“If music can keep the heart open, then the heart will find a way. The heart is a good conscience. That’s a small little task that I set for myself and one that I think a musician can do.”
John: Our guest this week on Art of the Song is twice-nominated singer/songwriter and activist Elize Gilkyson. One of the most respected musicians in folk, roots, and Americana circles, her songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Geldof, Tom Rush, and Roseanne Cash. Eliza’s music offers a vivid reflection of the times we live in. Each song a window into a life of struggle and triumph in a world she feels is “Poised on the edge of moral, economic, and environmental bankruptcy”.
Viv: We spoke with Eliza about her 2018 release “Secularia”, a collection of spiritually charged songs that don’t fit within the parameter of traditional religious beliefs. The songs inspire and challenge us to accept all life and be accountable for our actions in these perilous times. Secularia features cameos with Shawn Colvin, gospel singer Sam Butler, as well as a duet with her friend, the late Jimmy LaFave. Another special feature of this CD is that it includes several songs adapted from poetry by her grandmother.
Viv: It is such a pleasure to be sitting here at Casa de Musica with Eliza Gilkyson. Thank you so much for inviting us to this beautiful place.
Eliza: Great to see you guys again.
Viv: What a lovely home that you have that’s available for workshops. You have workshops here. You also have an VRBO. It’s your home away from Austin.
Eliza: It’s been a long-standing dream of mine to have an old Adobe. All the years that I lived here, in New Mexico, I never had an adobe. I always lived in somebody’s garage somewhere or tent or teepee or whatever. But it was always a dream of mine to have an old adobe and this was one of those lucky things that I lucked into. But when I saw this place and saw this beautiful living room, I imagined these songwriting workshops and it was within a year of buying that we started having the songwriting workshops up here. It’s been an incredible experience.
Viv: We just missed John Gorka was here with you, correct?
Eliza: This is John’s fourth year of running the workshop with me along with Don Richmond from Alamosa. We have Don Richmond, my son Cisco who is my producer, and John Gorka. That’s our June workshop. It’s so fun. We cover so much ground and we’re in this great environment. It’s really been wonderful for everyone.
Viv: In August, this coming August, you have another workshop coming up with Mary Gauthier.
Eliza: That’s right. That’s our fall workshop. Our end of August workshop. This will be Mary’s second here. Gretchen Peters was with us the same year. Gretchen will be in Europe this year, so we have the Gauthier/Gilkyson one there in the fall.
Viv: An extraordinary opportunity for people to take time out, just for themselves to come and spend time with the muse.
Eliza: That’s right. We cover a lot of ground. What’s interesting about teaching songwriting is that, whether people are just starting out or are further down the line, a lot of the same rules apply. If you’re just beginning, we don’t want to tell people to edit too much. We just want them to start the creative process and feel safe to even start. For the most part, though, a lot of the same rules apply with songwriting. A lot of, ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ I’m sure you find this with people that you interview. That you see these themes emerging in songwriting. It doesn’t really matter what sort of level that you think you’re at. It’s more about what you’re drawing on inside of yourself.
Viv: Since you’ve brought that up, let’s talk about, over the span of the past twenty albums, Secularia is your 20th release.
Eliza: Yeah, that’s right.
Viv: What would you say the overarching theme has been for your work from the beginning, from your first CD perhaps. Do you sense that there is an overarching theme or an overarching topic that you tend to readdress throughout your work?
