A Mountain Maiden Once Again
With her lovely new album Songs from the River, Eliza Gilkyson celebrates a joyful return (with Lee Zimmerman)
Eliza Gilkyson was literally born to make music. Her father, Terry Gilkyson, wrote several hit songs throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s and was an Oscar-nominated singer and composer for any number of classic Disney movie scores. Eliza herself initially got her start as a vocalist on some of the demos and the soundtracks her father produced throughout the ‘60s. So too, her brother Tony Gilkyson boasts a successful career of his own as a member of X and Lone Justice.
Nevertheless, Eliza has never had any need to rely on the credence of others. She released her first album, Eliza ’69, at the age of 19, and, after an absence of ten years, offered up her sophomore set, Love from the Heart (recorded under the name Lisa Gilkyson). She’s continued to record ever since, both on her own and in tandem with occasional collaborators like Mark Hallman, Andreas Vollenweider, Iain Matthews, Ad Vanderveen, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky. A Grammy-nominated and multiple Austin Music Award and Folk Alliance Music Award-winning singer/songwriter, she creates music that’s extraordinarily affecting in terms of both sentiment and concern about the issues that reflect today’s tumultuous times. She is, in fact, the epitome of an essential Folk artist, one whose reach extends from intimate narratives to the broader embrace of an anthem-like delivery.
The Alternate Root reached out to Gilkyson at her new home in New Mexico, the place where she was raised and where she returned numerous times over the course of her life and career following residencies in Austin and Los Angeles. It is, she says, a place she’s always had a special affinity for. ‘It’s very spacious here’, she noted at the outset of the interview. ‘We live in a small town that hasn't been badly affected. I've been pretty much off the road, except for a few select engagements. Right now, we’re in a beautiful place. We feel very lucky’.
It ought to come as no surprise then, that her new album, Songs from the River Wind, is directly inspired by her environs, an homage to her love of the West and the joy of living at the base of a mountain which provides sustenance and stability in an otherwise fragile environment.
Naturally then, the conversation began with a discussion of her latest offering.
Lee Zimmerman (LZ): The songs on this album are so evocative, and it's filled with such beautiful imagery. It captures a real sense of time and place. It also comes pretty quickly on the heels of your last album. 2020. Clearly, you're very prolific.
Eliza Gilkyson (EG): Something about being off the road really has made me want to put my creative energy somewhere else. I appreciate that, because you do slow down as a writer. I have definitely slowed down. I used to be very consistent, X-amount of songs per year, no matter what, but as I've gotten older, I just don't find myself sequestered and writing the way I used to. But I do think my ability to craft a song has evolved.
LZ: It’s remarkable how you always manage to find the inspiration and the vitality for each of your offerings and never find the need to repeat yourself. You set a high bar for yourself early on, but at the same time, is that the slightest bit intimidating knowing you have to measure up to that every time?
EG: I think it makes me throw out stuff that maybe I should throw out. I do have a high bar and I feel it for myself for sure. And I wonder if that doesn't make me too self-critical, to the point where I throw out a song before I've let it be what it is. I don't have a problem with simplicity in songwriting, but I do like them to have depth. But sometimes, I say to myself, ‘for God’s sake, Eliza, just have fun’.
LZ: It sounds like you sometimes labor over the material, like you’re really delving deep into your writing.
EG: I don't labor in the writing when the inspiration’s coming, I'm very fast moving, and it gets done really fast. But then I do spend weeks or months laboring over refining them. I’m real fast at the front end. Sometimes I'll just write the whole song, boom, you know, and then I'll spend a lot of time rewriting it or editing it and moving the pieces around or changing rhythms. I really play with them. But the first initial thrust is really pretty fast.
LZ: It's also remarkable that with each album, you seem to tackle a different theme. The last album, 20/20, had a lot to do with political issues and certain scenarios that affected us all, w here’s the new album is entirely different.
EG: Yeah, it was an election year, so it was really tailored for 2020. That’s why it was called 2020. It's an election year record. I don't think these two records could be any more opposite.
LZ: You really shifted gears.
EG: I shifted gears with my life, and so much of what I write has to do with what my life is like, at any particular moment. I decided to write about 2020 at the very last moment, in 2019. I just realized that 2020 was coming and it was going to be a really intense year with the election. I also realized I had just put out Secularia in 2018, and maybe the timing wasn't right. But I really wanted to go on record in 2020 and put up a good fight. So, I had to write fast. When I decided to do the record, I went on tour with Richard Thompson. It was like, when am I gonna even do this record, but somehow it all worked out. I had to turn a lot over to my son once we got the basic tracks down and he did a great job on it. But then I went on the road and the record came out and then after that, we moved to New Mexico and that was like this whole life change, and an about face and everything. I was so happy to land in New Mexico, which is really my heart's home. I was so happy in the middle of this awful pandemic and grounded. The joy of being here and connecting to so many memories and people I loved and the innocence and joy of my earlier years. I just tapped right into it. So it was really an about face.
LZ: You had lived in New Mexico in the 90s, right?
EG: Yes, and also in the ‘70s. I actually moved to New Mexico in 1969 and lived here until the ‘80s That’s where I raised my family. I live in Taos now. It’s so beautiful.
LZ: The weather in the West seems so unpredictable these days.
EG: It can be disappointing, although sometimes it can work in your favor, because they think it's not gonna rain here, and then it does. And that's always like, ‘oh, good. They were wrong’. When you live in Texas, the weather is sort of really volatile. Stuff shifts all the time. But in the Southwest, if they say a storm is coming, usually the storm is coming. There are a lot of factors that play out and make it happen here. With climate change, it's even less predictable than it then it was.
LZ: So, what brought you back to New Mexico?
EG: I bought my house nine years ago, rented it out on Air BnB, and it just was like it got rode hard and put away wet for nine years. It also made it so I couldn't hang on to it. And then we moved in. It's doubled in value. It's nice to be at the foot of a mountain. I get a lot of comfort from the kind of sense of sheltering. Sitting under a mountain feels great. The Great Plains are affected by climate change and they get to be terribly windy. It gets really extreme. So, I like having a mountain over me.
LZ: So obviously, that was the inspiration for the new album, and the feelings and the ecological issues and everything else. Is that what really drove you to do it as quickly as you did?
EG: Yes, it's just that I love the West so much. And I'm so tapped back into it in; my history here. But it was also because of the tenuousness of the environmental situation. With this drought going on, it's such a fragile ecosystem here. And so, it's that sense of the bitter sweetness of how it used to be and how it will never be again, with just the beauty that remains, which is still so enticing and inspiring for me. So, it's kind of a bittersweet, joyful record.
LZ: It's a beautiful record, though. Still, isn’t it hard to get people's attention these days? You're an artist who kind of demands that people really lean in and listen and spend time with the music. Yet don’t you find that it can be a challenge sometimes to capture people's attention and cut through the noise?
EG: Everyday attention spans are so short right now. We're all so busy and everything, but I still love the concept of having an album that starts at point A, and takes you on a journey. I’m not going to change that because my audience likes that too. They like to be led down a path and then delivered at the far end. You could certainly just take my songs and shuffle them and they'd be bona fide songs, but I think when putting them in the context of an album, that's a great pleasure for me. I don't I don't sell a bazillion of them. So, I might as well do them just the way I want.
LZ: You were on the Red House Records label for a number of years but the new album was released independently. What was the reason for that?
EG: I'm on a small local label now where I have a much better deal. And I'm working with friends. They're my really good friends. So, part of it is just taking ownership of my music and being the controlling voice in it. I built my own fan base. I just decided to move away from a larger distribution system and just do my own thing.
LZ: Of course, you are part of a very musical family tradition. That clearly had a lot to do with how you evolved in your career both musically and professionally, right?
EG: My dad was so musical and so influential. There's just no way of describing how much music really poured out of him. He was very spontaneous and fun and supportive of my endeavors. I mean, he was a complicated guy. He wasn't, but nobody really is. But he certainly did influence me musically and energetically. He’s the one who brought us to New Mexico, threw us up into the mountains for weeks at a time camping around the mountains in northern New Mexico. He loved the culture. He loved the nature here. He put us into outdoors a lot. I have often said that almost everything that shaped me that was good and wonderful came through my dad.
LZ: So, it seems that as a result like was never any doubt as to what direction you would go in and how you would build your career and everything else.
EG: There was never any doubt for me. My voice kind of came out very early and I was amazed that I had this voice. And then I started to write very early on. So yeah, I there was no denying it. Besides, I was never very good at anything else. There wasn't anything else I could do.
LZ: You also have a history of working with other artists, including the Red Horse album that you did with John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky in 2010 and the More Than a Song collaboration with Ad Vanderveen and Iain Matthews. Perhaps most surprising of all was the album which you did with Andreas Vollenweider, Eolian Minstrel, in 1993. That was certainly a change of pace for you.
EG: Yeah, I just got that CD in the mail the other day, I found one on eBay.
LZ: You didn't have a copy for yourself?
EG: I did not. I don’t think CDs were even out at the time. That was in the early ‘90s.
LZ: Yes. 1993.
EG: I guess there were CDs then, but I just didn't have one. I don't know why. I have a seller on eBay, and anytime at that record comes up, they email me. It's kind of rare. Yeah, I love that record. I had a lot of fun doing it.
LZ: It’s striking how you're able to work so well in tandem with these other artists. It always syncs so well.
EG: Thank you. I'm a team player. I like to write kind of sequestered by myself. Even with the record with Andreas where he co-wrote everything, I would go off by myself. I was living at his beautiful house in Zurich and I was up on the fourth floor. I'd trudge up there and I had my little desk and I’d just go up there and sequester myself. Then I'd come down and work with Andreas. I like to be by myself when I'm writing. But I love to work with others in a team, even though I just can't sit around the table and shoot ideas. I have to kind of sit by myself and then bring them to the table.
LZ: It sounds like you were perfectly set up for the isolation of the pandemic isolation based on your work habits.
EG: I'm very happy to hold up in my adobe hacienda. It’s an old 100-year-old house and it needs work.
LZ: Nevertheless, you have a gig coming up on New Years Eve, do you not?
EG: Yes, that's right. With our trio, ‘Three Women and the Truth’ with Mary Gauthier and Gretchen Peters. We do a New Year's Eve-day show for Europe because we all have a lot of fans in Europe. So, we do an early show. We'll do it on a stream yard, which is the most interactive performance format. It happens at 2PM Central. We did it last year, so I think it's going to become a thing for us.
Listen and buy the music of Eliza Gilkyson (Howling Dog Records) from AMAZON
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