Laura Gibson: A Voice Fit For A Tiny Desk

Mar 4, 2012
Originally published on March 5, 2012 4:21 pm

Click the audio link on this page to hear Laura Gibson's interview with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin. Below, NPR Music's Stephen Thompson reflects on Gibson's place in the history of the Tiny Desk Concerts.

Singer-songwriter Laura Gibson served as the inspiration and guinea pig for the Tiny Desk Concerts back in the spring of 2008, after Bob Boilen and I witnessed her struggle to be heard over the din of a yappy crowd at SXSW. I suggested to Bob that we'd be better off asking her to play a concert at his desk rather than straining to hear her at a bar, so we waited around after the show and suggested the notion to Gibson. It felt like an imposition, but she jumped at the idea — and noted that she'd be in Washington, D.C., in three weeks.

The solo performance we captured was spare and gorgeous, and the series evolved quickly, from quiet singer-songwriters (Gibson, Vic Chesnutt, Sam Phillips) to the noisier likes of Tom Jones, Chuck Brown and The Avett Brothers. As of this writing, we've recorded more than 200 Tiny Desk Concerts. Bob's desk, in addition to being a place where he works and distracts his colleagues with scatterbrained shenanigans, now sits under professional video lighting; while my desk houses a menagerie of wind-up robots and drinking birds, Bob's permanently houses a microphone that's worth more than my car. (Three hundred dollars!)

The whole time the series has been going on, Laura Gibson has been making gorgeous music. We've been blown away by the albums she's released in the past few years — Beasts of Seasons and this year's La Grande — which build on her sonic palette without sacrificing the intimacy of her fragile, whispery voice. So who could be better to help us celebrate Tiny Desk Concert No. 200? Other musicians, like Nels Cline and Marketa Irglova, have played the desk once as a headliner and once as a collaborator. But Laura Gibson, the inspiration for our labor of love, had to be the first to headline twice.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Our Tiny Desk concert with Laura Gibson is about to begin, so please head on over to the skinny end of the sixth floor. Thank you.


This week, NPR Music celebrates a milestone. They're posting the 200th episode of their Tiny Desk Concert series. That's the online performance program that takes place at Bob Boilen's cramped but cozy workspace at NPR. Singer-songwriter Laura Gibson was the very first musical guest to play at the now famous Tiny Desk.

BOB BOILEN, BYLINE: So, it was about four years ago...


BOILEN: We were at South by Southwest and...

MARTIN: As they introduced Laura Gibson, Bob Boilen and music editor Stephen Thompson told the story of how the Tiny Desk Concerts were hatched. They wanted to see Laura play at the famous music festival in Austin.

THOMPSON: Yeah, and you and I just decided to just meet up and see a show, it was at a place called the, I believe it was, Thirsty Nickel.

BOILEN: That's right.

THOMPSON: And the sound system consists of these sort of home stereo speakers.

BOILEN: They were pointing outdoors (unintelligible). I'm serious.

THOMPSON: Yeah, they were pointing outside and we couldn't hear at all.

BOILEN: And Laura doesn't have the most powerful, emotionally powerful, yet...


THOMPSON: Right. You know how in theater you're taught to project, you kind of project in. And so, I'm like this is a complete waste of time. Next time she's in D.C., we should just have her play at your desk. And Bob was like OK. That's how you became the Typhoid Mary of the Tiny Desk.


LAURA GIBSON: I have to say at that show, the experience of playing was one of the least comfortable I've had in playing music. But I had this moment where I was just on the verge of thinking maybe I should give up. And I look out and Stephen Thompson was raising his fist at the sound engineer to turn it up. And I thought it's going to be OK. Something good's going to happen here, and it did. So, I'm just so honored to have been a part of this series from the beginning. Thank you.



MARTIN: Laura Gibson played three selections in the concert from her new album, "La Grande." This one's called "Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed."


MARTIN: As Bob and Stephen said, Laura Gibson's voice is not powerful but it's intimate and perfect for the Tiny Desk setting. The day she came to play at NPR for the second time, I asked her about her singing and her new album.

GIBSON: You know, there's been moments that I've been both in these kind of intimate places where I don't have a microphone and I'm forced to extend my voice to volume limits, I guess. And also sometimes will play a crowded show and it's loud in the room and I really have to dig a little deeper. But in general, I just really have a quiet voice, both in speaking and in singing and I do my best with the limitations.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about your new album. It's called "La Grande." I'd like to play a little bit of this, of one track in particular called "The Fire." Let's take a listen.


MARTIN: There's that honky-tonk piano and this kind of stomping beat. Even the words - be not afraid - I mean, it really has this kind of revival feel to it.

GIBSON: Yeah. I really wanted to go for that. I pulled those words from an old hymn actually. And more it's something motivational rather than directly spiritual. And a lot of what I was going through in the time I was making this record, "La Grande," was really just this desire to transcend my own timidity. And I went through this season of really wanting to know what else I was capable of, both in skill and in communication. And so I really set out on this mission and I set a goal for myself really early on that I would err on the side of confidence, and not really knowing how that would play out.



MARTIN: You live in Portland now. That's your base.


MARTIN: But you grew up in rural Oregon.

GIBSON: Yeah. I grew up in a little logging town called Coquille near the south coast of Oregon.

MARTIN: What do your parents think? Are they kind of taken aback by your decision to pursue music and your success?

GIBSON: Yeah. Well, my dad suddenly passed away when I was in high school and so he never got to see me even begin to try and make music. And I think my mom's really proud of me. I think at first she was surprised and worried, as all moms would be when someone says I'm not going to go to graduate school, I'm going to jump in a van and start playing shows and make a career out of it.

MARTIN: Every mother's dream.

GIBSON: Yeah. But now it's so amazing. She comes to shows and is baking things for the backstage. And she's really become a mother to a lot of the musicians in Portland, to a lot of my friends. And it's' been wonderful to see, like, my musical life is really connected to my family.

MARTIN: Laura Gibson. Her new CD is called "La Grande." Thanks so much for talking with us and for the Tiny Desk Concert.

GIBSON: Oh gosh. It's my pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: It was a pleasure talking with you.


MARTIN: To hear Laura Gibson's latest Tiny Desk Concert, visit This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.