The Spiritual Vanguard

Eliza Gilkyson

photograph by Jana Birchum

Suddenly, we are there, slicing our boat into silent green pools, unwelcome by the looks of it. Wildlife scatters a quarter mile upstream at our approach, led by a Great Blue Heron who flies away like some fantastic prehistoric doom. Dried cypress leaves and floating tree limbs part at the bow as we steadily paddle after him. About a half mile up Onion Creek, we reach the end of navigable waters, and as if out of some 19th-century John Clare poem, the heron rises up again and signals the end of the chase by doubling back behind us. His little joke, I assume. What fun. This is the end of day two spent with local singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson at her home above Onion Creek (and unbeknownst to her, it's my birthday). Amid a marathon of exhaustive conversation about music, spirituality, the continental divide of generations, and pop psychology bolstered by tea and cigarettes, comes the invitation to be silent. I take it, so we carry Gilkyson's kayak down to the creek dam and clumsily bounce it into the water. One last comment comes from her at that moment about the death of her mother, and the interview is over -- even as it had just begun. Because more than anything we talk about over our two days together, this is Gilkyson, this boat ride, this pursuit of the heron. It's in every line of her songs, and in every aspect of her personal life.

Corny? Yes. New Age? Certainly there are times, dead as the term may be. But Gilkyson is not exactly modern, or else she's so modern she's beyond the rest of us. I never quite figure out which. Thankfully, it doesn't matter. What matters is this: She is, as witnessing one of her acoustic shows at the Cactus Cafe will tell you, a spiritual vanguard led by the earth-clawing fearful beauty of her own voice.

Her talent is only natural. She's a fourth-generation musician, raised by a folk singer father (Terry Gilkyson & the Easy Riders) and a songwriting mother, and one who shares the family bill with her celeb brother Tony Gilkyson, a guitarist for L.A. punk band X and Lone Justice. Her sister is a V.P. with Warner Bros., and her son, Cisco Gilliland, plays here in Austin with local techno-pop group Bunny Stockhausen.

Now in her mid-forties, Gilkyson has been at it for over 25 years; a "dyed-in-the-wool singer-songwriter," she calls herself, processing on stage her formative years of Sixties-era "peace, love, and light," with all its current indignant wistfulness. That's her generation, and that's her audience -- they appreciate her musical connection to key post-Sixties truth-seekers like Dan Folgelberg and Andreas Vollenweider more than anyone else. And they appreciate her years of dropping out and tuning in at Taos and Santa Fe. Mostly, they appreciate the tears Gilkyson can make you cry with just the trembling, sudden dropping pull of her voice into a minor note. But all that pleasure and pain comes at a price, however. Her culty, touchy-feely status has inevitably narrowed her career to smoke-free coffeehouses filled with aging hippies. Not that she minds.

"They are my audience," says Gilkyson, "and I love them because they know I've always been on a spiritual quest and we share ideals."

Well, they share most ideals, because recently Gilkyson has changed her mind on at least one aspect of her persona. "Peace, love, and light is a general term," she now contends, "but for this time, we need specifics. We were into unity, a common theme, a common cause, but perhaps the answers are within each individual."

The spiritual vanguard element promoting commonness, apparently, is giving way to a more truthful desperation that we all share, alone. Existentialism has set in, a natural outcome of so much searching. As a result, Gilkyson is shedding the rather sticky, humiliating label she's borne during the last 10 years of her career as the Queen of New Age, who put out albums that captured her breathtaking voice backed by what are now considered spiritually cliché lyrics and simplistic melodic constructions.

Gilkyson's new album released this fall, Redemption Road, shows her at her most original -- taking more risks with her vocal range and tonal quality, adding more lyric subtlety, and backing herself with a more intuitive and complicated melodic structure. "There's some real artistry in the music from the musicians who played on it," she says. And it's true, the cast of players couldn't be better. Her brother Tony guests along with fellow X-man drummer D.J. Bonebrake, local pedal steel master Marty Muse, Van Dyke Parks on accordion, and Stephan Paetzold on violin.

Philosophically, the album is more attuned to her darker side, the side that doesn't know the value in finding the perfect relationship with a man, with the world, or with God. That, she believes, is true spirituality. Redemption Road is a reflection, contends Gilkyson, of the anxiety of "coming to the end of all this living and finding nothing... coming to the borderline of the mystery and finding a void. For that reason, there's reason to hope."

Whew. All of that in just one hour together. Time to take a breather, go out for a cigarette, boil some more water, look at the tremendous view of the creek and tall cypress trees from Gilkyson's back porch. She doesn't talk simply, but she lives that way; her house is comfortable and airy, standing at the woodsy end of a dumpy, low-slung subdivision south of South Austin, the future of which was abandoned long ago in favor of more high-scale developments just north of here.

She moved to the area from New Mexico in the late Seventies, bringing with her the Santa Fe decorative style including the prerequisite cow skull which rests in peace above the limestone fireplace. During our short break, she sits on the floor, cradles the furry jaws of her little terrier, Harpo, and shows how he has "perfect suction" with his lips. She presses, and he makes sort of a kissy sound. The mundane pleasures are best.

After such a long haul, and so many tiny successes and big failures, small pleasures come in handy. Gilkyson's recent acclaim for Redemption Road is new to her. Fourteen years in an unhappy marriage (to her manager) plus several failed attempts at getting recorded as an acoustic artist during the New Wave sensation in the late Seventies and early Eighties took its proverbial toll.

