20 Questions With Eliza Gilkyson

The maturation of Eliza Gilkyson

20 Questions With Eliza Gilkyson
Photo By John Anderson

Darden Smith and Eliza Gilkyson probably have a lot in common: longtime locals, singer-songwriters, Cactus Cafe loyalists. That's not why they're on the cover of this week's Chronicle, however. Unlike comedians Jon Dee Graham and Stephen Bruton, interviewed together for a cover story in February -- bandmates, guitar sidemen gone solo -- the connection between Smith and Gilkyson, in this case anyway, is an altogether more circumstantial one: Both have new albums coming out next week. Really fine albums that find both artists in peak form. Since the pair have been profiled in these pages individually over the years, this particular go-round we updated their stories via the "20 Questions" format -- separately, with different writers. Spoke to them about their latest efforts, their careers, and about songwriting. Like so many great Austinites over the decades, this is what they do. They got together for a photo shoot at the Cactus Cafe, falling into an easy rapport and comparing notes on publicists, tour bookings, and labels. "We should do a show together," quipped Gilkyson playfully. Cafe proprietor Griff Luneburg, meanwhile, who's long nurtured both their careers -- as well as an army of others starting with Townes Van Zandt -- looked on, beaming, like a proud parent. This one's for you, Griff -- Darden, Eliza. Proprietors of Song. -- Raoul Hernandez

If film credits in the Sixties were what they are now, every article on Eliza Gilkyson would note that as a teenager, she sang on the soundtracks of two Disney movies, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and The Legend of Dick Turpin. Instead, Gilkyson is content to reap the benefits of more than three decades of performing and recording with a serenity she's earned.

The longtime local singer-songwriter is of Scottish decent and a third generation pop pedigree. Her father was a distinguished songwriter who wrote Harry Belafonte's "Marianne," Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This," and "Bare Necessities" for Disney's The Jungle Book. She was raised in Los Angeles with brother Tony of roots punkers X and sister Nancy, a retired Warner Bros. vice-president.

A card-carrying child of the Sixties, the tall, tan, and elegantly lean Gilkyson embraced her generation fully. "I took a lot of acid and lived in a boxcar, thinking, yeah, someone's gonna come along and discover me here," she remembers with a chuckle. She raised a son and daughter and left New Mexico for Austin in the early Eighties. After dabbling in folkie pop here, she went back to L.A., then Taos with boyfriend/guitarist Mark Andes.

When last the Chronicle caught up with her in the fall of 1997 (austinchronicle.com/issues/vol17/issue13/music.gilkyson.html ), Gilkyson had returned to Central Texas just in time to play Austin City Limits and release the critically lauded Hard Times in Babylon. Reunited with her producer and friend Mark Hallman on the Red House label, the two teamed again for Lost and Found, which hits stores next Tuesday.

Like most life journeys, Gilkyson's path has been at times rough and circuitous. Around one turn was rape, around another, her regrets about not having been a better parent. Around yet another, was a side road as a New Age queen; in-between were broken relationships and marriages. Now in her fifties and with a firm grip on her music and her life, her pleasures are more mundane, with her son Cisco playing in her band and daughter Delia living next door.

Even more pleasing has been the addition of two grandchildren, on whom she lavishes her unabashed affection. Ensconced in the South Austin home she shares with her beloved dog Harpo, Gilkyson's forthright manner and an unwillingness to dwell on the past make her manner as formidable as her smart, deeply affecting songcraft.

Austin Chronicle: Both Hard Times in Babylon and Lost and Found exhibit a confidence and self-assurance that's new. Where did that come from?

Eliza Gilkyson: Once you come to terms with your vulnerability and accept it as a valid aspect of yourself, you're not so frightened of it. You can have confidence that yes, you're vulnerable, but no longer scared. I'm not afraid of my shadow.

Okay, that's not totally true, but I certainly have faced a lot of my demons, and there's a strength that comes from that, so it feels good to write about what's there. I figure when I'm trotting myself out there, others are saying, "Yeah, I got that stuff too."

AC: Fans like their artists vulnerable, don't they?

EG: There's a price you pay for being an artist, and that's being vulnerable. It's where the inspiration comes from. It's also what makes artists so self-possessed. The senses aren't deadened, and there's an unfiltered source of external experience that's overwhelming. That's why artists don't make great relationships or great mates or parents, because they're overwhelmed by that stimulus.

AC: On Lost and Found's "Welcome Back," you sing, "I took my licks and 100 lashes," and I thought, "That's me."

EG: You're connecting it to your own experience. The trick as a writer is to present the imagery in a way that's uniquely yours, but it somehow has to have a line to the archetypal experience, an original way to express something everybody feels.

AC: How do you distinguish Lost and Found from the mass of releases on the market right now?

EG: It's the story of our generation and the process of my career. If you played my records in order, all in a row, you'd see this hippie who turned into a back-to-the-lander, who turned into a parent, who turned into a New Age person, who turned into a totally betrayed, grieving person, who lost it all, who turned into someone who's landed and is doing okay.

AC: What would you like to see happen with the new album?

EG: All I want is my place in the market, and this is one instance where my age is working in my favor. I'm someone with miles on her tires, and that's valuable at a time when this generation is thinking deeply about relationships, priorities, spiritual choices, and are reflecting on the dreams that didn't come true. I am not a new, young, fresh face with an innocent perspective. There are plenty of those out there.

