Thursday, June 2, 2011

Grammy nominated folk musician Eliza Gilkyson bringing her new songs to Chicago Orchestra Hall this month


Grammy-nominated folk musician Eliza Gilkyson feels a responsibility to address social ills in her music.

The Austin, Texas-based musician will perform with another outspoken musician, Arlo Guthrie, when she performs June 11 at Chicago Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, as part of the United Sounds of America music series.

The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are available at

Gilkyson,, is on tour supporting her latest album, "Roses at the End of Time," released in May on Red House Records.

She comes from a rich musical family. Her father, songwriter Terry Gilkyson, was nominated for an Academy Award for the song "The Bare Necessities" from the 1967 movie "The Jungle Book," and her brother, guitarist Tony Gilkyson, was a member of the bands Lone Justice and X.

I had the chance to talk to her about her new album and her influences.

Q - You will perform with Arlo Guthrie in Chicago. Do you consider him an influence?

I think we are too much in the same age group. I've been around as long as he has, only I've been sort of under the radar.

I think we've been on a very similar path, but he's always in the limelight. I'm probably more influenced by some of the earlier folkies, influenced by the same people he was influenced by.

Q - How about his dad, Woody Guthrie. Would you say he is an influence?

Probably more his dad. I came out of the '50s and '60s folk singer scene.

Q - Who do you admire on the current folk scene?

In terms of young people, I really like Josh Ritter. I think he's writing really good songs, and I think of him as the new sound of folk music in a way.

I love this band The Low Anthem. I just did a show on the Mountain Stage with them, and I was so impressed with the kind of music they are writing and performing.

And in my age group, I still think Bruce Cockburn writes the best socio-political music. I still think he's probably my favorite.

Q - Of course, both Arlo and his dad sang a lot about social issues, and so do you. Do you think it's a responsibility for musicians to tackle social issues?

That's a good question. There's a lot riding on that question. What is our responsibility?

I think there is a tradition in folk music to write socio-political music. I really like that the genre is supportive and has a long, well-respected history of making commentary.

However, I don't think it is everybody's calling, and I think it would be a shame to feel like you have to write a certain way. I think it is more important as artists to really pay attention to the muses that are driving you. There are different muses for different folk.

For me, I was always interested in the human condition, and how that played out in the world. It's very natural for me. It feels right. But when I hear other people trying to make "message music," it sounds really forced.

It is just better to be the artist that you are.

Q - You covered the song "Jokerman" for Red House Record's album " A Nod to Bob 2," which was recently released in celebration of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday. Did you get to choose that song or was it given to you?

No, I had actually already recorded that song for Red House Records. I love Dylan, and I think I am influenced by early Dylan in a lot of ways.

He made great political commentary. He came up out of folk music. I loved his phrasing, and I loved his ability to really make songs meaningful.And yet he was not stuck in that genre, either.

"Jokerman" just seemed to me like a real statement on the foolishness of man. It's sort of a tragic comedy of what it means to be human. That is an angle that is meaningful to me as well.

Q - Your new album was released on May 3. What did you want to do with this album specifically?

On my previous album, "Beautiful World," I really took on the big power systems, the patriarchy, and the environmental and economic collapse.

I addressed all of those in what I felt were pretty lyrical and poetic songs. On this record, I really personalized how people are affected by those systems. I just made the stories more personal.

That has more of an emotional component for me, and more storytelling possibilities. I don't know if I did that consciously, but when I look back at that now, that's what happened.

Q - It seems that you've tried to blend both personal experiences and your views of your world on each of your albums.

That is true. I think when you make it personal, it becomes more relatable to people. And that's just the kind of songwriter I am.

I am one of those people who draws very much from their own experiences to write the songs.

Q - What kind of influence would you say your dad had on your music? I know that you were on demos and soundtracks for your dad.

I was. I had a big voice pretty early on, so I did his demos for him.

He would write a song and go into the studio. In order to present it to other artists, he would need someone to sing them. By the time I was 13, I was doing demos for him.

That was a great learning experience for me. I got very comfortable in the studio at a pretty early age. 

His music was folky and melodic, and very, very heartfelt. He was a terrific storyteller, and a very good song craftsman.

He was just a huge influence on me and an amazing person, and I really miss him dearly. I really wish I could share my music with him now.

Q - What do you think he would think of your music?

I think he would be proud of me. I really do. I think he would be proud that I am making my own way.

For him, it was an innocent time. He just went out to Hollywood, and there was only one street where people were doing business. 

It was like a three block radius, and he just went down there and set up a desk and started writing songs. He had a guy pitch them, and his songs got recorded.

I think the music business is so daunting now. I think he would be proud of me that I've been able to survive it.

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