Eliza: That is a good way of putting it because if I put all my records end-to-end and ended up here, you would see this as, in a lot of ways, the culmination of everything because, on all my records, there was always one or two songs, or sometimes even more, that had to do with my life-long quest for sense of meaning and a sense of following the mystery of who we are and why we’re here and what is mortality and what does mortality bring out in us and avoiding mortality. All those things that shape us and shape our belief systems. So, I’ve been exploring those things, like many people from my generation, since I was first starting to make music and make records. There’s always been that sense in my records, but I was always very careful in my records to keep a very well-rounded balance of songs on my records so that it wasn’t too much into this sort of spiritual thing so that I wouldn’t get labeled. But the few times that I did explore it, I was labeled a New Age artist, which I hated because I didn’t really agree with the New Age movement. I thought it was very placating in a way and I’m really trying to understand things as they seem in almost a scientific manner. So, this record, in a way, is taking some of those older songs, re-doing them, re-writing them, and writing new ones. Finding songs that fit a theme that really do explore religion or a spiritual experience without religious ideology. I think religious ideology is one of the most dangerous forces in the world today. But do we have to throw out our desire to sing together and communicate together? Enjoy communion? Question the mystery? Be in a state of wonder? Grieve together? Love together? What kind of music works for people who don’t fit within religious ideologies but still who want to be grateful? How do you show gratitude without having to name a deity? Or do you have to even say who it is you are grateful to? You could still feel yourself in a state of gratitude. I wanted these songs to have those kinds of feeling and that kind of connection to something, but I never wanted to state what that thing was because that’s a personal thing. I think the imposition of religion is really destructive.
Viv: There’s something so universal in the application. When you have a song that anyone could sing, you’re appealing to a universal code that’s embedded in us.
Eliza: That is really true. I have a song on the record called “Sanctuary” that really just says “Thou art with me”. Through all these things, “Thou are with me. Thou art with me.” I had an incredible gospel singer Sam Butler who sang with the 5 blind boys for 25 years. An amazing gospel singer. He sang it with me and did one of the verses. But I never say who ‘Thou’ is. Through this and that, “Thou art with me”, but I never say, ‘it’s this deity or this icon’. After we’d done this together, Sam has cut this song for his own record, and we were talking and I said, ‘You know, Sam, I got to tell you I’m not Christian.” And he said, “Well, you could have fooled me!” I think what he was thinking was that your heart is in the same place my heart is and that’s what counts. That’s the kind of connection I want to make. This music could work for Christians, but it could work for Muslims. It could work for atheists, because atheists, they grieve, mourn, have gratitude, have a sense of mystery and wonder. They’re not just these scientists who live in little boxes. They’re people that are actually really facing mortality. Atheists are some of my favorite people. I can’t say that that’s what I am either, but I want this music to be able to be sung to them in communion as much as anyone else.
Viv: This is a particular time where we need a sense of community and a place where we can come together. We are so divided. You’ve never shied away from voicing your thoughts. This particular album takes on a whole new coloration with you exploring feminist truths and new ideas that are coming to you if we’re not viewing, say, God as male, then it changes everything that we built our belief system on.
Eliza: That has been one of the wonderful discoveries in making this record is dismantling ideologies, especially in religion, because God has been a fundamental masculine patriarchal type that exists. It’s so primal within us that, especially for women, when your God, that’s the Mary Daly quote, “When your God is male, then man is God.” That’s not healthy for women. What we’re breaking out of now is the imagining of the male archetype being the dominant force. That’s a huge shift. It has to come about in religion as well, certainly in our spiritual practice, because we act it out in our lives. If God is male, then that dominant/subordinate relationship exists between a masculine/feminine. That’s what we’re really trying to shift now, I think. We see the young people and they’re locked into now in this movement. It’s really exciting. So that was a process that was happening for me while I was making the record too. In dismantling this male archetype as a deity, how do you keep from throwing the baby out with the bathwater? How do you sing to that? That has been a process for me. Some of the songs on the record had started out with masculine archetypes and I went back and re-wrote them and put feminine ones in there and it amazed me how much they changed. The songs were completely different. They were all about self-empowerment. It shifted everything. So that was kind of an exciting little discovery that happened for me along the way.
Viv: Is each album as much of an illumination for you? It sounds like just creating an album, which I guess I never really thought about this, but it sounds like creating an album for you is a real path to discovery.
