Acclaimed alt-country musician and Richmond native Drew Gibson returns home this Wednesday for an intimate show at The Tin Pan and while it w
Acclaimed alt-country musician and Richmond native Drew Gibson returns home this Wednesday for an intimate show at The Tin Pan and while it will be the first time many in town will see him live, the singer-songwriter is no newcomer to the music world.
Far before he started recording music, Gibson was bouncing around from Pennsylvania to Ohio playing any coffeehouse possible or sitting in with any musician willing, all so he could get his name and music out there in any way possible. With his exceptional fingerpicking guitar style, Springsteen-esque vocals, and craftily composed songs, the singer was able to build an excellent reputation for himself that would begin to pay off as he settled down in Northern Virginia.
Gibson’s tireless efforts and amazing talent led him to record his first album, 2007’s Letterbox. While the album didn’t turn him into an overnight sensation, it did earn him plenty of attention and acclaim from publications such as USA Today and Washington Post. Four years later, Gibson followed his debut record with The Southern Draw, an album more celebrated than the first that seamlessly blurred alt-country with a myriad of other genres and styles. It was a great leap in terms of songwriting and musical talent from the freshmen record to the sophomore, but in hindsight, that rise looks more miniscule than anything after the release of his third album this past February.
1532 is a type of album that’s often written about, but rarely happens. It’s the tale of an accomplished musician who discovers a whole new level of sonic exploration, brought on by personal discovery and intense reflection. While it does seem cliche, most of the time it’s still a case of a musician following “A” with “B” and then “C” as opposed to bypassing “C” with “D” or even “E.” On 1532 though, Gibson not only blows right past “C,” he leaves “Z” completely in the dust. It’s the type of album that’s clearly in a different league than its predecessors and one that would make most artists spend the rest of their career in the dark due to the large shadow it casts.
From the start, what makes 1532 so special is just the atmosphere and visceral feeling of the songs. “One of the main differences on this album is the production,” Gibson stated. “It’s a little bit bigger and deeper and each song is more of an arrangement than we had done in the past.” Gibson also attributes much of the album’s sonic success to the addition of pedal steel player, Dave Hadley, who joined Gibson’s backing band shortly after the release of The Southern Draw. “One of the main things I wanted to make sure of on this record was that Dave finally landed on a record,” Gibson recalled. “Production wise, adding that piece was huge to me. Instead of me handling all the guitars and the piano, there was something that only Dave could do and it is such an interesting element to the music that added so much to the record.”
Production aside, the big takeaway from the album is the story behind its creation. Gibson lost his father in July of 2012 and in the process of dealing with his grief, he found solace in the exploration of his family’s history. He went through old photos and letters of not just his father, but his entire family dating back generations. The name 1532 itself is a tribute to the Gibson family as it’s the address of an old family house passed down generation to generation as well as a license plate of the eldest brother of Gibson’s father (who died in World War II) that would later enshrine multiple cars within the family.
“The stories behind the songs and the concept behind the rhetoric was really important,” Gibson described. “It’s obviously in memory of my dad, but I ended up choosing all these different family stories. It was kind of intimidating to decide what stories or family members to include. I did a lot of research, talked to my mom, went through family photos, and just came up with the stories that I thought would be best.”
Another aspect Gibson found intimidating was the story aspect itself. “As a songwriter, I have always struggled with being a straight, down home storyteller,” he revealed. “There are a lot of songwriters who sing melodies and lyrics that literally are like reading prose of a story from a book. The Nashville area is famous for it and I’ve just never really done that. I’ve always looked at it as the lyrics fall as poetry instead of prose in a story. I’m not necessarily spoon-feeding every idea and aspect of every song to the listener in that regard. There’s some research they should do, some words they need to look up, and connections they need to make on their own. On these songs, it’s kind of balanced between telling stories of my family and being slightly ambiguous and poetic to the listener. It was daunting, but it was something I really wanted to make sure I did.”
On top of that, Gibson also wanted to ensure that the record reflected the cathartic experience he felt while writing and recording the songs. Referencing albums like U2’s The Joshua Tree, he emphasized the importance of the album on a whole and bemoaned the current state of music in that regard. “They say it’s a singles market now and it’s a total shame,” Gibson grimaced. “The idea of an album is that these songs fit together and are in order for a reason and that reason is for someone to sit down with the album from start to finish. The reason is for them to go through the experience of the entire record from one song to the next with the ups and downs, emotions and moods, fast and slow tempos, and more. You start with that first song and then you hear the next one and it’s a story, almost like you’re watching a movie. There’s a first, second, and third act and that’s how I picture an album. When that last note fades on that last song, I want those who’ve gone through the journey to just think ‘Wow, that was a great experience.'”
That experience starts off with a bang on 1532 with the opening track, “Bettie-Jane,” a stellar composition full of unbridled emotion, intricate layering, and restrained intensity. Based off a love letter that Gibson found from his father to his mother, the song is not just the highlight of the record, but is also one of the finest songs to be released in 2015 by any one. Critics and fans alike have been raving about the song since the album’s release, despite Gibson being unsure of its importance when first started writing it. “On other records, I did kind of know which song was going to be the big one when I wrote it,” he discussed. “For 1532, I didn’t really feel like that with any of the songs before we started recording them. There’s a huge difference between me sitting down and writing ‘Bettie-Jane’ on acoustic guitar or piano and then us recording it with drums, bass, pedal steel, keyboards, and more.”
Gibson further elaborated on the song’s genesis by explaining the random flukes that happen here and there while recording. “There’s a lot of serendipity that happens when you’re making a record and sometimes it just happens. When we started recording it, the drums were just on, the guitar just felt right, the chord changes felt really good, it had a really good chorus, and it had a nice refrain that really hits. From then, it just kind of pounded and every layer we put on top of it added more feeling. At a certain point when we were finishing mixing it, I told the producer Marco [Delmar] that I want this song to be chill-inducing to people.”
Chill inducing is what he got on “Bettie-Jane” and with it being the album’s opener, it sets the tone and pace of the record in a manner that is noticeably absent from most recordings today. Gibson reflected on the song’s “Did I tell you? / I will tell you” refrain being a great introduction to the stories of his family in honor of his father, but it also touches down on a much deeper level: one of regret over things left unsaid or perhaps said too infrequently. Altogether, it’s an all-encompassing composition that almost demanded the rest of the album be as deliberate as possible, even in the visual aspect.
“Everything about the record was purposefully done all the way down the artwork and booklet illustrations,” Gibson explained. “Sterling Hundley, a Richmond illustrator and a friend of mine dating back to middle school, did the artwork and illustrations. He was just so well informed of what the album meant to me and you can see it in the way he approached the art for each and every song in the booklet. Each song and lyric has its purpose, but the art in the booklet, cover art, and overall design–it all had a purpose towards the overall theme of the record. I really would love people to get their hands on that if they like the record. The songs really match up to having the booklet in your hand. Looking at the photos, illustrations, and lyrics as you listen to song by song, it all really adds the overall experience.”
1532 is by far the most ambitious thing Gibson has done and may ever do in his career. The stories, the songs, the production, the overall aesthetic; each is more elaborate and meticulous than the last and all creates an experience that truly resonates with you no matter what walk of life you come from. It all comes full circle for Drew Gibson with his show at The Tin Pan in Richmond this Wednesday. “It’s literally right where I grew up,” Gibson laughed. “It’s perfect.” With it being a short walk to his high school alma mater and a stone’s throw from countless childhood memories, it’s perhaps the quintessential place for 1532 to come to life and give Richmond what will surely be one of the most intimate, cathartic, and rewarding shows of 2015.
Drew Gibson performs at The Tin Pan this Wednesday night as part of a trio with Jon Nazdin on bass and Dave Hadley on pedal steel guitar. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.