus (it involves rum balls and Nikola Tesla) to the duo’s new challenge of translating their music to a live show.

Paste: Where are you guys calling from?
Laura Gibson: We’re at Ethan’s house. We’re going to rehearse some songs after the interview, so we just had some lunch. And I have a cup of coffee, and Ethan has a glass of water.
Ethan Rose: What are you drinking?

Paste: I’m drinking green tea.
Rose: Oh, good call.

Paste: Thanks. So we can start at the beginning—I’d love to know more about how you two got connected socially and how long you’ve been friends.
Gibson: How long have we been friends? Four years or something?
Rose: Yeah.
Gibson: Maybe about four years? We had mutual friends. Ethan played in an instrumental band in Portland and when I was first playing shows, I played one of my first shows, actually, with them. We had known each other for a while. Portland is such a small community of musicians that you kind of get to know a lot of people. I had always loved what Ethan did musically and also artistically—he does a lot of sound art. He’d always be the person I’d see at a party or a show and I’d start chatting with Ethan and I’d always be so inspired and excited just hearing about his process. So we’d always see each other, and he was probably like, “Oh, here comes Laura again…” I had always found what he did so fascinating and his process of creating music so fascinating. It’s so different from what I do, and I’d always think, “Oh, this person makes such different music but he’s one of the people I always feel really connected to when we talk about making music, even though it’s so different.” So one day we decided to make a collaboration. Ethan, do you have anything…?
Rose: In the same way I really appreciated Laura’s music. I do remember I saw you perform before I knew you as a person. I really always liked Laura’s music a lot. So as we would talk and sort of get to know each other, I was excited that she was interested in working on something. And I’m somebody who really enjoys collaboration so I was excited to see what kind of results we could come up with.

Paste: Do you remember one of the first conversations where you really started knowing that a collaboration was in the works, or where you proposed the idea? Do you remember where and when and how the conversation went?
Gibson: I think it was at that rum ball party. There was this Christmas party. I was chatting with you, and maybe we had brought it up before, but I feel like we had this moment of like, “Yeah, we should do that!” and then Ethan emailed me a few days later and was like, “So when do you want to meet?” (Laughs)
Rose: I think that’s right, yeah. I also remember, around that same time, reading a book on Nikola Tesla, an electricity experimenter of the same era as Edison. Anyway, I was just reading a book on that and had also gotten out a movie from the library, and I remember me and Laura just got totally excited about Tesla. (Laughs) So that was in the mix there somewhere.

Paste: Once you guys started getting together to work on it, did it take a bit of time for you to warm up as a creative duo and to develop trust and comfort with trying new things, since you were each coming from different places?
Gibson: Yeah, I don’t think we knew really what we were going to do at first. The first time we met I played a song, which actually ended up on my record before Ethan. But I just sang a song a capella that didn’t end up on our collaborative record, but Ethan kind of made a soundscape, or Ethan cut it up a little bit and made the soundscape around it.
Rose: Yup, that was the first thing we did, and I think immediately I was pretty excited with the results. And the next way we did that is that I made a little structure of a song and gave it to Laura and then she wrote for the structure that I had written. So in the very beginning, we were just searching for a way that we could work together that felt natural and made sense. Those were kind of the first two steps.
Gibson: And that kind of developed into—we had some writings and put them to the loop that Ethan made, and then at some point we just decided to try just improvising lyrics and wordless vocalizations over the loop that Ethan had made. We just kind of went for it one afternoon and I sang maybe for twenty or thirty minutes off of the top of my head, whatever came to my head. Was “Younger” the first one that we did like that?
Rose: I think it was one of the first ones we did like that, yeah. Basically Laura recorded this long stream of vocalizations, and then I went back and kind of cut it into pieces, searching for threads and fragments and ideas that sounded nice but also created maybe some kind of narrative possibility. And then I would take all of those pieces and shift them around and put them in different places and create sort of a new continuity. So in a certain sense, it was kind of Laura’s improvised ideas, but I was making sounds into something that neither of us fully owned.