AC: Don't you find it encouraging that a market for mature music even exists? It's better than the "It has a good beat and you can dance to it" mentality.

EG: I think it's good that both are there. It's important that people be able to dance and express themselves, but I'm very happy that we have a place to go and safely experience our feelings. I know that my music gives people a safe way to explore what's inside, even the dark part. It's comfortable and you can feel your grief or anger and feel protected because someone else is voicing it.

AC: Is that the ultimate success of being a songwriter, connecting with the listener on that kind of personal level?

EG: For me, yes, although I love songwriters who can make up a story that has nothing to do with their experience. Telling a story is just thinly veiling my own experience. In "Angel and Delilah" on Lost and Found, these are two very lost souls trekking. It's a very classic dynamic in a relationship: He doesn't wanna work on himself, and she's just picking at him to do it. She's fixating on what his problems are, and he's saying, "Man, I feel like I'm dying with you holding on to me so tight."

AC: Was an alternate title for Lost and Found perhaps Catharsis?

EG: [laughs] I really wanted to call it Joy Thing, a reference from "Mama's Got a Boyfriend" -- I loved the lightness of it. But the head of the label said, "From Hard Times to Joy Thing is a little manic. What's next, I Slit My Throat?"

AC: This is very much a guitar album too, isn't it?

EG: I'm such a fan of guitar, partly because of my brother. I love the sound and the instrument. Even though the last two albums have a consistent production style, almost every song has a different guitarist. It was an opportunity to show off the incredible pool of talent in Austin.

AC: How cool that your brother played in X! Did you two have an influence on each other musically?

EG: I think he influenced me more than the other way around. Because he was always a guitar player, he was hipper than I was. I was never hip. A lot of my coming to terms has been with the fact that I've never been hip and never will be.

AC: Hey, there was nothing more hip in the Sixties than having a guitar!

EG: Maybe that was the last time I was hip.

AC: What's the story behind "Easy Rider"?

EG: My father had a folk band in the Fifties called the Easy Riders. He'd started in the Forties on Armed Forces Radio Network as a folk singer. He moved to Hollywood at the end of the Forties and got an office at the Hollywood, Vine, and Argyle area. Every day, he'd put on a tie and suit, drive to his office, and write these great songs. He later worked for Disney, writing songs for their B movies, the TV movies. That's where I got my start, singing demos for him. He'd hire me and a few of my friends and trade us out studio time. I was cheap labor!

AC: That's a unique bond most kids don't get with their parents.

EG: It was intense. He was a natural songwriter. He drew from his experiences and didn't try to be too meaningful, though there was a great deal of symbolism in his songs. Last month in Europe, I did his song "Greenfields," and people wept. I don't have that talent, but someday I want to do an album of his music.

AC: Music runs in your family. You mentioned your grandmother writing songs, your brother was in X for 10 years, your sister was a vice-president at Warner Bros. But you also indicated your dad didn't get his due from his peers because he was successful.

EG: He wasn't successful by folk community standards, because he was writing pop songs. He played with the Weavers and Pete Seeger, but they didn't take him seriously. And I don't think he cared. He wanted to write the best songs he could, and he heard them in pop melodies.

AC: Is the poet side of you ever in conflict with the songwriter or does one automatically serve the other?

EG: They are very interrelated and work with each other. You get quite used to waxing eloquent about your own perspective. The poet and songwriter are almost one and the same.

AC: The poet never defies the ... um, you know ...?

EG: ... form? I think songwriting limits the poet's style, because there is a form, although Dylan and a lot of other artists really altered the form. And with the current state of production and writing, the form is expanding. It's not as limiting as it was in the old days.

But I'm an oldster and I do find myself a little locked in. But "Flatline" on Hard Times was pure channeled poetry. I didn't have any music for it, I just sort of spewed. And it was good for me to break free from the form. Songwriting can hold you down, especially if you're thinking about what radio is going to play.

AC: What was Austin like in the early Eighties?

EG: It was the end of the Cosmic Cowboy era and a terrible time for folk music. I got here just as the Alamo Lounge and Emmajoe's closed. I pictured myself as a pop artist. Then came the New Age thing and between the two, it was almost my demise. My acoustic guitar stayed in the closet for about six years, gathering dust.

AC: What was it like to pull it out again?

EG: Like an old friend I neglected.

AC: What's the Cliff's Notes version of that "New Age" period you refer to?

EG: I never told anyone this, but in the late Eighties, I dreamed I was living in a nice, New Age-y house with crystals and light, but was aware there was a demonic being living in a pit under this fabulous home. In my dream, I thought, "I'm going to confront this creature." The creature was a gnarly beast! Pock-marked, raging, scaly with frizzed-out hair and claws, a huge tail. It looked at me with serpentine eyes and I remember thinking, "God, it looks like me!"

I faced it and said, "I'm gonna make you go away," but it just laughed and beat the living daylights out of me. It picked me up like I was fluff and smashed me to the ground. I had no power whatsoever over it. I think of that as the reality of the New Age movement. So lovely on the surface, but underneath it's a shadow.

AC: Sounds more like a nightmare than a dream.

EG: I had not dealt with my shadow. But the shadow in that pit is where some of the best music and most creative forces live. For me to think I could come up with a New Age phrase to make it go away was a joke. It was a hard lesson, but if I went down into the pit now, it would be a very different confrontation with that shadow. end story

Eliza Gilkyson performs two shows at the Cactus Cafe Saturday, April 20, 7:30 & 10pm.

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