Feature

Eliza Gilkyson interviewed

The following interview is a transcript of Roch Parisien’s Rocon Communications Facebook Music Interview #39 – Singer-Songwriter Eliza Gilkyson (May 09, 2011).

Roch Parisien

For this edition of “The Facebook Music Interviews”, I’m chatting with Austin-based, singer-songwriter ELIZA GILKYSON, hot on the heels of her new release Roses at the End of Time (Red House).

Eliza is a politically minded, poetically gifted singer-songwriter, who has become one of the most respected musicians in folk and Americana music circles. The Grammy-nominated artist has appeared on NPR, Austin City Limits, Mountain Stage, eTown, SiriusXM, Air America Radio and has toured with Richard Thompson, Patty Griffin and Mary Chapin Carpenter. She has been inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame alongside legends Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt, and Nanci Griffith.

Few singer-songwriters have been able to combine social consciousness with musicality as well as Eliza. Each of her albums seems to top the previous, and this trend continues with her latest Roses at the End of Time. Pushing the boundaries of folk music, Eliza cleverly disguises her sly social commentaries within catchy acoustic ballads, edgy folk rockers and fresh electronic atmospheres that paint a vivid image of life’s struggles and triumphs in a world that she feels is “poised on the edge of moral, economic and environmental bankruptcy.”

Thanks for joining us as we peel back the petals on the Roses at the End of Time!

Roch Parisien

Okay all, we’re ready to start…thanks for joining us everybody…and welcome Eliza! These are warm up questions I generally like to start with: What was your first single and/or album that you bought as a youth with your own money? And what was the first concert you attended?

Eliza Gilkyson

First album I bought was Phil OchsI Ain’t Marching Anymore …shades of days to come I guess! My first concert was Greenwood County singers at the Pasadena Ice House… they were friends of my dad’s.

Roch

What song did you first hear on the radio that made you go: “Wow, I want to do this?” And who would you consider your most influential performer at a formative stage?

Eliza

I was 4 years old at a private performance at a ranch in Wyoming and my dad was playing by a fireplace and there were about 50 enthralled people…I crept up next to him and turned around and looked out and I remember thinking “Oh, this is where I want to be…” So I guess again my dad would be the most influential.

Roch

Eliza, how do you relate to the ‘Americana’ music scene that is centered around your home base of Austin? Do you feel part of that?

Eliza

I don’t think of myself as Americana, more as a folk singer, modern folk or whatever. My roots are folk and I am not at all a part of the Americana Club, which I think of as being more alt country. In my mind there is a difference, folk music has certain traditions that I relate to.

Roch

Can you elaborate on some of those traditions that most guide you?

Eliza

Socio-political commentary mostly, is an accepted form of music in folk, whereas in Americana most people avoid politics.

Roch

You were raised in Los Angeles in a “showbiz” family…give us the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of how you made your way from the glam and glitz of LA to the relative “rootsiness” of Austin.

Eliza

I was never much a part of that scene in LA – it was easy to move, first to New Mexico as part of the whole “back to the land” movement, and then to Texas, especially Austin, where a beautiful network of musicians and fans was already being formed. I first came to Austin from Santa Fe in 1981, and then again after a stint in LA and then Taos in 1998.

Roch

Did you play much in Houston? You didn’t feel connected at all to that whole scene that centered around Anderson Fair, the subject of the film “For the Sake of the Song”?

Eliza

I played there a few times, but I think I was there at the end of its heyday. Kerrville was really the scene that hooked me, and of course Austin, the Alamo and that other club, what was it…someone help me?”

Roch

The bio from your label Red House almost implies that your recording career began with them in 2000. But you’ve been at this some 30 years now, yes? How do you look back on your earlier recordings now, some of which featured much different approaches and production values?

Eliza

If you put all my albums in chronological order you will see the story of someone from my generation struggling to find herself, trying on a lot of hats and kissing a lot frogs along the way. I like to think that there has been an evolution, through everything from new age to country to rock and finally I feel as though I have landed in myself. The therapy probably helped too! But at the root of it was always the folk music that I started with as a teenager. As far as I strayed stylistically, there was always that undercurrent.

