Lioness in Winter

Eliza Gilkyson, purring, growling, roaring

Lioness in Winter
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

It can only be described as an intimate scene, Eliza Gilkyson with him, the love of her life. They cuddle on a living room chair together, gazing into each other's eyes with unadulterated adoration. Her toned arms drape around him, and his brown-turns-silver head rests on her breast. He lifts his face for a kiss, and she bestows it willingly, lovingly.

The bucolic scene is framed by the spare, spacious living room of Gilkyson's house, a long couch facing a stone fireplace, plants strewn about, big glass windows looking out onto a deck, and a verdant, leafy corner with a small brook tumbling through it. The house is built into a hillside on a cul-de-sac in deep South Austin with the look and feel of cool green isolation. No wonder the couple feel so private and at ease.

Suddenly, the outside peace is shattered by a flurry of activity under a tree with branches dipping low. A squirrel perhaps, or maybe the fox Gilkyson saw recently. She's distracted and turns to the window. He's out of her arms with a bark and off the chair as fast as his four legs will carry him. He's a dog with a mission: Protect my mistress at all costs.

"Harpo ..."

Gilkyson giggles at his display of canine machismo, but in truth, Harpo's a big flirt. When the scuffle outside turns out to be nothing, he focuses on the new person in the room and leaps up on the couch, looking up with heart-melting, liquid brown puppy eyes.

If this sounds like domestic bliss, it is. Eliza Gilkyson has found her voice, and at 53, it only gets stronger. It's grown from a whisper to a roar within her lean, lioness frame and emerges regally live and on LP. The lengthy journey to this point has lasted most of her life and seen her flit from genre to genre, shedding images and names. She's metamorphosed from a cocoon of wildly divergent influences and become a woman with a distinctive sound and style. Her most recent album, Land of Milk and Honey, is the third in a row of milestone recordings. The journey to this point hasn't just been long. It's been emotionally battering. And worth it.

"I was a 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 and grieving person, who's landed and is doing OK."

So sayeth Eliza Gilkyson.

Live & Uncensored

Gilkyson is more than "doing OK" on a Friday night, splaying her claws on the political carpet during her Cactus Cafe show for Land of Milk and Honey. Her audience laughs as she offers no apologies for her sentiments. Under the shadow of a war that's increasingly being compared to Vietnam, Gilkyson takes the folksinger's traditional role as the voice of dissent.

"I played at a private party in D.C. to a bunch of Republicans. Halfway through the night, I was like, 'Should I ...?' 'Could I sing ...?' 'Can we do ...?' But these were, like, the people who are voting for W! Fuck you people!"

She grimaces and strums her guitar.

"I already got my first hate mail. Maybe I need to build a fucking fence around my house. Install a fucking intercom at the gate. Get a big fucking dog. The hate letter ended with, 'Have a nice day.' He didn't mean that!"

The chuckles rise and die down again as she introduces the band: Mike Hardwick on lead guitar, Jeff Plankenhorn on guitar and mandolin, Glenn Fukunaga on bass, and son Cisco Ryder on drums. Later, they're joined by cellist Brian Standefer, but now, with a nod of her spiky blond head, the band slips into Greg Brown's "Sleeper." A spotlight hitting the high sheen on her acoustic guitar creates an animated reflection on the club wall, like foxfire darting about a dark forest.

Eliza Gilkyson wasn't born in a trunk, but she grew up close to the microphone. Her father Terry Gilkyson was a successful songwriter; his mother was a composer, too. Brother Tony Gilkyson of X is an in-demand guitarist, and sister Nancy was a vice-president at Warner Bros. Records for 20 years. Her son Cisco plays drums and percussion for her; he and her daughter Cordelia sing on the new album.

It's a family circle that's unique, and that's not lost on Cisco. Growing up with his father in L.A., he moved to Austin immediately after graduating high school at 17 and naturally joined a band. He played with ST 37, 23 Aliens, and Knife in the Water before becoming part of his mother's group in the late Nineties when she was playing with bassist (and then boyfriend) Mark Andes.

Lioness in Winter

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm playing with the bass player from Heart!'" he laughs at the memory. "I'm happy to be part of a family tradition.

"We have a mutual appreciation that goes beyond mother-son and even singer-musician," he continues. "She's always encouraged me in all the bands I've been in, no matter how strange they were. We both understand that we're pursuing something inside of us."

Now and then, of course, "we'll snap at each other, but in the family kind of way." For Cisco, there's only one real drawback, he avers. "It's hard hitting her up for a paycheck."

The first set of songs flows gently with "Richmond Boy" and its tweak at Mick Jagger, "Runnin Away," "Tender Mercies," and "Lights of Santa Fe" before the band takes a break. When Gilkyson returns, her voice is beginning to sound scratchy. Ever the pro, she opens the second half with "Welcome Back" from Lost and Found and encourages the audience to sing the chorus.