Paste: When you say “narrative possibility,” do you mean melodic narrative?
Rose: Yeah, I think both.
Gibson: For a lot of it, I would just sing phrases. If you take the song “Younger” on the record, all of the lyrics that I’m singing Ethan cut and pasted together from a really long strand of free association.

Paste: That’s so interesting. I’m looking at the lyrics in front of me right now and it’s so funny to think that you didn’t initially imagine them in this way.
Gibson: It is funny. I was actually on tour when Ethan sent that to me. “Younger” is one of both of our favorite songs that we made together, and I was on tour and Ethan emailed it to me and I didn’t even remember singing some of that stuff. It was such a strange feeling. It was put together so poetically, but it came from this really different place. I listened and thought, “I really sang that?” or “Where did I get that? Where did I come up with that?” And also, “That sounds pretty good! These are a pretty good couple of lines, here.” They came from different places and Ethan created the poem out of other things that I had said. That in itself was really exciting for me to discover. I come from a very traditional place in songwriting and making music. It’s structured in a certain way. So for me, when Ethan sent me this song, I thought, “Oh this is so beautiful, and it came about in this completely different way than I thought songs were supposed to come about.” So that was the most exciting part for us—when we reached that place and realized that we were really doing something special. You know, however it turns out, however the listener takes it, for us that was a point where we felt that this was really special.

Paste: What happens to meaning when you are splicing and dicing words? Ethan, as you were putting this poem together and rearranging what Laura had said, were you thinking mostly aesthetically? Or were you thinking, “What is this poem going to mean?”
Rose: Yeah, that’s a really good question—really smartly put. I tend to work really kind of intuitively, and the editing environment is a comfortable place for me to be. I know the platform and I know how to use the tools, and when I start working, it’s so fluid that I often don’t realize how I got where I am. In fact, a lot of the time on the album I didn’t remember how I did what I did at first. It sort of happened from these layers and reworking the material and editing it down. That said, in my mind there was definitely an aspect of thinking in terms of context of meaning—like what you’re saying—with the words themselves. I’d think, “Oh, if I play these words after this group of words, this kind of picture forms in your mind.” But at the same time, I couldn’t do that unless the melodic aspect and the sonic quality worked aesthetically. So in a certain sense, I was limited by that. It had to sound good, so it had to kind of form a meaning of its own. In some sense, it sounding good was more important. And then the meaning that emerged was just kind of a product of that.

Paste: Laura, were you surprised by the meaning? You’re the one that is the voice—the mouthpiece. While some listeners will just take it as a beautiful thing aurally and aesthetically, it does have a meaning, so what do you think about that?
Gibson: Yeah. That part was really new to me. It was a challenge because in the songs that I write on my own, I really labor over putting words together perfectly, and so it was kind of scary in a way for me to let these words go as my own and come to trust Ethan in what he was doing. Because it is my voice on there, and my words, and so to have less control was a little bit scary and also really exciting. One of the things now is that we’re just starting to play live. We’ll have our first show in the States playing a few songs, and in the fall we did a tour in Japan. I’m kind of exploring meaning in learning to play them live and singing them live. I’m finding meaning in them that I didn’t see before. I think I’m still exploring that a little bit. But it’s interesting how meanings have emerged. I don’t know if I really believed that that would happen at first. Just singing them as they are on the record in that particular order, I feel like there’s so much meaning in them and so much that is evoked and that is really fascinating to me. That was something I learned about words.
Rose: This sort of process does have kind of a historical place. There’s the work of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin who did sort of a similar thing in what they would call “literary cut-ups.” Often they would just use a single sentence and rearrange the words over and over in every possible permutation and watch and notice how meanings would emerge. There’s an element about this that references the automatic writing that a lot of surrealist poets used to do—these creative writing experiments of just continuous writing and editing it together. So we were kind of thinking of those things. Or even the exquisite corpse, you know, where somebody draws a picture, and they just draw the top part of it, and they fold it over and you draw the second part, and somebody else draws the third part. What emerges in the end is something that is—well, the authorship is harder to define. We’re both involved in this, and it’s clearly both of us, but it’s beyond both of us as well.

