When I called Eliza Gilkyson at her home in Austin, Texas, the first question I asked was, “Where have you been?”
She laughed, knowing that I was referring to her sudden emergence on the folk scene in the last few years, a fully formed artist already in her fifties.
“What was I doing all that time?” she responded. “I was a hippie in the ‘60s sense of the word. I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the late ‘60s, and I was playing music. I lived without running water and no electricity in a little adobe that I built with a friend. I had kerosene lanterns, wood stove, raised my kids that way. I had very little but I didn’t do the commune thing; I hung with the music tribe.
“I was just a well known regional artist; I never toured. I had two kids and I just stayed local. Then I finally moved to Texas.
“I had reached my late forties and early fifties, and I thought if I don’t try to make this happen on a larger scale I’m gonna regret it for the rest of my life. I had always wanted to do that, but just never had the wherewithal. So moving to Texas, I made a decision—my kids were grown and gone, and I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I would always wonder why I hadn’t.
“I got an agent and I said to her, ‘Say yes to everything; I’ll open for Joe Schmoe for $50.00 and start this thing. And it really moved quickly. I immediately started growing it. But I ate it for the first year; I had to sleep on people’s couches. It was very odd at my age, going out in a van with my son playing drums with me. I was the oldest, hardest-working grandma in folk music.
“But I knew that I needed to do it and that I had what it took to do it. It was very embarrassing—I opened for people that I shouldn’t have been opening for just to get exposure. But there was a neat thing about it too, because it was like, ‘where did she come from?’”
Thursday night, she comes to the Granby Theater to share a bill with fellow singer-songwriter Kris Delmhorst as part of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Port Folio Weekly Music Series. Over the last eight years, she’s built a following and a reputation for her literate songwriting and compelling vocal delivery.
Her album, Milk and Honey, with its powerful Iraq War tableau, “Hiway 9,” was nominated for a Grammy in 2005. The followup, Paradise Hotel, featured “Man of God,” a scathing indictment of the Bush brigade and their religious wrappings. But political commentary actually makes up only a small fraction of Gilkyson’s songbook. Her subject matter is wide ranging.
“It’s more human condition stuff that finally intersected with politics,” she told me. “I was always more inspired by the human dilemma.
“I had a very good education. I got a lot of the classics, and you can see that in my writing. I use a lot of Biblical and mythological references, and I think my structure is very old-school style poetry. I have that schooling of economical writing, where every word counts, there’s no deadwood.”
Many of her songs do have spiritual or religious overtones.
“Actually,” she explained, “I became quite fond of using spiritual and religious imagery in secular ways. One of my conscious goals was, ‘let’s get it out of the Bible and onto the street.’ I think that taking the intimate, daily secular life and infusing it with a sense of spirituality is appropriate. It really became my thing.
“It can make you feel quite uncomfortable if somebody doesn’t do it right, or it’s preachy or it’s not poetry. You have to first write good poetry and then, if you have a message, great; but first, it better stand up as good poetry and be musical. That’s an important ingredient in getting a more meaningful song out there. It has to really stand on its own as a work of art.”
Her music is also marked by its passion:
“I really believe in feeling everything. Fortunately I happen to have a chemical in my body that allows me to feel strong feelings but not go down. Underneath all of my passion or my sorrow or my grieving over what’s happening to our country and our world, I am a joyful person.”
Though she came late to the fame game, Eliza Gilkyson has deep roots in the music business. Her sister Nancy has been an executive with Warner Brothers Records, her brother Tony played with X, Lone Justice and Alice Cooper. They grew up in Hollywood where their father, Terry Gilkyson, was a successful folk musician and songwriter. His compositions include ‘50s pop hits for Doris Day, Frankie Laine and Dean Martin, and “Greenfields” for the Brothers Four. He wrote songs for Disney in the ‘60s, including “The Bare Necessities,” the centerpiece of The Jungle Book.
“Talk about joy bubbling under the surface,” she said. “Think about ‘The Bare Necessities.’ It’s a great message! My dad was capable of putting his finger on the pulse of what the masses could love. It was an amazing gift.
“We were utterly enamored of him. He was charming, funny, handsome, dynamic and athletic. But he also had alcohol problems and there was a dark side. At his best, he was one of the most charismatic people that I’ll ever know. He was a great singer and a great performer, and even as we got older he did shows with us. We were infused with the spirit of music from day one.”
She has a new album due out at the end of May, Beautiful World, filled with songs that evoke that “joy bubbling under the surface.”
“It’s actually heightened by the disastrous events that are going on,” she said. “There’s a real grieving on that record, but underneath it all is this absolute, utter attachment to what is still beautiful.
“Maybe you feel safe to explore feelings because there is that underlying joy, even in the worst of times. It’s dark, but it’s not bleak.”
Eliza Gilkyson / Kris Delmhorst
Thursday, May 1 – 7:30 pm
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