Roch

You touched on this earlier, but how important an ongoing influence on your music and artistic development was your dad, Terry Gilkyson? You covered a couple of his classic songs on your album Your Town Tonight: “Greenfields” (originally a big hit for The Brothers Four) & “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book.

Eliza

He is imbedded in my musical DNA. I hear his melodies in my work, hopefully he doesn’t mind! He is in my heart too, an amazing person, fun, creative, playful and thoughtful.

Roch

Paul Brink asks:

Who would you consider your primary influences? I’m thinking Joni Mitchell because you are both so commanding in your storytelling…

Eliza

Well, Joni was in there, but she’s not that much older than me, maybe more Joan Baez, and then Dylan once he left the Guthrie thing behind and became his own guy. I related to angst music, the sorrowful folk songs from the earlier traditions, the more melodic stuff. Of course my dad was the biggest influence. I liked Joni because she broke the mold, but I was pretty far down the road by the time I first heard her.

Roch

The family connections continue down the line a generation as you’ve been working with your son Cisco Ryder…what are the advantages and disadvantages of that familial kind of working relationship?

Eliza

There is a real changing of the guard when you turn things over to your kid! I am used to doing things a certain way and Cisco has his own ideas. He is more connected to current musical styles of course. He has also been watching and listening all these years that he has been playing with me (over 15 years now) so of course he has always wanted to have an influence and had real concrete ideas about things I could be doing. I felt comfortable asking him to take the reins on this latest album because he did my tracks for ‘Red Horse’ and I was so impressed that I felt confident he could do a whole record.

We had some very raw moments though, a few times where we had to work through some things that were uncomfortable, but we both cared so much about the project that we didn’t lose sight of our goals and our respect for each other. He is an amazing person.

Roch

Still on the nepotism front, brother Tony Gilkyson gets in on the act for the new album as well…you cover his song “Death in Arkansas”.

Eliza

A perfect song! He was kind enough to let me have the first crack at it in the studio. It filled a needed space on the record, something homey and a great story too that triggers a lot of visuals and feelings. It reminded me of a Wendell Berry poem, the beauty of the small community, the simple things in life.

Roch

Do things like the Grammy nomination and Billboard charting, and Folk Alliance Awards, and Austin Music Hall of Fame recognition you’ve received make a difference? Does that influence at all what you choose to do next or how you approach things?

Eliza

I can’t say what a relief it has been to get some sort of peer feedback. I have been at this a long time without much of that, so it was a surprise when I finally started getting some recognition. There was a point about 10 years ago when I realized I was in this regardless of whether I was a “success” or not, that I was at the point where I wanted to build a body of work that I could be proud of at the end of my life, that I had expressed myself the best I could, that I had kept my own ethical and musical standards intact, and whether I was famous or not became secondary to that. Or maybe even tertiary, because my family is also more important to me than my career, along with my personal relationships.

That said I LOVED getting the Grammy nod and the other awards!

Roch

Before we start peeling back the petals further on your latest album Roses at the End of Time, let’s catch up with some of our guest questions.

Kim Preston asks:

When you set about writing a song, do lyrics come first, or is it the music? Or do they happen together?

Eliza

I go with the music first, I like to find a little chord progression that has a vibe to it and then I play it a LOT trying to find a way in. I do a lot of reading though and there are various things I read that trigger song ideas, but the music is first almost 99% of the time.

Roch

I notice you use a lot alliteration in your songwriting, which I really appreciate! There are so many A-B-A-B rhyming songwriters out there who don’t think to work the internal possibilities of their lines.

Eliza

I was schooled in a traditional format, old school poetry. I love alliteration and rhymes-within-rhymes…I have a lot of fun with it, and think I’m so danged clever and then I think probably no one even notices, so thanks for mentioning it!

Roch

Lloyd Ernstes asks:

What do you think about Iris Dement‘s tune, “Living in the Wasteland of the Free” and do you feel you’re working more “angst” in your songs these days?