"It was a terrifying time of my life, my thirties," she mourns. "I was thinking I gotta grab it now before it's too late, and I ended up posturing for a long time. Really, being a folk singer was such a kiss of death. I mean, nobody carried around an acoustic guitar anymore."

Her husband, meanwhile, advised her to cut her golden Joni Mitchell-like tresses and at least try to look New Wave. "I shaved the sides of my head," she laughs, "and then got a show on Austin City Limits."

After that, Gilkyson didn't pick up an acoustic guitar until 1986, when she got involved in a small project with a Jungian writer named Robert Johnson. The resulting album, Pilgrim (1987), was the story of life's path, love's journey, and the mind's voyage. Yikes. It was an embarrassment, and she knows it.

"It was my first record; I was shopping for a deal," she says. "I did it for Gold Castle [Records], and it was a big mistake. They flipped, of course, and promoted me as a New Age singer. I've never lived it down. I've tried to divorce myself from it, but lately, I've been saying, `Oh, fuck it...'"

The New Age label meant that Gilkyson's music, especially over the next two albums -- Through the Looking Glass in 1993 and Undressed in 1994 -- never reached a larger audience than her steady following of navel-watchers. For this, Gilkyson accepts blame, though she stumbles a bit when confronted with the observation that her past albums, and even parts of Redemption Road are, well, tarnished by the silver lining of platitudes. The New Age label, it turns out, was probably a self-inflicted wound caused by all that touchy-feely stuff.

She pauses, takes that in. We're standing on the porch, and she looks out there, somewhere, then turns to defend herself.

"My corniness has its place in music, especially pop music. Mine comes from, well, I'm a love guy. It serves me in my life. I'm a peace and love kind of person, with lots of hippie roots. I've tried to hide them, but when you get older, it serves you well, because I'm a mother and a lover."

It's time for an example. In "Heart of a Man," a love song from her third album, Undressed, she writes: "In the heart of a man/stand the fields of his sorrow/words never spoken/dreams unexpressed/but when the veils fall/all the feeling will follow/and the fields/will grow green/with love's tenderness."

With her family history and her talent, there's got to be more to it than the "I'm a mother and a lover." It's too pat, she's too defensive. Plus, it rhymes, which is a dead giveaway -- if it's appropriate to employ clichés when debunking them. We're still standing there. Waiting. Finally, she stops looking out there, and almost breathes it out.

"I've been struggling with the cliché thing for a long time, this playing it safe thing. I used to say, this is the song, this is the way it came out, so that's the way it is. It's laziness, I suppose. And it's about not wanting to go too far out on a limb, because I don't want to be a red flag."

She laughs.

"I don't have overwhelming self-esteem. I think the corny stuff is based on my wish that it was like this, that if I squint my eyes, it is like this. That's what "Melancholy Muse" [from Redemption Road] is about. I spent my whole life looking for the perfect mate, and then when I found him [her boyfriend Mark Andes, guitarist for Heart, Spirit, and Canned Heat], I found out it meant nothing. It doesn't change what your demons are at night."

That terror, she confides, has often led her to "play it safe" -- in the studio as well as when writing songs. It is, in fact, the same struggle her father had with his folk/pop tendencies. Never accepted by folk purists who scorned his popular band format and catchy melodies, and rejected completely by pop culturalists for being too much of a "folky hick," Terry Gilkyson "failed to resolve his struggle in the end," she sighs.

"I fear that may happen to me too."

Why take on her father's burdens? She shakes her head, as if saying that's not it. And it's not.

"I think I never sensed being good enough for him, or could find any support for what I was doing, even though the actual music environment was there. I had this sense I had to hide.

"There's a lot I have to do before the next record. I want to be fearless in my self-inventory. That's what "Prayer 2000" [also from Redemption Road] says to me: `Thank you for all the sorrow that made me' is the line in there that addresses all those parent conflicts."

It's a song Gilkyson wrote with Andes, and the entire verse reads beautifully -- dark and gorgeous in its recognition and forgiveness: "Thank you for my darkest years/all the sorrow that made me/and the beauty that saved me."

Her divorce in 1994 while she was in Europe working with Vollenweider was, she says, the catalyst for finding her original voice, the one that could write such dark and gorgeous lyrics. The voice that could take risks. She's friends with her ex now, but ending that relationship, she continues, was "such a relief... I was so sad and trapped and unhappy. I saw that it was going to take me years to get out of it, but I knew I could do it. I called him from Europe and asked him for a divorce. I then went into the studio and did Undressed. I was beginning to get my confidence back."

It shows, particularly in the first song she re-recorded for Redemption Road, "River of Gold." There's even a little comedic relief at the beginning, followed by lines like these:

I don't want to be

some ornament wife

and I don't need a lover for once in my life

I just want to get going

before I'm too old

to drink for a while

from the river of gold...

All that breaking free has led Gilkyson to her current album, which speaks more to the quavering and thin lines we all cross than any "dyed-in-the-wool" beliefs. It's also a relief. And an improvement, she says. "It was self-produced -- the first time I've done that. But I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound."

Redemption Road marks one of the last passages in Gilkyson's struggle for an independent voice and control over her music -- from here she goes it alone, the familiar is no longer a comfort. Leaving her home is no comfort, either. We've put the boat back on the creek bank, turned it over, and laid the paddles next to it. She thanks me for being game for the trip upstream as we walk back to the house, gives me a tight, warm hug before I go, and I'm really too embarrassed to say that the pleasure was definitely all mine. It was the best birthday present anyone ever gave me.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle