Gilkyson tempers her political songs with a bit more of a personal touch

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NORTHAMPTON, Mass.

During an area performance several years ago, Eliza Gilkyson came pretty close to apologizing for writing so many topical songs -- stating something along the lines of "I’m sorry that I have to do these political tunes but I have to because of what is going on, but I’d much rather be in a world where I don’t have to write this stuff."

Of course, the Austin, Texas-based songbird is still writing "this stuff" as she continues to examine an unjust and confounding world. In a recent phone conversation that was as honest and thought-provoking as her music, Gilkyson addressed her wish to move away from the political and more into the personal and philosophical.

"I really would love to just become more infatuated and obsessed with the other detailia that are all around us. I am still a little obsessive about politics. It could just be my age and being concerned what my grandchildren are going to inherit. It really affects me."

On last year’s sinfully overlooked "Beautiful World" CD, Gilkyson mixed her incisive critiques of our government and culture with a few welcome doses of hope.

"There was a kind of joy in this record -- the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down," she said. "I think you really have to balance those things, If you get too political, too message-heavy, you end up shutting listeners down to it."

A couple of "Beautiful World’s" songs go beyond being merely political -- they are uncannily prophetic. Check out these lines from "The Party’s Over": "We danced on the tables midnight til dawn/til all the time was up and the good stuff gone/The party’s over, we had a blast/brought in the lawyers to cover our ass/left a note for the children to clean up the mess/the party’s over/it was a big success."

Gilkyson, who will be appearing on Thursday, Aug. 20, at Boccelli’s in Bellows Falls, Vt., penned this indictment of the excesses of the Bush regime well before an economic meltdown took most everyone else by surprise.

"It was just amazing how synchronistic it was, because the record came out last May, then everything kind of collapsed in, July or August last year," she recalled. "I intuited a collapse for quite a while."

Her intuitive powers have not always translated to big sales, but Gilkyson’s potent combination of Joan Baez-like social justice perspective coupled with the warm accessibility of Shawn Colvin has brought her some deserving attention -- including a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album for her 2005 release "Land of Milk and Honey" as well as having two of her compositions recorded by her hero, Baez.

"I am really proud of the Grammy nomination in terms of getting a little bit of feedback from the world arena," she said. "I think that was really a nice moment for me since I am so under the radar. I just have to go on my faith in myself and in my point of view, my music and my art. But every once in a while when my head pops up in the greater sphere, like Joan Baez covering my songs -- those things are very meaningful to me."

Gilkyson, whose father is legendary songwriter Terry Gilkyson, has surely paid her dues, toiling for years in relative obscurity. About 10 years ago, she seemed to find her voice and a more rootsy sound, which she sees today as a function of mid-life desperation.

"There was a shift in my life where I hit rock bottom, and had to pull myself up by my bootstrap," she recalled. "Then there was a kind of a street thing that happened in my voice, it was just that I had changed. And that changed how I conveyed the songs.

"There was a point about 10 years ago where I realized that I needed to get rid of anything that had keyboards and just get only organic instruments and get this thing a little more straight. It was a real conscious decision on my part to strip it down and take it back to my authentic roots which was plain ole folk music."

Gilkyson’s grittier approach will be on full display when she comes to Bellows Falls backed by an extraordinary guitarist by the name of Nina Gerber. "She is an amazing, stunning musician. It is all about our communication and she is listening all the time, a master guitar player. I think one of the finest in the world. There is nothing she can’t do on the guitar, but it is all weighted with emotion that is tied into what I am doing. She never just noodles. There is a lot of communication between us. It is fun and there is something special about two women really sending out some serious music."

When Gilkyson sends out that serious stuff, she is looking to bring her audience along on an emotional journey. "What I really want to do, what give me the most pleasure, is that we kind of go on a trip together," she said of her concerts. "I’m about breaking down defenses so that we can feel things. I go and put a song out there, and see if people are going to open up the door a crack, and let this feeling come in, and if they do that we will decide together where we are gonna go from there."

Dave Madeloni writes a weekly music column for the Arts & Entertainment section. He can be reached at madeloni@aol.com.


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