At a time when everything else seemed uncertain, from whether her junior year at the University of Virginia would resume to whether her friends would be safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Merritt Gibson received a gift when she needed it most: a fully formed song.
Gibson is known for writing in more of a pop-rock vein, so the change-of-pace ballad “Breaking Down” and the poignancy of its lyrics took even the songwriter a bit by surprise. “Breaking Down,” which Gibson released May 8, went from sentiment to song in about three hours; once inspiration began to flow in the form of a love song capturing the wrenching pain of a sudden goodbye, she said, it needed only some fine-tuning.
“It was the culmination of a week of waiting to hear what UVa was going to do, and I was anxious about it,” Gibson said. “Sometimes, it’s as if the song is already there, and you’re just grabbing it out of the air. It’s the best feeling, honestly.
“I think this song was a bit of a one-off. It’s a ballad. I moved some verses around, and it just reached a point where it felt right.”
Even her customary writing process took a bit of a departure for this intimate story of love lost in an instant.
“I usually write on the piano, but this time, I wanted to write it on the guitar,” she said. “I came up with the melody on the guitar, and having another [instrumental] voice makes all the difference.”
“Breaking Down” was not only written in pandemic isolation, but also recorded in it. Gibson and her producer, Grammy Award winner “Bassy Bob” Brockmann, used Pro Tools plug-in Source-Connect to collaborate from a distance. Nor had Gibson met her musicians on the single — keyboardist Andrew Yanovski in New Orleans, guitarist Naren Rauch in Los Angeles, background vocalist Maya Solovey in the Berkshires and cellist Dave Eggar in New York. Technology helped all of them create a studio-collaboration feel for “Breaking Down,” even though they’ve never met in person.
Gibson, 21, released her debut album, “Eyes on Us,” in 2018. It included songs she’d penned between the ages of 14 and 17.
“I released an album my first year, and since then, I’ve been writing and writing,” she said.
“I sat on it while I was applying to colleges, and I released it during my first year” at UVa.
She was expecting to return in the fall for her final semester, finish her degree early and dive into her full-time music career, but closings resulting from the pandemic have left her plans, and those of her classmates, up in the air.
“I’m planning to release another single that I wrote last summer and build momentum,” Gibson said. Although the pandemic has felt like “a wrench in my timeframe,” it has given her the unexpected gift of time for songwriting.
“I’m putting a deep focus on the writing itself. I don’t want to put out anything that doesn’t have the highest quality of lyrics,” Gibson said. “It is giving me some time and space to work on music that I wouldn’t have had.”
Spending her shelter-at-home time with her large family outside Boston gave her a welcome sounding board, and Gibson has realized how much her work has matured and deepened.
“They’ve probably heard this song 200 times,” Gibson said with a chuckle. “They’ve heard it so many times, but they’re not tired of it.”
The satisfying experience of writing “Breaking Down” has inspired her to reach outside of the pop comfort zone she has tended to inhabit during her college years.
“I think I’ll definitely do more ballads. I want to do all kinds of different things,” Gibson said. “I want to do things that pack a punch and say something.”
Gibson plans to donate part of the proceeds from her single to help healthcare workers who haven’t been able to stay home in safety, as she has.