Playing apart: UVA student Merritt Gibson sings to unite

UVA student Merritt Gibson’s new single “Breaking Down” ruminates on loss, isolation, and fear amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Publicity image UVA student Merritt Gibson’s new single “Breaking Down” ruminates on loss, isolation, and fear amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Publicity image

When rising fourth-year and singer-songwriter Merritt Gibson heard the news that the University of Virginia would be moving classes online for the rest of the academic year, she was devastated. She missed her friends—an integral part of her UVA experience, Gibson says. Then she began to mourn the abrupt disappearance of her daily routine, the activities that grounded her whenever she felt overwhelmed. Gibson craved a smoothie from the Corner and a visit to Clemons Library.

During this sudden life change, she turned to her guitar for comfort. Out of sadness and isolation, the history and public policy student wrote her latest single, “Breaking Down.” Gibson gained accolades for a facility with “contagious pop” on her 2018 debut album Eyes On Us, and the new single is a continuation of that songwriting dexterity. It’s a pop-inspired, vocals-heavy ballad in which she meditates on unexpected loss—the kind that takes your breath away, fills you with regret, and keeps you up at night.

“This song was my anchor during [the onset of] quarantine,” Gibson says. The writing and recording process gave her the “gift” of something to look forward to, as each day blended into the next. “In writing the song, I was able to pinpoint exactly how I was feeling and why I was feeling that way. It allowed me to understand myself in a time of confusion and uncertainty.”

She recorded the single remotely with the help of New Orleans-based, Grammy-winning producer Bob Brockmann, who’s worked with artists and groups such as Mary J. Blige, Biggie Smalls, and TLC. As Gibson sang into her home microphone, Zoom and Pro-Tools plugins allowed a high-quality copy of her recording to stream instantly into Brockmann’s computer.

Joining Gibson (from her home outside of Boston) on the single is a group of musicians that recorded accompaniments from across the country—keyboardist Andrew Yanovski from New Orleans, guitar by Naren Rauch in Los Angeles, cellist Dave Eggar in New York, and background vocals by Maya Solovey from Massachusetts.

Though she still hasn’t met the musicians or her producer in person, Gibson says the process allowed her to connect with new people and develop real relationships despite being in quarantine.

Recording the song, however, wasn’t always easy. Gibson and Brockmann had to spend hours troubleshooting with technical support. And recording sessions were often cut short because two members of their team (including Brockmann) contracted the coronavirus.

Seeing fellow artists struggle and watching health care employees’ tireless work inspired another collaboration: Gibson is working with Massachusetts General Hospital to donate money from each listener’s stream of “Breaking Down.” (Massachusetts ranks fourth in the nation in COVID-19 cases, behind New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.)

“This song is for everyone living in this moment,” Gibson says—the college students who lost a sense of independence and time alone, or the high schoolers who lost rites of passage like graduation. “It’s for medical workers who go into the hospitals day after day to face more heartbreak and devastation, shouldering the burden that they are the last person to see a family’s loved one alive.”

Though UVA hasn’t announced its plans for fall semester, Gibson knows she’ll return to Charlottesville. And that’s given her peace of mind amidst the uncertainty and fear. Even if she still has to quarantine in her apartment here, at least she’ll be virtually closer to her best friends.

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