Eliza

I love that song and I found it very comforting when I was taking more chances politically with my music. There was good ol’ Iris out there telling it like it is. By angst, do you mean political anger or personal? I am not angst ridden anymore personally, but politically I am pissed off. My last record Beautiful World
was as deep into political metaphors as I have ever gotten, with “Runaway Train” (about capitalism), and “The Great Correction” (societal collapse), “Unsustainable” (environmental collapse) “The Party’s Over” (political corruption)…I think I pretty much said what I wanted to say there.

The new CD is more about the personal stories behind the greater political themes.

Roch

Dan Potter asks:

Eliza, can you tell me how your song “Jedidiah” came about? That is a song that has always stuck with me.

Eliza

Cisco and I were researching our great-times-eight grandfather Jedidiah Huntington and we came across a book from an old library sale that was a collection of his letters to our 9th generation grandfather. We bid on it and won and when I got it, there were hundreds of letters in there from 1773 through the late 1780s, all through his stint in Washington’s army, when he left Connecticut and went down the Huntington Brigade from Norfolk to Valley Forge. At that time he was a major general.

My blood is blue, blue, blue, much to my leftie husband’s amusement. The song was created from actual lines in the letters that I mixed together to make a story.

Roch

Kimberely Grant asks:

Where is your favorite place (or places) to perform?

Eliza

Hmmm, I just like playing where people are ready to go on the trip! You never know when or where that will happen, there are no rules.

Roch

Ikeda Tomoko asks:

I hear you wrote and played a song which has a reference to Griff Luneburg of the (original) Cactus Cafe in Austin a while back. What is it called, and is it on your new album? (I’m still waiting for my copy of the new album to arrive.) Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the overall development of the venue and the situation surrounding it now.

Eliza

I just played there this weekend and it seems to be chugging along. Yes, losing Griff is really a tragedy because his heart was always in the right place…he was a fan of the music first and foremost. Honestly, the place will not be the same without him, but that doesn’t mean it won’t morph into something good either. I did not write a song about that situation though. There may be a song of mine that was interpreted that way…

Roch

Nancy Gilkyson asks:

I love the political material, but the songs that really get me are the love songs. Can you tell us a bit about your marriage to political activist Robert Jensen, how you juggle two busy schedules, what you have in common. And is Dr. Jensen the person waiting by your garden gate? (One of my favorite all time Eliza songs!)

Eliza

“…To finally feel love’s worldly weight lean up against my garden gate.” Yes that was about him of course! I think our relationship is successful because we have pretty separate lives and we inform each other, and we spend a lot of time apart! Coming home to each other is always a thrill. He is the most interesting person I know, an enigma and a comfort, and his politics and ethics are impeccable. My life changed for the better when he leaned up against my garden gate…

Roch

John Egenes asks:

Is it true that you once performed in a trio called Olivia, Newt and John?

Eliza

I forgot about that! Funny you should mention it, because Red Horse makes a joke about that being our runner-up name. John Gorka says no one wants to be Newt, though. I think he should be Newt but he’s already John. Was that the name of our band back then? (To the readers: this is from my friend, singer-
songwriter John Egenes, who I first met when I picked him up hitchhiking on the Pasadena Freeway in 1966…)

Roch

Kelley Smoot Garrett asks:

What inspired you to write “Tennessee Road”?

Eliza

I wrote that a few days after Elvis died in 1976. I had not been a huge fan growing up, I was more into folk and rock, but when he died they played a lot of his songs and movies and I was finally hooked…I got it. I thought how sad it was that he was a victim of the times and the music industry; the wheels of (mis-) fortune that pushed him to the edge. There really were no psychological tools then to cope with fame and fortune.

Roch

So Eliza, you’ve spent a busy weekend hosting record release concerts in Austin for your new Roses at the End of Time. Give us the concert review synopsis…

Eliza

I think the shows went over great. I had the best players on board with me and it was fun and a little scary getting everything up and running, but we were flying by the second night.

Roch

What/where are the ‘roses at the end of time’?

Eliza

I think when you get to a certain age you realize you are not mortal and your own mortality becomes the backdrop to your life. It’s actually a relief because things fall into a different perspective, there is a sweetness to all that is good and meaningful and there is a certain sadness about having to let it all go. But in the light of that, everything is illuminated that is of value, precious.

