Thursday, September 22, 2005
While some girls spend their early teenaged years taking riding lessons or thinking about boys, 14-year-old Eliza Gilkyson was singing on Disney television movies like The Secret of Romney Marsh and The Legend of Young Dick Turpin. Gilkyson, the daughter of pop folksinger Terry Gilkyson (who wrote the classic Disney song “The Bare Necessities”) recalls realizing the power of performing music during a small concert by her father when she was just 4 years old.
“I just recognized there was a
magical relationship between performers and the audience,” she says by phone from a tour stop in Manhattan. “I remember thinking at 4 that this is where it’s at.”
Later, while singing with her dad for Disney, Gilkyson picked up some skills that would become important later in life. (Eliza is not the only sibling in the Gilkyson family to benefit from a music-filled upbringing: her brother Tony was the guitarist for the legendary Los Angeles punk rock band X.)
“Working with my dad got me comfortable in the studio at an early age,” she says of her early exposure to the music industry. “Later, that would become useful.”
Before the release of her first CD, 1979’s Love From the Heart, Gilkyson says, there were a few times when she questioned pursuing a career as a songwriter despite the fact that playing music seemed to run in her family. Eventually, despite some hardships, Gilkyson discovered that striking out as a songwriter was something that she had been born to do.
“I realized I was better at barely
surviving at music than anything else,” she says.
Following a resolute decision to pursue a music career, Gilkyson had another life-altering experience. Living in Zurich, Switzerland, she had collaborated with composer Andreas Vollenweider in the mid-‘90s. Gilkyson says that moving back to the United States after that allowed her to take stock of her life and reinvent herself and her career.
Currently, the folk singer/songwriter’s rebirth finds her covering the same sort of ground as Steve Earle, a place where Gilkyson feels equally at ease focusing her considerable songwriting abilities on both the political and the personal. Her superb 2004 Grammy-nominated CD Land of Milk and Honey effortlessly transitions from the anti-Iraq War tune “Hiway 9” to “Dark Side of Town,” a portrait of a musician with a serious substance abuse problem. Another track titled “Ballad of Yvonne Johnson” tells the harrowing tale of an abused Native American woman in unflinching detail.
The release closes with a previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie tune titled “Peace Call,” which features vocal assistance from other great female singer/songwriters Mary Chapin Carpenter, Patty Griffin and Iris DeMent. Gilkyson says that Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, found the song in an out-of-print songbook. At the time, Gilkyson was looking for a “good anti-war song” as the nation headed towards the Iraq War. She says she chose “Peace Call” because she felt it was “incredibly specific and timely.”
This past August, Gilkyson released her follow-up to Land of Milk and Honey, titled Paradise Hotel. Though the release will surely appeal to fans of left-leaning alt country, Gilkyson says the subject matter of the new material is a tad different than that of her past CD.
“I think Milk and Honey was a socio-political record,” she says, where Paradise Hotel “has a more personal view.”
One song that has been generating a lot of attention lately is “Requiem,” a somber piano ballad Gilkyson wrote after the tsunami devastated parts of Asia last winter. Its lyrics, such as: “Mother Mary full of grace awaken/ all our homes are gone/ our love ones taken,” inspired NPR to run a segment saying that the song could help survivors of Hurricane Katrina cope with the wreckage on the Gulf Coast.
Though there might be less political songs on Paradise Hotel than Land of Milk and Honey, Gilkyson still continues to strike blows against President Bush with songs like “Man of God,” a dark rocker drenched in haunting religious imagery.
Whatever the subject matter of her tunes, Gilkyson seems to still view creating music as a family affair. On her last few albums, brother Tony, sister Nancy and son Cisco Ryder all make musical appearances.
Eliza Gilkyson plays Monterey Live, 414 Alvarado St., Monterey, Tuesday at 8pm. $16/advance; $18/at the door. 375-5483.