Checking In: Eliza Gilkyson Predicts a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Lifelong folk leader unleashes 2020 into current political cycle

Opener “Promises to Keep” could have posted to Bandcamp yesterday: “I’ve been hoping they’ll be some way through/ And all our loved ones will be fine/ No one knows what it’ll come down to/ So I’m just looking for a sign.” And yet, Eliza Gilkyson finished 2020 long before Earth ground to a halt. Righteous but reassuring, imagine the Staple Singers covering it.

Austin Chronicle: Where are you sheltering and under what circumstances? Who else is there and how’s that going?

Eliza Gilkyson: I am hunkered down in South Austin with my husband Robert Jensen and our dog Pearl. My son (and record/video producer) Cisco Gilliland and his family are a few miles north of me, and my daughter Delia Castillo and her family are a few miles southwest of me. We do social distancing visits and Cisco has helped me get our livestream shows up and running in the garage. This would all be a lot harder on me if I were alone or if their families weren’t nearby. They are a great source of comfort and sweetness.

AC: At what point did C-19 shut down operations for you, and what went down with the ship, so to speak, both personally & professionally?

EG: My new record 2020 was scheduled for release April 10, so I had tours starting up immediately on the West Coast, followed by the Southwest, and then a long run in the Northeast, plus festivals. In mid March, we were all debating day by day whether I should do the first Northwest run in mid April. I was determined to get out there and do the run, but it became clear by the end of March that that would be foolish, being in the at-risk age group.

“I wrote sing-alongs, diatribes, frontline marching songs, and love letters to the Earth to help bring the troops together.”

We were slated to fly into Seattle and work up into Canada and down into Oregon, basically the area first slammed by the virus. I had friends who got caught out there two weeks before my run, thanks to the disinformation being bandied about by our “leaders.” Very irresponsible. But after much back and forth with my team, we dropped out just before the reality hit.

I am so glad, in hindsight, we went the safe route.

It was a terrible blow to have to postpone the dates just as my record came out. On top of that, this is a very topical, political record targeted to coincide with the 2020 election cycle. It is something that means a lot to me, to be proactive right now when there’s so much at stake. I thought, with the songs on this record, Cisco and I had really addressed the emotional roller coaster ride we’re on these days watching our country fall apart.

So – yeah, very disappointing.

I mean the record is literally called 2020. You can’t wait and release that in 2021 f'chrissake! But when you put it all in the context of a pandemic, then your priorities shift and you quickly become grateful for the many blessings that abound in your life.

For me: a home, a partner, my family, and good health.

AC: As a global culture, people employ music for every purpose imaginable, obviously spanning religion to entertainment and everything in between. What happens to communities like ours when people can no longer access it in person – at a show, at Central Market, at SXSW?

EG: Well, the communities shifted to online streaming pretty quickly. All those little plug-ins and adapters you need to hook up your devices went off the online shelves about as fast as the toilet paper and the hand sanitizer!

Whether you can make a living at it and really work a product remains to be seen. I have done very well with sales in my Shopify store, where I offer signed merch, but it can’t compare to the sales I make when I tour.

“I’ve been conducting a musical romance with the apocalypse most of my adult life, so I don’t think anyone has covered it from as many angles as I have, from the deconstruction of the religious overlay to the archetypical underpinnings of the concept.”

More importantly, though, we are social animals and we need the comfort of warm bodies and like-minded souls in real time, so there’s an emotional adjustment taking place that is fairly effective thanks to the online interactive opportunities. I have found that to be reassuring. My record is all about creating that kind of solidarity within a community, so that can inspire enough unity in this election to beat back this regime.

For this recording, I wrote sing-alongs, diatribes, frontline marching songs, and love letters to the Earth to help bring the troops together. We are very divided amongst ourselves, but we have to be singular in our intention now. We have to rise to the occasion of separateness and switch to whatever communication form is available and work with that.

It’s what we have to do, and what we WILL do.

AC: Everyone is having to shift or drastically alter their work situation. What does that look like for you?

EG: To be honest, flying frequently and road-dogging around the country has been taking its toll on me the last few years, so there’s a part of me that is just taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep, eat healthy, take walks, hang out with my husband, and slow down.

Instead of flying, driving, setting up, and performing five or six days and nights a week, I am now doing a weekly Facebook livestream called “ELIZALIVE,” with a different theme every week. I do songs I don’t often perform live, and have fun with the topic. I have a lot of songs, so I can go in a lot of directions and any ‘tips' I make go into a fund for Austin musicians, which is getting a little more funded every time I play.

It’s limiting, production-wise – not the same as live performance, with sound and lights and people right there with you every inch of the way – but I am just grateful I have something to focus on musically.

What cracks me up the most is that since we’re all basically alone, everyone from the big stars to the underlings is belting out the songs while strumming on the one instrument into an iPhone or at best a computer – no smoke and mirrors. Can your song hold up or not under that kind of scrutiny? It makes me affirm what I suspected: IT’S ALL FOLK MUSIC!!!

That really does crack me up.

I am also commissioning Austin videographer Benjamin Violet to make some videos of a few songs and I look forward to those getting out there, plus my label is working radio and press, which has so far been positive. We shall see.

Courtesy of the Artist (Photo by Eliza Gilkyson)

AC: What’s your soundtrack for the apocalypse and what role does music play for you as a fan and scholar of it in times of hardship?

EG: I’ve been conducting a musical romance with the apocalypse most of my adult life, so I don’t think anyone has covered it from as many angles as I have, from the deconstruction of the religious overlay to the archetypical underpinnings of the concept. The horror and the beauty of it all, it’s my jam. I don’t know why I have been so absorbed in it, but it’s what comes out of me and what I am drawn to.

That said, no one has ever written a more eloquent apocalyptic song than Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and out of sheer humility I have recorded it on 2020 just to prostrate myself before the master. It is pure prophecy, and no one will ever describe the epic tragedy unfolding before us with that depth of grief, rage, and tenderness in my lifetime or any other as far as I am concerned.

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Eliza Gilkyson, Bob Dylan, Cisco Gilliland, Benjamin Violet, Checking In 2020

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