Eliza: It has been for me. I just go through different phases in my life and then, at the end, when I’m making a record, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just putting songs out there. I’m just trying to get the well opened up so that the songs with come up. I’m not trying to force anything or judge anything that is coming up. Nothing will stop the muse faster than an early edit. What I do is, at the end of a project, I look at it and I think, ‘Oh, here are these themes that are emerging that are obviously emerging in my life as well.’ In this case, I think I really started out knowing I wanted to make this non-religious, spiritual record. I should say, non-religious, non-New-Agey, spiritual record. So, I knew what I wanted to do, but we recorded I think 15 or 16 songs and four of them, we were like ‘you’re out of here!’ They didn’t work. I thought they were going to really fit, and they didn’t. So, the whole de-masculinizing of God was not what I had thought of initially. It just was what was happening while I was writing it.
Viv: And you also have some very interesting co-writers on Secularia.
Eliza: That’s right. My grandmother and my dad. Well, actually, really my grandmother. Two of the songs on the record are hers. One song, called ‘Solitary Singer’ was one that she wrote in poetry that she wrote in 1949 and my dad put to music. He had a radio show. An armed forces radio show and it was called “The Solitary Singer”. He would sing that song of my grandmother’s that he had put to music. That was his theme song. It was such a haunting song. It was all about nature. The poem was so Zen. It was about being in the moment, hearing these things, these birds in the evenings. We sing our best when nobody’s listening. She was just naming all of these things. The frog and the evening birds. It was so much in the moment. One of the most ecstatic states for humans I think is when we are just sitting with nature and when we shut up enough to let nature sing with us. Maybe one of our highest callings as human beings is simply witnessing the beauty of creation. Really, if there was a purpose for humans, I would say it is to witness, with our big brain, the awesomeness of what has been created that we get to observe and be part of. Instead, we have, of course, gone to battle over it or destroyed it. But I would think our highest calling would be to witness and to nurture it. So that song, in 1949, that’s where her head was at. That really shows, I think, also the foundation in which I grew up, which was very non-religious, but very nature-oriented. The community with nature was a big deal in my family and I wanted to honor that on this record.
Viv: There’s something so powerful I found in the song about actually knowing the names of the different birds and the names of the different trees and that they serve a different purpose.
Eliza: So true. Naming is also part of witnessing. My dog, sometimes I’ll take her whole bag of toys and throw it on the ground, and she’ll go over and with her nose, she’ll put it on each thing. ‘Here’s this thing, this thing, this thing…’ And I think that is the way we were with the birds. We’re like, ‘That one’ and ‘I want to know the name of that one. And I want to know the coloration of that. I want to know the song of that.’ My grandmother was a major birder. That was her thing. She went everywhere. Her name was Phoebe.
Viv: I’m off on bird tangent right now in my head so I’m going to have to reel it back in. The Phoebe song.
Eliza: That was another one of her songs called “Conservation”. That’s one that I really re-wrote with her because in 1970, just before she passed, she sent this poem to the entire family that was called ‘Ultimate Conservation” and it was a poem that talked about all these different cultures. That man had locked himself into a box or some kind of tomb or whatever to glorify himself. The whole point of the song was ‘just throw me in the ground and plant a tree over me and maybe someday a little bird will sit on the branches and sing my name.’ That was all she ever wanted from fame, was just that a bird might sing her name someday. It was so beautiful. I remember at the time, I was pretty young and the whole family was really floored by this thing. Then she died and they put this poem away. When I was making the record, I remember this “Ultimate Conservation” and two of my aunts, they’re still in their late 90s, and I emailed them (they do email) and said, ‘Do you remember this incredible poem that Phoebe wrote?” They both wrote back and said, “Honey, we don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t remember.” So, I kept after them. Please try. Look through your papers. I know it was there. We were all freaking out about it. I had to give up and I was so bummed. Then, about a month later, my oldest aunt Neal, 98 years old, I got this email, “I found it!” She had been looking for it through her papers and she found it and she sent it to me. It was very old fashioned. My grandmother’s poetry style was very old school, romantic kind of thing. Very formal, but there were lines in there that just blew my mind. So, I finagled and wrestled with it and then added this chorus to it. I probably put words in her mouth. I’m sure it did, because it really took it beyond God and more into an earth-based thing and put a chorus to it and then made it into a gospel tune, which was really fun. It’s sort of like an anti-gospel tune because I put it in the gospel format, but it’s all about that there’s no God. So, I thought that was a lovely irony. That’s “Conservation”. That’s the one that Shawn Colvin sings the duet with me on. It’s just beautiful.