After two sets of old favorites and soon-to-be staples, the lights go up, but Gilkyson's not done. There are fans to greet, CDs to sell, autographs to sign. Hovering near the table is a group of twentysomethings, examining the two CDs they've bought. What do they hear in this woman's music that makes it relative to a world shaped by MTV?

"She's kinda like Sheryl Crow," ventures one young woman.

"She reminds me of Shawn Colvin," offers a young man.

It's clear that Gilkyson's appeal can and does cross age boundaries.

Ripped Off by Death

"I'm just so upset with what's happening!"

Back in her living room, Eliza Gilkyson sits forward from her comfortable position in the armchair, hands outstretched, reiterating her unhappiness with the war in Iraq and the state of the world.

"I'm also inspired by people like Al Franken, Michael Moore. People who went on record a year ago when we were going to war and who were accused of being un-American, publicly threatened through letters, and humiliated. I thought those people were so brave in going out against the war, using their right to free speech. I was so inspired that's what I want to do with my life now, with this record."

Gilkyson is well aware of the pitfalls of going on record with an anti-war position and that, like Marcia Ball, she might become a target on right-wing Web sites.

"A rabbi came up to me after I sang 'Tender Mercies' and told me I was supporting suicide bombings," she grimaces. "I'm taking hits from it, but I'm prepared to do that. I believe if everyone speaks out, there's safety in numbers."

She took great care that the social commentary on Land of Milk and Honey was balanced aesthetically. It's where lessons learned from her father came into play. He was a successful composer of Disney ditties ("The Bare Necessities") and folk pop ("Memories Are Made of This," "Marianne"), but political content wasn't his style. For Eliza, style was as crucial as substance.

"I didn't write some political rant and throw it out there," she explains. "I like it to be musically satisfying, so you don't just hear the lyric, you feel something. I think we did that with this record."

Fans of Eliza's music know all about the "feel something" part. The fragile balance of life is ever present in her music, and she maintains that equilibrium fiercely. In talking about "Separated," from Land of Milk and Honey, she's adamant that the song is not as much about grieving for a breakup as it is about "being separate, the sense of feeling separated from everything – and everyone – around you."

Eliza and her son, Cisco Ryder
Eliza and her son, Cisco Ryder (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

Yet, sometimes the scale is tipped. Eliza was a not-so-mute witness to family heartbreak last year when her sister's boyfriend, beloved Austin scenester Big Al Ragle, died of complications from hepatitis C.

"The last 10 hours, Nancy stayed right at his side, the whole time," reveals the singer. "As he was dying, he locked eyes on her for maybe six hours. It was so intense, the only way he could go. And he didn't want to leave, didn't want to go. He really hung around. It was bad, really hard for Nancy. We saw his face, the shock of realization that he was going to have to let us all go. And we were like, 'This can't be.'"

Eliza did what all musicians do when faced with a life-altering experience. She took out her guitar and wrote a song. Almost. For four months, "Dark Side of Town" lay untouched. One day, she brought it out and showed it to her sister. Nancy, an industry vet, tinkered with the lyrics and fleshed it out. Eliza proudly notes that her sister wrote "from barrooms of Deep Ellum to a crash pad by the Bay."

Land of Milk and Honey is dedicated not just to Big Al, but also "to the music community who lost him." In her sadness, Eliza notes that she hasn't been able to bring herself to delete his e-mail address from her computer.

"We all felt ripped off by losing Al."

The Regina Dialogues

Eliza Gilkyson: I'm at a point where I'm taking inventory about how relationships work, and where women stand in the world right now – what are we, as a group, up against? How much progress have we made? What are the hurdles we still haven't made it over?

Then there's this political climate and how that's affecting our lives now in terms of the environment. I have children, I have grandchildren, and these are the things that are important to me now. They're really important to me.

Almost every woman I know in her 50s is alone. They didn't survive the breakup, didn't survive whatever relationships they had through their 40s. In their 50s, men just want one more round on the illusion machine, with somebody younger, having a second set of kids, or they're shut down. Whatever it is, they're not going out with 50-year-old women.

Austin Chronicle: Women are devalued at 50. That's the cutoff age because so much emphasis is placed on appearance. It's the message in virtually every advertisement aimed at the female sex. We know we're not valued because our images are not used or celebrated.

EG: That is so upsetting to me. It really upsets me, because what we've become, the power we've come into, gets tossed out in the bathwater right at the time when we have so much wisdom, so much more to give. Madonna's so smart. She hit that line and reinvented herself as Power Mother. Got into spiritual things and became Wise Woman. I liked it better when she was Tit Woman.

AC: Female musicians are in a better position to age in their careers than actresses are.

