There is a house on a hill we’ve been living in.
Under the shade of a tree of significance.
These are the times of our lives and we cling to them…
There is a girl through the glass cooking up a storm.
There is a dog down at her knees looking up at her
and I know this will be one of those memories
that will one day break me in two.
“The Happy Ones”
Ferrill Gibbs has found his voice and silenced the critics inside his head with his new album, Significant Trees. Gibbs is a singer-songwriter from Mobile, Alabama who struggled for years to find his place in music and once gave it up when he went as far as he could and realized it wasn’t where he needed to be. Years later, a song written for his wife, Elizabeth “Fish” Gibbs, to celebrate their first anniversary returned the guitar to his hand and changed his songwriting, his voice, and his life.
Gibbs is a self-conscious writer with a degree in English and a love for reading and the rhythm of words. His songs begin with a progression on guitar and lyrics come from how the notes make him feel. He wraps personal stories in music and metaphor to protect himself and the people he writes about.
The release of Significant Trees in August could bring a new awareness to his music, but Gibbs cares most deeply that he created songs that he is proud of and he earned the respect of the musicians that played on the album. “All of my years in music I felt like an interloper, but this album changed that,” says Gibbs. “A long time ago someone told me I couldn’t do this and it drives me mad when someone tells me I can’t do something. I have been trying to show that voice from years ago that I can do this. “
Gibbs started in music during his senior year at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Mobile when he was cast as Curly in Oklahoma. He tried to put together his own band and auditioned to join others. “The band Slow Moses was so big then and the lead singer Ryan Balthrop was my hero,” says Gibbs. “I wanted to do that too. I looked very young, but I could talk a good game on the phone. I went to auditions in striped polo shirts tucked into khaki shorts and they were wearing skulls. I never made it to the mic, and even had beer cans thrown at me.”
Gibbs’ first band was Piece of Mine in Auburn. They played the hard rock songs of The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and the Guess Who. After that band could go no farther, he dropped out of school and moved to Athens and started over again. He helped start a rock and blues band, Last Day Down, and began to focus on songwriting and original music.
“I sang several different ways in the bands, but I didn’t know my voice and who I was supposed to be,” says Gibbs. “I used to smoke a lot of cigarettes and could sing like Greg Allman with a scratchy voice. I used the scratchy voice because it was a shield between you and me and you being able to make fun of me. It was a way to bowl you over before you could hurt me about my art. I moved to Athens and started over, but I couldn’t write songs or get traction and people didn’t care. I looked around and realized I was just digging a huge hole and needed to reassess. I couldn’t keep going like that, so I put away the guitar and moved home.”
Stepping away from music helped Gibbs find his voice and the stories to write about. He returned to Auburn, graduated with a degree in English, and moved back to Mobile to work in his family’s convenience store business. He didn’t play music again until he wrote a song for Fish on their first anniversary. “I surprised her with that song on our anniversary trip to Apalachicola,” says Gibbs. “It was very well received and it started me writing again. This time it was different, I was writing about someone else and the songs started coming out. I now write a song for her on every anniversary.”
Ferrill Gibbs (Michelle Stancil)
After releasing the bluesy Phase Separation in 2011, that was compiled from his years in bands, Gibbs realized the voice that once channeled Greg Allman is naturally closer to the high, delicate, powerful voices of Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Thome Yorke of Radiohead. “After the Phase Separation album, my producer Tom Lewis sent me a couple of Radiohead CDs and I saw Wilco at the Saenger Theatre,” says Gibbs. “We listened to Radiohead’s The Bends and Wilco’s Wilco on loop during a trip to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone and I understood it was possible to sing heavy and still sing pretty. You can sing with vibrato, but still sing tenderly and softly.”
Vocal lessons also helped refine and develop his voice. “I needed someone to help me sing my songs,” says Gibbs. “My teacher has taught me how to enunciate, sing on key, and sing higher. I still take the lessons.”
Gibbs’s calls Significant Trees the album that took 20 years to make. It was recorded live a year ago in Studio 1093 in Athens, GA with JoJo Glidewell from of Montreal and the Kenosha Kid jazz trio. “We timidly crept into the first day recording, but it was really pretty and we were off after that,” says Gibbs. “It was the session of my life and all of the other musicians put their stamp on it and made the songs better.”
“Ferrill was antsy to get started on this album, but I told him to wait and to keep working on the songs and writing. We would know when it was time to record,” says Producer and Mastering Engineer Tom Lewis who has also worked with R.E.M., The Allman Brothers Band, and Sonic Youth. “We took a completely different approach to this album than Phase Separation and the majority of playing and singing is live with very limited overdubbing. It is what these songs would sound like if you heard the band play them in person.”
“The songs sound so good with the band that it is hard to play the songs in an acoustic setting with just me and a guitar,” says Gibbs. “The songs have a grandeur and power when they are played with the band and right now that is how I want people to hear them.”
Significant Trees begins with “The Happy Ones” setting the tone and direction for the album. “The theme of the album is these are the things that Fish and I will remember when we look back on this time of our lives,” says Gibbs. “There was a new house and many good things, but a lot of the songs have a profound sadness too. I wrote ‘The Happy Ones’ on a beautiful day. The sun was out and Fish was grilling a Boston butt. I went into my office and wrote the whole song. The dog that was there then is dead now. One line in the song says ‘one of those days that will one day rip me in two.’ The day we buried the dog, I realized that is exactly what I was thinking of.”
Ferrill and Fish Gibbs (Michelle Stancil)
The album is filled with complex lyrics and spiritual and moral struggles that sound simple from Gibbs pure voice. Gorgeous cinematic ballads that soar into crescendos are grounded by songs of destruction, broken hearts, and relationships that leave a mess to clean and lonely memories. There is the influence of the Beatles and Billy Joel in an upbeat song about the Samaritan daring to take the hand of the man with cuts and bruises on his skin.
“I don’t think Ferrill realizes what a good songwriter he is,” says Lewis. “He is a story teller with clear imagery, including religious and political imagery. His lyrics are more like literature and there is a visual aspect that makes you pay attention to whatever is happening around you. He is soft- hearted, but his writing can be brutal and his rock songs are very forward.”
“Wind in my Soul” swells as it inhales and exhales with lovely lines such as: There may be water to bail, but the breath from your lips is the wind in my sail. The bitter end of a relationship in “Roses” reveals that the rough edge remains in Gibbs’ voice: You pray for rain and it comes up thunder. You stand your ground in it and get caught under. My only hope is you come up roses. “Overlooking a Horse” is another anniversary song for Fish: Saves all her money and buys a guitar. Gives it to me and it tears up my heart. Sit down to play it but nothing compares to the song that she sings with the flick of her hair. One of the album’s simpler melodies, “Faithless Me,” soothes Gibbs’ frustration with complete surrender of living life with unselfish love and compassion: Faithless me. I could drown in the rain, lose my breath in a saucer and find death in a glass of champagne.
“A Ghost Who’s Familiar” is about the baby boomer generation that looks back fondly on their childhood and the people who were prominent in their time. “It is a man standing over a field or a life saying he did this, this, and this,” says Gibbs. “Those were great times. He wishes he could go back. Or that life could be like that again.”
Significant Trees will have a limited local release Tuesday, July 1 thru Friday, July 4th through Gibb’s website www.Ferrillgibbs.com before it is released nationally on August 12.
Gibbs is anxious to get reactions to the songs that haven’t been played outside of his home or the studio. “I am very self-critical, but after the smoke clears, this the first album I have done that I will be truly proud of,” he says. “Making this album has been so good for me. I don’t know if it can be done again. “