Roch

You have many friends and supporters in the music community, but you do realize they actually hate your guts, yes? Although there is a consistent level of excellence throughout, your Red House albums since 2000 keep getting incrementally better from one to the next…nobody likes a showoff… 😉

Eliza

But I want EVERYONE to LIKE me! Thanks for that complement, I think! I really do try to make good records and write well-crafted songs. There certainly are lot of folks out there doing it, like, all God’s children got CDs these days. It used to be you had to have a record deal…now, that’s no impediment.

Roch

About a year or so ago, I recall you “hand-wringing” on your Facebook page about lack of inspiration and a certain amount of writer’s block for what would be become your latest album. It really struck me at the time, and I recall offering words of encouragement. So is this something you go through regularly at the start of each new cycle…kind of a “pre-game jitters”…or was the gestation of this album particularly difficult?

Eliza

I went a long time without writing a dang thing, unusual for me , but when it came time to write this record I was amazed at how the portal opened and the songs fell through, then whump that portal closed up again. It helps to take time off from the routine; I have to change sides of the brain or
something. I am on the road so much these days I don’t seem to get out of my performer Eliza mode.

But I know a lot of artists who wonder if that was the last song they’ll ever write…we all seem to worry about it, well, except when you’re young, then you have a LOT to say!

Roch

As we’ve alluded to already, one of your strengths as a songwriter is combining the poetic with the topical (i.e. social commentary)…do you find it a challenge to get the balance right between the two?

Eliza

Yes, especially because I’m not a big fan of message music. First of all I want to write great music and good poetry. It just so happens I write commentary too because that’s the kind of person I have always been, interested in what is going on in the collective. But I want it to be lyrical and musical first. Then it has an emotional component that I think (I hope) is authentic and visual.

Roch

It must be a difficult time for a socially conscious songwriter…as a (Canadian) outsider to the specifics of what’s happening within America, my take is that positions are becoming even more polarized and entrenched…it appears that common sense and civil discourse…I was going to say “takes a back seat”…but it really seems more a case of “have been banished to the back of the bus”.

Eliza

Who knows how long it will even be on the bus? I always thought Canada was exempt, but I hear that your Mr. Harper may prevail again. You have a many party system and the left is divided. Our left always sells out to the middle and then we are betrayed. Either way, we are in peril of backsliding further. I think the whole culture is in a decline. You guys are maybe not going to hit the bottom we hit, but when you add the environmental component into the equation, who will be exempt?

Roch

Yes, Mr. Harper got his majority here by splitting the left and it’s interesting times ahead…although even the most radically right Canadian appears centrist compared to the Tea Party/Fox news crowd! Would it be fair to underline “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” as a more topical-focused song on ‘Roses’? It feels of the same family as certain earlier songs like “Highway 9”.

Eliza

Yes, it was meant to be that kind of song; somewhat anthemic. There seems to be so little time to gather our numbers, and a real inability to unite. I think we are divided into so many factions, those who think the system can be changed, those who pray that it’ll turn out ok, those who think we have to find new economic models, those who have unplugged and gone off the grid…and that’s just within the progressives. Most importantly at this point, we at least must agree to remain human and compassionate and aware regardless of what comes next.

At worst, we must preserve remnants of culture and community; at best, we may forge a new direction.

Roch

You reference Townes Van Zandt in the song “Midnight on Raton”…is it possible to be a singer- songwriter based in Austin without owing some debt to Townes?

Eliza

He certainly is an icon here. He was the archetype of the natural visceral songwriter…everything was written from the gut. But I think there is a danger in glorifying the tragedy of someone’s life, as if they lived and died for the road gods without exercising some restraint. The bigger challenge is how to remain sentient and creative and sober at the same time.

Townes sacrificed more than what was required in my humble opinion.

Roch

Speaking of the road gods…you hit the road this week with a very aggressive schedule to promote the new album! What’s the game plan, the configuration, and what can folks expect on this expedition?

