By Richard Skanse
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
“Oh Eliza, you try so hard …”
That’s Eliza Gilkyson, singing to herself in a song she named after herself (“Eliza Jane”) on her new album, The Nocturne Diaries. Far from being a self-congratulatory pat on the back, though, it’s an exasperated admonishment. Her note to self in a nutshell: Lighten up, lady.
“Oh Eliza, you try so hard,
you don’t see nothing
Blue horizon and you’re
Lift your eyes and you
just might find
You see something good, Eliza …”
“I had to somewhere just laugh at myself that this is what I do in my writing,” says Gilkyson, nodding and laughing again when reminded of a comment she posted on her website a couple of years back, about her tendency to “keep writing songs about my dread of the future, illuminated by the beauty of each moment.” “I’m just torn between these two forces. That’s what I write about, and I don’t seem to be able to edit that desire or that propensity, so I’ve just kind of surrendered to it. But it is almost comical because they are so diametrically opposed.”
It’s a tug-of-war that the Los Angeles-reared, Austin-based singer-songwriter has been waging for well over 40 years. At times that dread, hammered by frustration into righteous fury, has resulted in songs as razor-sharp and poison-tongued as 2005’s “Man of God,” her searing assault on then-president George W. Bush and his “corporate cronies and the chiefs of staff, bowing to the image of the golden calf.”
More often than not, though, beauty has the edge, and not just because of the way that Gilkyson’s gilded, smoky alto catches every glimmering ray of light from her unfailingly gorgeous melodies. It’s her stubborn refusal to abandon all hope without a fight — or, as she put it so well in “Emerald Street,” the opening salvo from her 2008 album Beautiful World: “Hard times comin’, I ain’t jokin’/Just tryin’ to keep my heart wide open.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m an optimist, but I wouldn’t say pessimist, either,” she muses, as though weighing the two on a balance scale. “I think I’m joyful. I think I’m a realist. And I’m a survivor type; I like to look into the future and project scenarios based on the information at hand, because I want to survive and I want my kids to survive. I want humanity to survive — although there are times I think it would be best if it were eliminated!”
Such deep thoughts can make for restless nights, which of course is how The Nocturne Diaries earned its name. Every one of her 10 new songs on the album (not counting the two covers) was written in the wee, small hours — or at the very latest, just shy of the crack of dawn. “It used to be that I didn’t write as much during the night, but I do more now because like most people my age, we don’t sleep through the night anymore,” says Gilkyson, 64. “So that’s part of it: Are you going to lie there and stew, or are you going to get up and do something?”
Despite its restless origins and at times arduous gestation (Gilkyson says she and her son, co-producer and drummer Cisco Rhyder, missed three deadlines and the album’s original target release date back in 2013 before walking away from it and returning with clearer focus last fall), The Nocturne Diaries is as deeply satisfying and transcendent as any record she’s ever made — including such high-water marks as her 2000 masterpiece Hard Times in Babylon and 2005’s exquisite Paradise Hotel. And although it’s duly haunted by lots of the deep, troubling fears that go bump in the night (and rattle on all through the daylight hours, too), once again it’s the “beauty of the moment” that pervades overall. She opens the album with “Midnight Oil,” which rings out like a stubborn survivalist’s prayer of hope: “Save your sorrow for another morn/Though your heart lies on the ground/Come tomorrow maybe a new word’s born/When we ride the old one down.”
A strong recurring theme is the reassuring comfort — and sanctuary — of loved ones, as best exemplified by “Touchstone,” largely inspired by her husband, activist and University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen.
“That was the first song I wrote for the album, and I think in a way that sort of set the tone,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and just started to worry about everything, but then I felt Robert next to me and I just thought, ‘You are my touchstone.’ I think I even said it out loud, because it really does ground me so much to have his love in my life. And then I thought, ‘My touchstone! My touchstone!’ And I just got up and went downstairs and wrote it very quickly, just bam, like that. And at a certain point halfway through the song I thought of a friend of mine who had terminal cancer, and I thought about her mother, too, who’s also a friend. And I realized, ‘My god, I’m her, too — I’m writing about her daughter, how she feels about her daughter.’ It was that line, ‘When this sad day comes upon us when one must go and the other stays behind.’ So there were all these things running through it, and in a way, that’s probably the heart of the record.”
“Touchstone” isn’t the first song of Gilkyson’s that her partner’s inspired, but it may well be the most tender and vulnerable. After all, it’s Jensen that Gilkyson credits (probably as much as George W.) for the politicized charge of many of her songs from the last decade. “We met at a rally, and I heard him speak and was so impressed. It was like the light switch went on — I was ready to hear a lot of the things that he was talking about,” she says, then adds with a laugh, “He radicalized me.”
Gilkyson proudly let her radical flag fly on her Grammy-nominated 2004 album Land of Milk and Honey and the following year’s Paradise Hotel, but prior to that she by and large looked inward rather than outward for subject matter. Even though she was always a hippie activist at heart (especially during the ’70s, most of which she spent in New Mexico), for years she eschewed politics in her music much the way her father, folk singer and songwriter Terry Gilkyson of the Easy Riders and “Bare Necessities” fame, did during the ’50s.
“I’d love to claim that I was a Woody Guthrie fan from day one, but I wasn’t,” admits Gilkyson, now a card-carrying member of the Woody appreciation society and a regular participant at Jimmy LaFave’s “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway” Guthrie tribute shows. “But I always really loved my dad’s music — I really stand on my dad’s shoulders, and he was a folk guy who was not political. But he was emotional, and he could tap into really deep feelings, and he was a beautiful melody maker.” All of those qualities were certainly passed down from father to daughter, and are as apparent in her own songs as they are in The Nocturne Diaries’ cover of Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders’ “Fast Freight.”
“That was a last-minute add, but I thought it fit with the night theme,” she says, reciting the opening lyric, “I listen for the whistle and I lay awake and wait/Wish the railroad didn’t run so near …” “I just loved the idea of getting outside of my nighttime thing and kind of getting into somebody else’s head.” (The album’s one other cover is “Where No Monument Stands,” a powerfully moving tribute to the “the field where the battle did not happen” that Gilkyson borrowed from friend John Gorka, who set the William Stafford poem of the same name to music.)
“Where No Monument Stands” doesn’t really “fit with the night theme,” as it were, but its poignant anti-war message will hit the spot for fans who’ve come to expect such things on her albums. Which is not to say that all of Gilkyson’s originals on The Nocturne Diaries are love songs and lullabies. Rest assured that Eliza Jane still has dread for the future aplenty; her concerns this time around are just more societal and environmental than political in nature. “The Ark” uses the Biblical story of Noah and the flood as a sly metaphor for more contemporary climate concerns. “I sort of got on this kick of wondering how crazy Noah and his family must have seemed,” she explains, “[and about how] people right now who are calling out ‘climate change’ are made to feel marginalized, too.” In the haunting “Not My Home,” she confronts the horror of sexual abuse hiding in plain sight, maybe in that house right down the street from you. “Why don’t they notice something’s wrong?” she asks in the voice of the victim, cowered and unheard but determined to break free. “This house is not my home/Someday I’ll walk out my front door/I won’t come back here anymore/I’ll live the life that’s meant for me.”
“I wanted to write her a way out,” says Gilkyson. “She’s going to walk out of there someday, and she knows that about herself.”
Alas, there’s no such hopeful ending waiting for the narrator of “An American Boy” — only a tragic fate as just another statistic in a seemingly never-ending epidemic of school shootings. That it’s the catchiest song on the record other than the playful “Eliza Jane” only enhances its bone-chilling message, postulating that the problem goes beyond the debate over gun control. “They messed my mind with every kind of med,” she sings, “Now voices whisper in my head/Telling me softly I’ll be better off dead/But I’m not going alone.”
“It’s amazing how the pharmaceutical companies have kept this out of the public eye, but so many of these kids are on meds and they all have a different metabolic reaction to them, and many of them become suicidal and make decisions like this. And that alone is horribly disturbing to me,” Gilkyson explains. “So I really wanted to create empathy for the boy, in a way, because you know, it’s so awful what they’ve done in those situations, but at the same time they, too, are victims. I wanted to create an empathetic situation where it was not so much a forgivable act as it was understandable …”
Light-hearted, “lighten up” self analysis aside, Eliza really does “try so hard” to do what she does, to confront the truths and feelings not always easy to face, but needed to be seen and needed to be felt. She really is her father’s daughter, and every bit as much of a radical in the way she taps into those emotional veins as she’s ever been when singing against the masters of war.
“Robert’s job is to just get all up in your face with a very progressive point of view, and looking back to when we first met, you can see how the songs were a little bit more ‘up in it,’ too” she says. “But there was a point where I had to realize, ‘I’m not Robert Jensen, and I don’t think that does me any favors to be that as a musician.’ What I want to do is get myself in touch with the feelings of empathy, the things that make me inspired to do something about it and to feel what’s going on out there, how people are born into situations that are so much worse than mine. I want to write about those things without being a preacher or a messenger — I just want to be somebody who invokes compassion and care. And that doesn’t come by being all up in somebody’s face. It’s a much more subtler thing, and music has the power to do that. So I have had to go back and find that person and bring her along.”