EG: Totally. We musicians have much more wiggle room. I'm sure most of the actresses get surgery. At least in music you're not under such scrutiny, but you're still under scrutiny. Everywhere, people are checking out how I'm aging. On stage, I know what I look like. I don't have any illusions, though I have to say stage lighting is very flattering. It gives you another 10 years. It's the gold and red, and coming from the angle above. I'm grateful for that lighting!

AC: Courtney Love says that bad lighting has killed women's careers. Maybe that's not completely true, but she's not far off base.

EG: She's right. Especially the genre she's in. She's up against the major beauties.

AC: Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, these are the role models of your genre – the torchbearers for it.

EG: It's really true. Those women are great examples. In my business, a woman should be a lot more worried about losing her voice than losing her looks.

Making the Leap

When Eliza Gilkyson sings "Beauty Way" from Hard Times in Babylon, there's no doubting the veracity of her lyrics:
Tony, Eliza, and Nancy Gilkyson accompany their father, 
Terry, circa 1956.
Tony, Eliza, and Nancy Gilkyson accompany their father, Terry, circa 1956.

I felt the lights on the big, big stages, the fire burning in my soul. I've had those nights where my guitar rages. It's not something you control, little darling. It's not something you control.

Hard Times in Babylon came out in 2000, following a decade of intense growth. Her output in the Nineties crystallized on 1997's Redemption Road and '99's Misfits. The titles were prophetic, not just about her music.

The end of the Nineties brought an end to relationships and the death of her father. Redemption meant hard times for the misfit. It also meant a new level of expression. Babylon's opener "Beauty Way" fit AAA radio like a dream; Gilkyson's voice was beginning to be heard, and it had something to say.

In 2002, she followed Babylon with Lost and Found, garnering even more critical kudos and making it clear she was on a roll. She was also looking for her place in the market and found it with songs like "Welcome Back," "Angel and Delilah," and "Easy Rider." Lost and Found was even more introspective than its predecessor, clearing the way for her to expand her musical vision. In "Riverside," the singer alluded to her dismay at the state of the world, more fully vocalized on Land of Milk and Honey.

Hard Times, Lost and Found, and Land of Milk and Honey were all produced by Mark Hallman, who owns the Congress House Studio in South Austin. The two have worked together for more than 20 years. It's a complex relationship, equal parts personal and professional.

"When you've walked a lot of miles with somebody and had experiences with them, it comes through in your art," says Gilkyson. "There's a depth, because you know each other really well. He knows when my vocal is right. He knows when to ask for more. I completely trust him."

Hallman is not surprised at Gilkyson's butterflylike emergence.

"I knew how good this period would be before we recorded Hard Times in Babylon," he reveals. "I heard those songs at the Cactus, and I couldn't believe the difference. They were fantastic, she was jumping to another level. She had really arrived. I think the death of her father has a lot to do with those changes. She may not see it, but I see it as a catalyst for her finding out who she is. She's able to take her pain, her angst, her frustration, and put it in a way that cuts to the bone."

A way that sometimes leaves scars.

"Ballad of Yvonne Johnson," from Land of Milk and Honey, extracts an emotional price from Gilkyson. She breaks down in tears and sobs while talking about it, overcome by the inhumanity Johnson suffered (see sidebar). Gilkyson channels a memory of her own, a memory of rape committed on her. She knows the violation, the fear, and understands the coming-back process. In writing about Yvonne Johnson, Gilkyson battled her own nightmare and lived to write the tale.

"I started to feel like I can't just stand by things that are really important to me and are falling apart or being threatened. The demise of what so many of us have been dreaming of and working for most of our adult lives. And the music is really reflecting that."

Places in the Heart

There's a knock at the door. Cisco enters, smiling. Eliza grins back. Harpo wags his tail. Cisco heads downstairs to the office. In addition to playing drums and percussion, her son designs and updates her Web site.

Daughter Cordelia and her husband may soon move to Brownsville, to be closer to his family. That possibility distresses Eliza. She recognizes its necessity but rues the thought of being so far from her grandchildren. She dreams of overseeing a collection of her father's music; the White Stripes recorded a version of his "Look Me Over Closely." Maybe she'll put together his children's songs, too. She has much to think about.

For the immediate future, she'll live out of a suitcase, on the road in the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and Scotland through mid-May. She returns home to play Stubb's on May 29, then goes back out around the country in June and July. It's a hectic existence, but it suits Eliza Gilkyson well.

"On Land of Milk and Honey, 'Not Lonely' is about not being in a relationship and being OK with that," she says. "That's how I feel. I am alone, but my life is so full and so rich and I'm not suffering. I like this time in my life.

"I love the autonomy of this being what I've worked hard to get to. That's a hard-won place to get to. I don't even know if it was a place I wanted to get to. I just got there." end story

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