If there were ever a bittersweet title to claim, it might be the one the polite folks at National Public Radio bestowed upon the Brooklyn folk-pop outfit Lucinda Black Bear: "One of the Top 10 Great Unknown Artists of 2007." You can see the dilemma here. Should you bask in the recognition of your greatness, or fret at the fact that apparently no one else is aware of it?
"I think it's funny," answers guitarist/vocalist Christian Gibbs. "I don't mind being in the unknown camp with Lucinda Black Bear, since we are a new band and all. I think if [NPR] was talking about C. Gibbs and said ‘great unknown,' then I might say, ‘You guys need to do your research.' But since it is a brand-new project, I was more honored by that than anything else."
Unfortunately, even if NPR had specifically selected C. Gibbs (the moniker Gibbs has used throughout his decade-long solo career), it would still be difficult to disprove his own relative anonymity. Despite playing in a slew of respected bands, including Foetus, Morning Glories, and a later incarnation of Modern English, the San Diego-born Gibbs has never quite found his commercial niche. In 1999, his solo career as C. Gibbs took a major upturn when Atlantic Records released the critically well-received LP 29 Over Me. Disappointing sales quickly marked the end of that relationship, but Gibbs happily carried on, releasing three more solo albums and establishing himself as one of Brooklyn's most respected, if not famous, singer/songwriters.
"I was definitely relieved not to be with Atlantic anymore," Gibbs says. "But it was a great experience, really. They just do certain things at the major-label level that you've got to be careful with. They'll cut and paste as they see fit, and you do feel a little intimidated to speak up sometimes with so much money being spent on a project and all the second guessers.
"It's interesting, though. We just did a show a couple days ago where we opened for [Carrie Rodriguez] on EMI, and I was so glad I wasn't her. Even though she had a really tight, well-rehearsed band and a manager selling her CDs, it's just nice to have your money deposited straight into your bank account without having to deal with any big labels or anything."
Much in the same way that Gibbs had liberated himself from Atlantic, he decided to venture into even freer territory last year by developing a whole new outlet for his music. This meant new sensibilities, new bandmates, and even a new identity.
"As C. Gibbs, I had kind of gotten stuck with this country tag," he says. "Even when I put out records without any country songs, people would still call me Americana. I figured the only way to get away from that was to create a new name and work with new people. I wanted to create more of a band identity, and make music coming more from a collective perspective than a single one."
Gibbs already had a brand new batch of heartfelt, highly melodic pop songs that he'd written and recorded in his makeshift bedroom studio. Now he simply wanted to give them a fuller sound. Gibbs rounded up a band of first-rate players from the Brooklyn scene, including Mike Cohen (bass), Kristin Mueller (drums), Chad Hammer (cello), and Clare Burson (violin). This new quintet would be dubbed Lucinda Black Bear, for no particular reason.
"Yeah, the name really has nothing to do with anything, except that I already had that song ["Fought the Bear"], and I thought it'd be cool to have a band with the name ‘bear' in it," Gibbs says. "When I ride the subway in New York, I sometimes like jotting down different aliases, and that one just kind of stuck out—Lucinda Black Bear. It almost sounds like the name of an Indian girl or something. Plus, my wife liked it, and she usually hates all the names I come up with."
The new band's debut, Capo My Heart and Other Bear Songs, released in November of 2007, features 11 pretension-free pop tunes that recall the most melancholy, Beatles-esque efforts of Elliott Smith and Ben Folds. As songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer, Gibbs had to carry the project on his back, paying for studio time and touring costs by putting himself into serious credit card debt. Fortunately, some financial relief eventually found Gibbs through an unlikely source: Broadway.
"I totally lucked out on that," Gibbs says with a laugh, referring to his recent stint as guitarist and vocalist with the band for the Broadway musical Passing Strange. "My wife went to college with the director, so about a year ago, I did a try-out workshop for them. Then, months later, I'm on tour in Fargo with Lucinda Black Bear, and our van breaks down. We have to cancel our Minneapolis show and get the van fixed, and I've basically got no money. Long story short, that's when I get the phone call. ‘Hey, Chris, how'd you like to go on Broadway? Here's your salary!' It couldn't have been any better."