Paste: Are there any songs on the record whose lyrics appear are exactly as you wrote them, Laura?
Gibson: Um, there are. The last song “O Frailty”—that’s a little song that I had had in my head for a long time. Somehow it just kind of developed into something I’d sing to myself as I’d go about my day. I recorded it on my computer—just little mini-versions of it. I thought of putting it on Beasts of Seasons but it never really fit, and it fit perfectly with the rest of the songs on Bridge Carols. So many of the songs on Bridge Carols take place out in the stars and with references to the sun and the North Wind and “slow-burning light,” so it just fit thematically, and it was also fun to work with.
Rose: We recorded it onto basically like an old reel-to-reel tape machine. I did that with a couple of these—I think “Old Waters” also had that quality to it. It basically ages it and sort of changes the texture of her voice. Also, having an a cappella song on there—we wanted to try all of these different things, and that was so natural, and I kind of like how that ends up at the end of the album, just sort of stark.
Gibson: “Old Waters” was another kind of mini-song that I used to sing to myself and never really found a home for. I would sing it to myself when I was walking, and it just ended up having its place here. I like those mini-moments in structure. It’s a different structure, I guess than something more ambient.

Paste: Ethan, I read that unlike many of your fellow avant-electronic composers, you only use acoustic sound sources in your music. Is that right?
Rose: Yeah, for the most part, that’s right. Specifically for this album, that’s 100% right. A lot of this album I actually pulled from folk instruments—ukulele or banjo or harmonica, or percussion sort of instruments—that I then had to divorce from their acoustic qualities. I think what I really appreciate is that they still have sort of that idiosyncratic identity that in a lot of electronic music is not as present.

Paste: Do you play all of those instruments or did you have friends help out?
Rose: I did play most of them, but we have a couple of features on the album. Peter Broderick came over and played violin on “Boreas Borealis” and Cory Gray played the trumpet on “Younger” and “Old Waters.”
Gibson: Cory and Peter have actually played with me fairly often. Peter Broderick I think is in Germany now. He’s a really wonderful composer.
Rose: He plays with Efterklang and he’s been recording under his own name on Type and Bella Union and some other labels over here.
Gibson: He’s really wonderful. You should really check out his music.

Paste: And did you use any sounds besides instruments that were kind of a discovery—sounds that are not traditionally used in music?
Gibson: Ethan used a lot of my voice—he would take parts that weren’t even singing, like my breath or mouth sounds and use those as samples and part of the compositions.
Rose: Yeah, again, it’s hard for me to remember back to what I did because it is such a fluid thing when I work like that. (Laughs) I do remember that my roommate—I have a basement studio, and he came down and I don’t think he realized that we were recording at that exact moment, and he shut the washer-dryer door, so that’s in there. It’s in the second half of “Younger,” when there’s singing about the racehorse. He shut the door, and I couldn’t let go of that little lyrical fragment that it happened in. It made me realize that I could have this whole percussive breakdown, which happens then in that song. That’s something that I just kind of ran with. I like doing that and letting the environment and the space that I’m using and all of these different elements come in. I’m not trying to make something perfect, or do a hundred takes—I’m just running with the material that presents itself.

Paste: Did your guitar make it on there, Laura?
Gibson: I didn’t. It was more of my voice as an instrument.
Rose: Live, Laura is playing a bunch of instruments and I’m playing instruments and we’ve been exploring that more as we play live.

Paste: I’m interested in hearing more about how this record translates to a live show. As you toured Japan and are planning for some dates in the U.S., how has that been working out?
Rose: It’s challenging, trying to capture it. We’ve approached it in several different ways. Maybe you should talk about the TBA performance or something.
Gibson: Yeah. We did a performance for the Time-Based Art Festival in Portland. It was actually a three-and-a-half hour improvisation, where we sort of shut ourselves into a gallery with big glass windows and everyone could watch us from outside, and then we made music with our friend, the filmmaker Ryan Jeffery, projecting images. We kind of responded to Ryan as he responded to us. And in some ways that performance feels more real to the record than actually playing the songs. There was an element of presence and an element of improvisation. We’re trying to do some more shows like that. Live, we try and present the songs as well as we can from the record, but also leave a lot of space. For me, singing these songs is so meditative, and I really like having the looseness to it. I am able to improvise a lot and just be really present in what I am doing. For me, that part of it feels connected to the record, whereas if we were just trying to exactly replicate the songs on the record, it wouldn’t feel quite as true to the record. We do try and recreate the sounds. We have to do a lot of looping and a lot of small parts where we pick up and put down bells and baritone ukulele and there are a few places where we have to bring the computer in order to recreate sounds. Actually, I really enjoy playing the songs. It’s really fun to do them live and I’m looking forward to the shows we’ll do with Bridge Carols. It feels really different for me as a performer. It feels really meditative. I aim for that when I sing—to feel really free. In learning these songs and playing live with Ethan, I’ve been learning a lot about performing. It’s informing my understanding of performance.
Rose: It’s always been a challenge for me to perform live. I have a very studio-based practice. But it’s a challenge that I like. In the solo work that I’ve done, when I first was performing I was using a laptop and never liked that. It felt so anticlimactic, like I could’ve just put on a CD. I do think the spectacle of performance is important, and I really want to work towards trying to figure out ways to expose the processes of what I’m doing in the studio. Then people feel part of what we do.

Paste: Do you play the tracks in the order that they’re in on the record?
Rose: No, we changed sections and tied some tracks together.
Gibson: Yeah, we sort of added different parts, because they’re enjoyable for us.
Rose: We had to rethink it and look at the album and figure out how we could turn it into a performance that would make sense. And, yeah, we ended up rearranging things.

Paste: Do you think of each song as an individual entity or as a part of a fluid whole?
Gibson: I feel like it’s kind of both in a way. Especially live. There are so many sections in each song and when we play them live that it’s hard to tell where one song begins and one song ends.
Rose: Yeah, I think of it as a whole project. It has its identity and its place for both of us. But it’s made up of a bunch of parts that can all be moved around. I think it’s more fun to move things around. It’s more exciting that way, because you’re looking for different ways to present it. I wouldn’t want to do a performance that was 100% true to the album.

Paste: It is a visually evocative record, with all of the references to light and darkness and stars and all of that. You touched on this a bit before, but do you want to have a visual component to the performance, and have you yet, besides what you did with Ryan at the Time-Based Festival?
Gibson: We’d like to. We’re hoping to snag our friend Ryan for a few shows. I really like collaborating with him for images. They give the songs new meaning.
Rose: I was just going to say—images are kind of cool either way. They can add something, but there’s also something to be said for just having a performance and having images in the mind’s eye. We were trying to think about where to do the CD release show, and we actually tried to do it at the planetarium here in town.
Gibson: I was on tour in Europe, and somehow the idea just came to me so I emailed Ethan and said, “We have to do it a the planetarium!” But then the venue said no. So we’re hoping to turn the Holocene venue in town into a planetarium.
Rose: Oddly enough, they have a whole bunch of outer space footage that they used for their New Year’s Eve party, so they’re going to project some celestial imagery. The spot where we’re playing is owned by the same people that run the label that released the album here in the United States. So it makes sense that we do it there, and it sort of is auspicious that they have the outer space footage.
Gibson: I agree with what Ethan said earlier. We’re singing songs that have a lot of imagery in the lyrics, and I always like thinking about the audience members having their own little films running through their heads. Everybody’s experiencing the same thing but then there are hundreds of different tiny films running. That’s really neat.

Paste: Ethan, some of your past records are packed in really cool ways, with the packaging itself a work of art. Do you guys have anything like this planned for how you will present Bridge Carols?
Rose: Well, most of that stuff that I had done was very object-based. What was held in the packaging was specifically tied in with the packaging. I don’t think we have anything specific planned for fancy packaging.
Gibson: I like our packaging! But it is more traditional record packaging. We have a little artist statement in there. We like having a statement about how it’s made.
Rose: It’s a little note.
Gibson: Yeah, just how it came into being.
Rose: Because it was such a process-based thing. I like to think that it could work on the level of just somebody listening to it and being able draw something from it no matter what, but I think talking about the process behind it can deepen your experience of listening, so we wanted to make that available.

Paste: Yeah, I’m really interested to go back to the record now having heard all about the process.
Rose: Listen for that slamming door.
Gibson: Near the line about a racehorse.

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