Eliza

People should go to www.elizagilkyson.com for tour dates. I plan to go out in various configurations, from the West Coast shows this next week with Nina Gerber, some Red Horse festival dates this summer and a southwest tour with my Austin trio in July.

For Canada dates, I’ll have Nina Gerber with me as well…check the website please!

Roch

For the past while, you’ve been doing double duty as a third of the “folk supergroup” Red Horse, with John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky and your hit album…as you mention, you’re also working in some tour dates with them as well. Can you describe a bit of that experience?

…at the same time, Nancy Gilkyson asks:

How do you like doing the Red Horse shows? How are they different from an Eliza show?

Eliza

The Red Horse trio was a lucky fluke. Lucy and John and I are just good friends who love singing together. We had no idea the record and show would be so popular. But we’re glad because it is really so much fun to be together, to sing and travel together. We laugh a lot, and on stage we love doing each other’s songs and adding harmonies. It is one of those situations where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And we have a lot of fun roasting John!

Roch

Two against one…no fair! Collaborations have been nothing new to you over the years…what would you consider your most memorable, either on other people’s recordings, guests on your recordings, and/or live?

Eliza

Patty Griffin and Iris Dement and Mary Chapin singing on Woody’s “Peace Call” rocked my world; hearing Joan Baez sing two of my songs on her last record; Lucy Kaplansky singing “Sanctuary” and making it entirely hers; the ‘Ribbon of Highway’ shows with Kris Kristofferson and Jackson Browne.

And perhaps best of all, the Conspirare show in Austin at the Long Center with a Grammy winning choir singing at my back…I’m a lucky girl!

Roch

Austin has a longstanding reputation as a music town and a centre of gravity for the singer-songwriter scene. Do you think that still holds true today and how involved do you stay locally? (When I’ve gone down for SXSW recently, for instance, it seems much harder to find the singer-songwriters now
compared to, say, the ’90s when I first attended…)

Eliza

There is just so much music out there. The scene in Austin has gotten huge and unwieldy I guess. You have to sort through a lot of stuff to find what you like. Who knows where it is going? As I get older I just don’t think about it as much. Mostly I’m grateful I can still keep a small booth in the market place…thanks to people like you!

Roch

Eliza, just like I have a stock opening question I like to start with, here’s my stock closer: If you had to “book the space” right now, what would you like the inscription on your tombstone to read? Then, imagine that tombstones contained a digital music file rather than an inscription, what song would you
choose as your audio epitaph?

Eliza

I have a song in Spanish called “Este Salida del Sol” that kind of sums it up:

“Es como el agua, es como el viento, para siempre lo siento, este rio de amor, una noche de estrellas mi vida es brillante y camino adelante econtrare mi amor.”

It means “it’s like the water, it’s like the wind, I feel it deep within, this river of love, like a night of starlight, my life is shining, and somewhere further
down the road I will find my true love.”

Roch

Eliza, thank you for being so generous with your time today, and thanks to all our guests for sitting in
with us! For Eliza recordings, see the Red House Record site.

Eliza

Thanks to you Roch and to all who joined in. Goodnight one and all…

***************************************************
Browse transcripts for the Facebook Interviews

More information:

http://www.suzemuse.com/2010/02/music-journalist-finds-clever-use-for-faceboook-comments/

http://humanfacebook.com/2010/09/03/a-completely-random-friend/

Follow Eliza Gilkyson on Facebook

Join the “Pub Rock” page on Facebook

***************************************************

Visitor comments:

Jim Ansell

Roch, thanks for providing the forum…and a big thank you to Eliza for sharing her words and music…words and music that make our world a deeper, more beautiful place. You’re a treasure for those who love you Eliza. Peace.

Nevard Tellalian

That was a great interview Roch, thanks! i loved the story describing the way she finally “got” Elvis. For some reason ….made me a bit weepy. xoxo

Susan Hagan

It is as if you invited us into your living room for an intimate party with Eliza. What a great forum, Roch. I was in on the John Gorka one as well. I simply find this so wonderful for those of us who love making/ hearing music.

If you are enjoying this content, please take a second to support Roots Music Canada on Patreon!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *