Eliza Gilkyson is an example of when one loves to do what one has chosen to do. Indeed, the intimate folk artist says that the yearning to write, compose, and perform is as an endearing virtue as ever. “When I play, it still feels like I’m flying,” says Gilkyson, a blue sky in the background at her home in Taos, New Mexico. “I’m completely satisfied. You’ll give up every drug if you could keep that feeling. Singing, performing, I’ll make lots of sacrifices so that I could still have this.”
Born in California, music has always been native to Eliza’s place in the world. Her father, Terry Gilkyson (1916-1999), served as “the center point of all my fundamental love of music,” she says, attributing her “musical ear and style” directly to her father. Terry was known for his harmony-driven folk music, nature-adoring, and Western-doting ballads that formed Eliza’s creative existence. So, too, did Terry’s musical kinships: composer and producer Van Dyke Parks and his older brother C. Carson were her early guitar instructors. Music was an institution, and Terry never seemed too tired to play it or Eliza too tired to hear it.
“There is a photo of my dad and his band rehearsing in Encino; my brother was a baby and I must have been four,” says Gilkyson. “I’m sitting at his feet while he was rehearsing. I didn’t study him as much as I absorbed him.”
If there is another thing that Eliza learned from her father, it’s that music is a conduit of intimate energy. Within her decades-spanning career, a vast reserve of brilliant recordings, and two Grammy nominations, Eliza’s intimacy has always felt richly different to listeners; it’s never speculative, self-admiring, or uneasy – just someone who speaks as a person who treasures what she knows.
“Intimacy to me is finding the imagery, the phrasing, and finding the words that give people just enough information to log on to their imaginations,” says Gilkyson. “It’s archetypal or universal enough that someone can relate to it in their own lives. I don’t want private intimacy that isn’t relatable. Writing something intimate and universal that helps me tap into how I feel is quite cathartic. The art of it is to make that universal and not just exclusive of my experience.”
Marked by a number of detours and roundabouts, Gilkyson’s path to finding a spiritual home in Taos is a microcosm of her development as an artist. She was introduced to New Mexico after several of her aunts began to arrive there from California in the 1950s, and one of them opened a music store. As a child, she was transfixed by Santa Fe’ haunting economy, its infinite colorful clay roads, and the magical, otherworldly lore of the artisan marketplaces on the streets.
She was only two years old the first summer she visited, and by the time she was about 17, her dad had moved to Santa Fe. Before long, she lived in an old wooden boxcar in Lamy and leaped into the music scene. At first, she played under her nickname, “Lisa”, bringing original music to a wide collection of places, like Old Martina’s Hall, in Taos, the Mine Shaft Tavern, in Madrid, and La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe. At one point, she led an eight-piece country group, the Turquoise Trail Band, performing a large repertoire of heartbreak, two-step songs. She moved constantly. In hindsight, she says, all of the coming and going seems like a haze or indistinct fog, bouncing and shuttling between New Mexico, Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles, California.
Austin provided Eliza with a direct lane to the rest of the world. But by the early ’80s, the songwriting niche there that she had been nurturing was losing steam, so she relocated to Los Angeles, where she felt out of her element in the euphoria of the punk rock movement. So it was back to New Mexico, then to Texas again, and then somewhere else.
Music came with its desire but also with its grief. She had two kids to support, and there were times, while living in Austin, when she was so insolvent that she couldn’t afford a full tank of gas, and the utility company turned off the heat for non-payment. In response, she took a job answering phones from late at night to early in the morning. Success, she would learn, would be more the product of perseverance, a willingness to stumble and stand up again and again.
“Every time that I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t figure out what else more to do,” says Gilkyson, “something would come along that would keep me going. I broke down many times and had to re-invent and re-commit myself. Deciding to quit is part of the process of staying in the game. My goal was never to be famous. My goal was always to be creative.”
At 50, Eliza, committed to driving all of her energy into one channel, chose the life of full, extensive touring, buying a well-worn Chevy van and hitting the blacktop and asphalt with her son and another musician, sleeping roadside along the way, or, if the budget allowed, staying in thrifty motels. “It was so atrocious to start at age 50 touring and taking my fifty bucks or maybe one hundred and just doing it,” says Gilkyson, “There was no safety net. But I would have had a hard time rationalizing it if I never tried. I said to myself, ‘if you don’t do it now when you hit 70, you will have a lot of regrets.’”
Also, around this time, Eliza started to contemplate the prospect of a body of work, creating an anthology of material, collected words lined end to end, distinct timepieces that would in the future reveal the passage and progression of an artist, as well an account of a life. Longing and whimsy, innocence and experience, irreverence and wit, as well as a penchant for the purely heartfelt, have coexisted in Gilkyson’s work from the start.
“In the material, you see this evolution of a person coming to know herself,” says Gilkyson, “the angst of young love, the disillusionment of it, someone finding herself, and then not being so self-absorbed, then opening her eyes to what’s going on in the world, becoming political, and then getting older and starting to reflect and look back.”
William Blake once wrote, “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” Without a doubt, Eliza ascended high and rocketed with her wings. These days she speaks of music with a much more deferential tone of voice than she did before, all while facing the subtle and oftentimes not-so-subtle biases and limitations that arise for a female recording artist of her vintage.
“I’ve decided that I’m going to be out there and grow old in front of people,” says Gilkyson. “There are built-in cultural things about older women that are hard to get past. Tor the first three minutes, the audience will have to deal in their mind with those constructs about age and then get past it, and age isn’t going to matter. My song doesn’t land or isn’t blessed until you hear it.”
At this stage, Eliza has no trouble communicating what music means to her or what she means to music. For starters, she no longer has to compromise, pointing to the new release of Home, a ten-song, folk-rich contribution of implicit, insightful joy, hope, sensitivity, and precision, as evidence. Indeed, Home illustrates the gratitude of a musician who has known both prosperity and calamity, who has been graced with craft and crafted with grace.
“Mortality does figure into how I feel about each record,” she says. “What do I want to express at this point in my life? I’m expressing a meaningful and reflective love, the depth of a healthy relationship, and the surge of attraction, appreciation, and joy of having a life partner [in author Robert Jensen, whom she married in 2015].” Indeed, her contentedness is guided by her love of precious things, her wish to be at home, and her desire to be open and vulnerable with her listeners.
“There is a surrender that comes with aging that is okay,” said Gilkyson. “I have no angst about making music anymore. I’ve done my best. I have the feeling that I wanted to have 20 years ago. Anything else from here on is a bonus.”