At first listen you could not be blamed for pegging Empire Builder as a rather quaint, folky album with nothing more than one of two choice tracks. However, come across the story behind the music and your opinion will undoubtedly be transformed. In the late summer of 2014, Laura Gibson moved to New York from Portland Oregon to study creative writing and take a break from music following the aftermath of her 2012 debut album, La Grande. For the first part of that journey she took the Empire Builder, a legendary train that connects the Pacific North West with Chicago. In March 2015, just as she was getting used to life in a new city, there was a gas explosion in her apartment building leaving two dead and many injured. Gibson was unharmed but lost everything she owned including all of her musical works. She spent the next few months couch hopping and trying to re-write what she had lost all whilst finishing her second semester at university.
Empire Builder is the result of her recovery; a deeply personal record with tiny cracks of joy and light spilling out from only one track; 'Two Kids'. With a nice, light sound, this short song focuses on a new and very true love, giving you the sense that Gibson has been able to move on after such tragedy in her life. A rather reassuring thought: “You are my sun, my Northern Lights, my Southern Cross”. Moving back to the imminent sadness surrounding this album. The title track really capturers its mood as well as Gibson’s complex lyrical ability: “Thought I heard you whisper in the dark…that I felt you move beside me”. A beautiful ode to the departed, it feels. 'Five and Thirty' also holds an air of morbidness. The use of violins is (as on many other tracks) so wonderfully well timed bringing an extra emotional layer to the song.
Gibson’s use of this instrument across the whole album is brilliant, she utilises it’s beautifully, sombre power at all the right moments. Gibson’s main instrument of guitar does not seem to feature that heavily apart from on the more country sounding tracks like 'Caldera, Oregon'. This song has a brilliantly eerie sound due to the Theremin like instrument that buzzes in the background and the magical Neil Young tinge to Gibson’s voice. It leads us smoothly in to the last track, 'The Last One'. With a deep, Alt Country sound and heaviness to its tone, this song is a great finish to an interesting and well developed album. Empire Builder is a credit to the powerful work of Laura Gibson, evidence that through tragedy can be born beautiful things.