Eliza Gilkyson photo by Robert Jensen
Eliza Gilkyson on Connection, Love, and Finding Home
Eliza Gilkyson recently released her album Home, following 2022’s Songs from the River Wind, which was a love letter to the Old West, and the album 2022, which was political and anthemic. As the simplicity of the title might suggest, the album Home reaches for the heart through establishing the things that make us feel grounded in life. That can be a nostalgic journey, but it’s also a restless search for, and triumphant discovery of, personal truths for Gilkyson.
Having relocated to the home of her youth, New Mexico, in recent years, Gilkyson found that the beauty of nature and the idea of this return continued to impact her and played a part in looking for a home for several older songs that had never found their place. As often happens, these songs were just waiting for their proper context in this celebratory album. I spoke with Eliza Gilkyson about the nature of the connection between songwriters and their audiences, what it means to feel more at “home” with oneself, and discoveries about love and appreciating fellow human beings.
Americana Highways: I understand that Home in many ways reflects a certain time in your life, with relocating back to New Mexico, but I was also intrigued to see that a few of these songs were older, and yet fit so well with the theme.
Eliza Gilkyson: There were some songs in there where the seed was planted but they didn’t grow into anything until now. That was fun to go back and find places for some of these songs that hadn’t really fit anywhere. Yes, there is a coming home aspect to all of this, though, and that has to do with the pandemic, it has to do with my health, and the fact that we moved back to the place that I love.
That magic “coming back” was something that I was celebrating on my last record as well. I was coming back to a place where at one time in my life, my whole life was ahead of me. There’s a joy in just being out in nature every day and coming back to that has been so satisfying for me. It brings my past into the present. It’s made me feel more complete, I think. If I’m going to be grounded somewhere, because of my health, I’d like to be in a place that’s utterly beautiful.
AH: I think at different points in our life, we can have different ways of experiencing places. Only in exactly the right mindset can I connect with a place in the biggest way. Some people found that during the pandemic that they connected differently with their own surroundings.
EG: That’s so true. When I was in New Mexico in my younger years, I couldn’t wait to get out into the world. [Laughs] I couldn’t wait to have a life out there. Now I want to get back to that same little portion of earth. I always loved being here, but it seemed very disconnected from the rest of the world. Coming back here was part of a kind of surrender. I was asking myself, “How much more do I want to go out into the world and chase this dream of some kind of massive success?” I didn’t want to do that anymore. I just wanted to do what I feel like when it comes to music. I don’t want to target sales or gigs. I just want to put out the music. That may be because of where I am in my life and at my age.
AH: I’ve certainly heard that from people at various ages and stages of life depending on their experiences in the world. I think for a lot of artists, there’s the sense of turning the tide around, and going back to the sources of life in yourself. Rather than needing that from the outside world.
EG: That is exactly right. I can’t sustain myself, I can’t sustain who I am, without the joy of being grounded a bit more. That’s a huge shift for me. I think it’s also a shift that we’re all feeling. The pandemic was probably the fire that lit this change. Everyone went home and said, “Home is good!” The world was weird out there and a bit dangerous. It’s somewhere you had to put on your armor, do what you needed to do, and then get home.
AH: There are definitely still elements of that out there. There’s been a lot of economic struggle. It’s a long road. So looking after yourself and needing your own space is still totally relevant.
EG: I see that, too. I know lots of young people who are road-dogging it, and that’s partly because the Americana fanbase are just such great people. When you do the shows in the room with these people are just magic. The few shows I’ve done make me feel like my work is still out there, the communion that happens at a show. I really love that.
It’s still there and more needed than ever, so I don’t want to pull up the drawbridge. I hope and expect that my health will get better and allow for it. However, I do have friends who have really modified how they travel now. They’ve bought really comfortable touring vans and stay in their vans, or do shows in a park. It’s very interesting. There are alternative ways of doing things to still make that connection out in the world. I actually plan on doing more livestreams again, too, now that I have a new record out. I’ve set up a space in my studio.
AH: You’re making me think of your song “Sparrow” on the album because it’s about this whole idea of connection and community. That’s an older song but it does still really feel like the culmination of a lot life experience and thought.
EG: It is. It’s about gratitude. What’s interesting is that I wrote it long ago but never felt like the time was right for it. I wondered if it was too “nice” and therefore not cool. [Laughs] Now it feels so right to me to be just that corny. I’m so grateful to the people who listen to my songs. I don’t want to write in a vacuum. That was never my goal. I want to communicate. I want to let people know that I care. I want people to know that I hear them and see them and I want to know that they hear me and see me. It’s a real relationship that we have with fans that’s precious.
They are as precious to us as we are to them. That’s the truth. That was why I asked Mary Chapin to sing it with me because no one knows better than she does, and no one demonstrates better than she does, their gratitude. She is extremely gracious and she gives, gives, gives, but she also loves receiving. I knew that if there was anything of mine that she wanted to sing on, it would be that song. When I got the track back, I said to my producer, and I told her, too, that she’s like a Cadillac with luxury seating. [Laughs] You can slip into that voice.
AH: That song is very uplifting in terms of the sound as well as the message. The vocals there are a bit part of that.
EG: Stripping it down to piano, guitar, and bass was part of that. The pianist is from here in Taos and it’s quite lyrical, quite lovely.
AH: Given that “Sparrow” had an earlier life, had you ever played it out?
EG: I never played it out. The only time I have was at my songwriter workshop. I had one last weekend, and I tend to ask them, “Why do we do this? Why do we write songs? Where do they come from and where do they go?” After we’ve had a group discussion in my class about the relationship between the singer and the audience, I play that song, because it kind of nails it. But that’s the only time I’ve ever used that song over the years. But I can’t wait to play it live!
AH: How did you record these songs, separately or together?
EG: Don Richmond and I tend to work together in this way: I go up to his studio in Alamosa, and I lay down the guitar tracks first. I’ve been more into doing that lately since I want to keep the songs really stripped down. That’s just where I’m at right now. We make sure the guitar and vocals sound so good that we could release them that way. Then we just add one or two elements. That’s how we’ve been doing it. I think that song is a great example that this is working for us.
AH: Another song that really struck me emotionally was “True North” and I’m sure that it’s supposed to do that.
EG: One would hope!
AH: It’s a very sweet song, but I think it’s actually quite sophisticated, when I listen to it carefully. There’s a lot in there.
EG: That’s true. That’s one of the things I like to do, is write levels of meaning into my songs. If you listen back to it, you might find different images later. I’ve always been into hiding levels in my songs. Definitely, with that one, that is true. Because get that reflection of ourselves from someone else, but we also really need to anchor that in ourselves. For that song, we don’t know what the thing is that centers you, outside of yourself. It could be your love for your dog! But that center, that fulcrum, is really inside, and you take that with you wherever you go. And that’s something that’s hard-earned and hard-won.
AH: I love how clearly you have stated that. There’s nothing wrong with simple, classic love songs, but the majority of them are about how someone is the other person’s everything. There’s no real work involved there.
EG: Right, you’re rescued, and they save you, and then you’re almost not really a full person after that. Honestly, I don’t know if you can truly love or be loved if you haven’t been alone long enough to anchor in yourself. Looking at my first two marriages and other unsuccessful relationships, I realized that it wasn’t really until I had spent years by myself that I could feel good. I think I wasn’t until my 50s until I started writing about anchoring into myself, so it was a hard-won excursion. When I write love songs, now, it’s definitely coming from a different place.
AH: That’s so important for people to think about, because as they experience different types of relationships, they may not have a frame of reference for themselves. But through writing a song like this, you encourage people to think about this issue.
EG: It’s so true! That’s exactly right. And you won’t have a frame of reference if you’re always ricocheting off someone else.
AH: I think it’s significant that you talk about both angles to relationships in the same song here. You talk about the centering aspects that another person can bring, but you also talk about the grounding needs of the individual. Putting them together is a wonderful thing.
EG: When I wrote it, that’s probably exactly how I was thinking about it.
AH: A really different love song on the album is “Witness” and it’s sonically very different, too. But it’s not at all thin by comparison to “True North,” it’s just exuberant in a different way.
EG: Yes, and I also think there’s a recognition of the gift that being a witness and witnessing is. I almost think if there was an intentional purpose for humans, it would be to witness the beauty of this magnificent world. That would be our purpose, to witness the miracle of it, and to even witness the sadness and the grief of it. To be with another person, and witness them, and see the myriad facets of their being, and to have someone do that with you, without judgement, that would be a pretty great reason to love.
AH: People talk about wanting to be “seen” and there’s some humor to that, but there’s also a lot of seriousness to that phrase in the zeitgeist right now.
EG: That’s exactly right. It’s about being acknowledged. I also really like the word “witness” for this because it suggests observation without interference.
Thanks so much for chatting with us, Eliza Gilkyson! Discover more news about Eliza Gilkyson — tour dates and more – here: https://elizagilkyson.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Music Reviews: A Charles Mingus Box, plus Eliza Gilkyson, Tracy Nelson, Asha Wells, and a Tribute to Badfinger’s Pete Ham