This Side of Paradise
Eliza Gilkyson finally finds her direction
By Bruce Robinson
Singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson released two quite different CDs in 2005. Paradise Hotel continued her recent skein of folk/rootsy collections, building on the acclaim of its predecessor, the Grammy-nominated Land of Milk and Honey (both on Red House). Concurrently, she assembled the self-released RetroSpecto, a sampler of her songs scattered over the past 35 years, and sold primarily at her own live shows. But it was the newfound confidence on display in the most recent discs that led Gilkyson--who appears at a Studio E house concert on Jan. 26--to revisit the past.
The turning point, she says, came after her 2002 Lost and Found album. "That sort of landed on the other side of some great crossing for me," she confides by telephone from her Austin, Texas, home. "Milk and Honey was the foray out into a new way of approaching music and my life and everything. And I think Paradise is the natural evolution from that."
But before that came a whole history her more recent admirers knew nothing about. "I wanted people to see that there has been this sort of quest for me, musically, to find a sound and find a voice, that I just didn't come out of nowhere," she explains earnestly. "When you listen to the retrospective, you can see how all over the map I was. I was questing for some kind of path, and I kissed a lot of frogs."
Amphibian Exhibit A would be Gilkyson's collaborations with New Age harpist Andreas Vollenweider, even though the resulting 1986 album, Pilgrims, represented her first touch of commercial success. "That whole New Age thing was kind of embarrassing to me," she says now. "The problem was that I first came on the scene when I was in that phase and a lot of people thought that's all I had to offer, so they kind of wrote me off. It's nice that people have given me another chance to show what I'm more about."
There was never any doubt that Gilkyson would follow a musical path. Her father, Terry, was a successful songwriter ("Green Fields," Belafonte's "Marianne" and even "Bare Necessities" from Disney's Jungle Book), and her brother Tony made his mark as the guitarist in the seminal L.A. punk band X. "I never was predisposed to do anything other than make music," she admits happily.
But the future appears no more linear than her past. "I'm just trying to figure out which way the wind's blowing right now," Gilkyson sighs. "I'm trying to see what direction we're going to go in politically and what sort of decisions people are going to make now that will affect the future. It may be that right now is a time to count the blessings and notice and mark what is of value, and that may be in the small things, in daily life. That may be what I do on this next record. I'm not sure yet."
Both Milk and Honey and Paradise Hotel featured some potent, overly political songs ("Hiway 9," "Man of God") that are sharply critical of the Bush administration, along with others ("Tender Mercies," "Ballad of Yvonne Johnson") that wield even greater power in their portraits of downtrodden women in very different circumstances. But Gilkyson says that turn toward topicality wasn't a deliberate decision.
"The current political situation in our country--it's not something you can live in without getting involved, at least for me," she explains. "It doesn't feel like a good time to be passive."
Predictably, fan reaction has been mixed. "I'd say I get about 90 percent support and some hate mail, she reports. "Some 'wish you'd leave politics out of the music and'"--she affects a mock drawl-- "'just go back to just singin' your pretty lil' head off.' But mostly it's supportive."
Even so, Gilkyson's disinclined to go much further in that direction. "I feel I've made the statement I want to make," she says thoughtfully. "I don't really like doing message music, and I think right now, people really need to be comforted."
Eliza Gilkyson appears at a Studio E house concert on Thursday, Jan. 26, in Sebastopol. 7:30pm. $22. Tickets, maps and directions available at the Last Record Store, 1899 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, or call 707.542.7143.
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