Viv: The journey of musical friendships. You all sort of came up together around the same time. To have musical friendships where you can call on a Shawn Colvin to sing, for me that adds to history. It adds, the word that comes to me is purpose.
Eliza: Intention, maybe. It’s hard to say because with someone like Shawn, I asked her and immediately she was on board and she was over there and so into and so amazing. I don’t hardly ever see her. Maybe once every couple years. We’re all so busy. We’re not in touch all the time. So, for her to just drop everything and come over and do that, it really does say something. I’m not a high-profile artist. For her to do that shows a level of support for my music and just a decency that you have to appreciate because you know that everybody wants her to sing on their record. Everybody wants to get her ear. So, for her to do that is an extra measure of kindness and support. Mary Chapin Carpenter same kind of thing. She just goes out of her way to be so decent. They don’t have to, but they do. It does mean something, and it’s something that I want to do for others as well. When people do that for me, I want to do that for others. I can’t say that we all are like that. I think there is a kind of a sisterhood and certainly in Austin, my music female connections are amazing. We don’t see each other all the time, but when we do it’s so good. I have a lot of younger artist friends that are coming up that I really am trying to mentor and be as decent to them as others have been to me. I think, when you get older, you become less competitive and more wanting to pass on your information. You want to be more sharing and caring about this gift that we’ve been given.
Viv: When you talk about mentorship, how is it that people come to you? Do you find that people come to you looking for some kind of way to write a song or just access a song or how to navigate the business? What is it that you find?
Eliza: More than anything, it’s moral support, I think. I think it’s so hard. These young people coming up, they’re so much smarter and really more talented than I was. I had a lot of raw gifts, but these young women that I know, it’s so hard. Everybody is doing it. There are really no label deals anymore. You can’t build an artist anymore. They just have to go out there into and just try everything. There’s so many of them doing it. In my day, if you didn’t have a record deal, you didn’t have anything. So, if you got a record, you actually got on base. Nowadays, everybody’s got a record. It means nothing. So, it’s very hard for them to find agents. They’re just out there doing it themselves. It’s very disheartening. It’s hard to make a living. They have to have roommates or day jobs. In my day, we could get away without having a day jobs. But every girl I know who is coming up has a job, and that’s hard. You have to be able to give yourself over to it and if you’re just exhausted, it’s hard to just access the muse when you’re also using that other part of your brain a lot. I think, more than anything, what I want to be for them is moral support and, also, somebody who has done a lot of it and been through a lot of experiences. Had to deal with predatory behavior and trying to navigate all that. But these kids are much smarter than I was, I got to say. I was a babe in the woods.
John: We’re living in some pretty challenging times here in this country. I’m wondering how you use your music and your voice to make a difference.
Eliza: In various stages I have been more political and overtly critical of certain political characters, but lately I think I’m dealing with it more from systemic issues because, what is it that creates a Trump presidency? What kind of mindset? And what kind of systems that are in place now that make it so that it’s going to be really hard to go back. So, I’m looking at patriarchy. I’m looking at empire policies around the globe. I’m looking at capitalism. Systems that reward greed or dominant/subordinate relationships. How do you write that into music without sounding like preachy, message-oriented? I have to be really careful with that. I have to get in touch with what my feeling is about these things, not my theories about it. Because I have lots of theories. I have to get in touch with my grief, for instance. How does it feel knowing that we’re losing species or that our children’s futures are at stake? What does that make me feel like? Because when I start to feel something, then I can write about it and not preach about it. Or not be all message-y about it. I’m going to come from that place of feeling. That’s what I try to do and, I think, on this record in just wanting to come up with the spiritual perspective, how do I deal with my anger around how religion and spirituality have been co-opted by belief systems that I think are harmful? How do I write about those things and not get into message-ville? That’s been a challenge for me and I’m trying to just stay on the straight-and-narrow about how these things feel right now. What is a vehicle for grieving? What is the vehicle to give us a sense of communion? What is the vehicle that makes us feel something that, in music, makes it feel safe to go inside and feel something that we need to feel? Because, otherwise, we’re going to shut down. If we shut down, we are lost. If we lose touch with our humanity, become calloused, then we are lost. So, I think that’s one of the positive things that music can do. I don’t think music can save the world or any of that. It’s not that lofty to me. But if music can keep the heart open, then the heart will find a way. The heart is a good conscience. So, that’s a small little task that I set for myself and one that I think a musician can do.
Eliza: We need to have a conscience and, because of what’s going on in the world across the ocean, sometimes very directly related to US policies. In this record, I have written from different points of view, but there’s one song on there that had to do with the disconnect from us in our big island of USA and what’s going on in the rest of the world in terms of the huge migrations of vast populations escaping other governments. There was an incident that happened last November, it was 26 Nigerian girls. They were escaping Libya. A lot of them are using Libya as a means to get over to Spain. There’s also a slave trade going on. Some of them are stuck in camps. Story of these girls is that no one has figured out actually why all of them were in this boat, this little rubber boat. Apparently, a lot of the people that are escaping these camps and also being sold into slave trade are sold these rubber dinghies that are actually compromised. They’re so cheap. They’re getting them from whatever countries they’re getting them cheap from. A lot of them are going down. A lot of them are springing leaks. That’s one of the reasons we hear so many stories of the boats capsizing or drowning. So, these 26 girls, every one of them died. They sank. None of them knew how to sleep. They were all 14-18. I had this feeling of ‘these are my granddaughters’ age’ and I had this vision of my granddaughter, who is 16, I had an image of her lying in a boat out in the Mediterranean going down. It just made me so sick to think of this beautiful child that I love so much and that all these kids they are granddaughters, and somebody loved them somewhere.
Eliza: Jimmy and I have been talking about doing a duet for years and I’ve had this song in mind for the record, it was ‘Down by the Riverside’ and I wanted to do it how Jimmy would take a song and just make it his. So, I thought, I’m just going to do this song really different. I’m just going to play around with it. Play around with it. It ended up turning into this really sweet folk ballad. I cut it and I was thinking I was going to have several other singers come on there and each take a verse. It was just at the time that Jimmy, we all knew he had been diagnosed a year before with this very hard to beat cancer, and I knew time was going to be of the essence. I didn’t realize he was only going to have a few more months to live, but when he came in to record his verse, at that point I realized I didn’t want anybody else on this. I don’t want to bring in a third voice, except for my son, Cisco, for harmony. For the duet, I just wanted it to be Jimmy. He came in, and I played him this song and he just loved it. He said, “You cut that song? That was one I forgot!” He was like, “You got it?” Because he liked to be the one who remembered the old songs and he gave me just a little trouble about it because I had beat him finally to the punch on an old song that I got to interpret. His approach on it was so gentle. Jimmy can holler and he could have done this many different ways, but he pulled in. There was such a tenderness in his voice. I had re-written the verses. I re-wrote them to be a little more political and also a little less religious, more of a sense of I-don’t-know, mystery. I gave him a choice of which verses he wanted to do. He wanted to do the one about the end of life. I asked him, “You can re-write it if you want. Just say what you want to say.” He said, “This works for me. This works.” We did about three run-throughs on it and it was like we didn’t have to do anything to it. It’s so perfect. It made the song. It really did.
John: Eliza Gilkyson, thank you so much for talking with us today on Art of the Song.
Eliza: It’s so fun for me. I hope I don’t cry every time. (Laughs) But thank you so much.