Eliza Gilkyson Sings It Like It Is

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Singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson’s Beautiful World is one of the best folk albums of 2008, with lyrics that tackle tough social and political issues set amid crisp acoustic music that makes these themes easy, even enjoyable, to swallow. Gilkyson has clearly mastered the delicate art of the topical folk song, avoiding the cringe factor that plagues so many well-intentioned but ham-handed protest singers. Her dusky voice and lilting melodies are alluring enough on their own; her knack for insightful analysis just adds another layer of meaning to her multifaceted music.

Beautiful World‘s lyrics carry warnings about the wages of excess (“The Party’s Over”), an impending “Great Correction,” and the human carnage of Web porn (“Dream Lover”). But the album also has an old-timey ode to a spring-fed swimming hole (“Wildewood Spring”) and offers plenty of handholds for optimists clinging to the cliff of doom, especially on the two closing songs, “Beautiful World” and “Unsustainable.” I recently spoke with Gilkyson by phone from her home in Austin, Texas, about community, collapse, and the still-coming great correction.

Beautiful World came out in the spring. You must be quite proud of yourself for having predicted the economic crisis and the downfall of the Bush regime with “The Party’s Over” and “Great Correction.”

(laughs) “Yes, well, I had read The Collapse, you know, and I think I felt that we were treading on thin ice for a long time. At first, when the record came out and the collapse, the correction, hadn’t occurred, I was thinking, God, everybody’s working so hard for Obama right now that the timing isn’t right on this because everyone’s all excited and everything, and I’m writing a record about a collapse. (laughs) But it turned out that the timing was right.”

What did you have in mind when you wrote “The Party’s Over”? Did it start out as a political song, or a personal song, or something in between?

“I did not mean to write it about the Bush regime, by any means. I was writing it about First World consumers. That’s really what I was targeting in this recording. It wasn’t red state, blue state in my mind. It was First World nations being the major consumers of energy and raw materials–and that it’s unsustainable and we’ve come to the end.”

“The Great Correction” is about a sea change for the better. Is Barack Obama the Great Correction?

“Not in my mind. That’s a blip on the screen. I actually really like Barack, and I’m hopeful that he will at least be honest in his accounting of what he’s doing. But I still see the Democrats and Republicans as being part of an unsustainable system. I think capitalism, the way it is now, is unsustainable, so I don’t see Barack Obama coming up with–he’s going to come up with compromises that I don’t think we can afford, so I still think we’re going to have to see a greater correction than the one we’re seeing.”

I understand that your inspiration for the album Beautiful World sprang in part from a monthly community forum called Last Sunday that you and author Robert Jensen hosted in Austin. Can you tell me what these forums were about and how they led to the album?

“Yes, we had decided that we wanted to address issues that were important to us–everything from immigration, racism, gender issues, economics–but we really wanted to put it over the overarching feeling that things were coming to a huge change. That either we get off fossil fuel now and have a collapse, or we prolong it longer and have another kind of, probably an even more intense, collapse.

“So we thought, let’s get the community together. Let’s see if this is attractive to the community. Let’s see if what I consider to be the progressive community, can we all get together in a room and have meaningful conversations around these issues? We brought in speakers, and we brought in a very left-leaning Presbyterian minister who I think is just brilliant, Rev. Jim Rigby. He’s really thinking cutting-edge thoughts along the lines of spirituality and religion and the real teachings of Christ, in a way. He’s a very far left thinker, and not a particularly religious person.

“The first ones we had were really successful, and then what we found was that we had every manner of left-thinking group or person on board, and each person had an individual agenda, and everybody thought, ‘This is what we need to focus on.’ There was never any consensus about where we are in history, about what needs to be done, who we turn to, how to organize. It was actually a great big lesson in why we haven’t been able to organize a cohesive movement in the left. It didn’t mean there weren’t some brilliant people there, and brilliant ideas, but the ability to agree and to come up with even a session where there was some cohesion, that never really jelled.

“So it was a learning experience for us. I wrote these songs for each of the different agendas. I mean, I didn’t sit down and think, OK, now I’m going to write a song about this, but I just kind of let myself kind of free-form create during that time period, and these are the songs that came out of it.”

So the forums, while they weren’t especially valuable in leading to solutions, at least led you to create an album.

(laughs) “Exactly. Well, what was interesting was that we realized that we didn’t want solutions. We wanted community, and a lot of them wanted solutions right here and now. I don’t feel that we’re capable of coming up with overriding solutions right now. I think it would be more in our best interests to really educate ourselves about how we got here and where exactly is it that we are before we go forging ahead with solutions.

“And I think there’s more analysis that needs to take place. But these songs were about that process more: Where are we as human beings? Where are we–in time, in history, culturally, as individuals? That’s where the songs came from. So that did come out the [forums]–personally I got a lot out of it.”

Here at Utne Reader we’ve long been involved in the salon movement, which is much like the community forums that you’re talking about. So I’m curious: Did you learn anything about how you might better approach forums like this?

“I really wish I had a pat answer for that. If anything, at this point, I think I would rather see us come together first as a community. What I loved best about Last Sunday was [Rev.] Rigby, because what he did was he put everything in a spiritual basis without it being new age, airhead, everything-is-beautiful–he really got into the challenge to us as individuals, the kinds of ways we need to change how we live our lives and how we view the systems that are in place. And he did it in a way that was so moving and touching that I felt that community spirit–I felt that communal relationship between all of us.

“I think the music [on “Beautiful World”] did that, too, and I think the ideas came across better once we had established that sort of spiritual bond. And if anything, I would say that sense of communal bond has to be there first, or else we are a bunch of individuals with a bunch of varying ideas and agendas. I think that is one of the big problems.”

There’s an undercurrent of optimism to the album, with lines about keeping your heart open and the light burning brightest at the darkest time. Are you ultimately an optimist at heart?

“I am. I just default to joy. I don’t know why–it could just be the way I’m chemically made up or something. But I am optimistic. I’ve been trying to train myself to become more open to a collapse of the system that we live under, and not be afraid of that, to embrace it, because it will mean the end of something that just plain hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked for the last 250 years, the whole capitalist extraction model. It hasn’t worked, and even those of us who lightly prospered by it, we’ve lived beyond our means.

“So I don’t want to be afraid of it. I want to feel joy about what will come instead of the system that’s in place. I want to start looking forward to it. The problem is, of course, that you grieve the losses. There are so many losses, certainly in terms of the natural world–there is this grief that’s going on at the same time that we kind of cling to what is dear to us. And that’s what this record is really about–processing the grief and preparing to do battle at the same time, preparing oneself mentally and emotionally for a transition that will really try even the most emotionally stable of us.”

There’s a real trick to writing songs that are political without beating people over the head or seeming shrill, and you seem to know something about this. What’s your secret?

“I’ve studied this. I really have studied it. First, you want to make good music and good poetry. I mean, first and foremost, it’s got to fly on its own as art, and that’s really what I concentrate on when I’m in the studio, that’s what I concentrate on when I’m writing. There’s a cathartic, artistic process in the writing. You can’t come at it going, ‘Now I’m going to write a song about this,’ and sit down and just churn it out. You have to get into a very creative process with it, and really treat it as art first. And that’s abstract, but that is the process for me. It’s very abstract. It’s got to resonate with some sense of emotional catharsis in a way–so in other words, I’ve got to personalize it.”

You seem to be one of those songwriters who thinks that music has the power to change minds. Is that so?

“I think it has the power to make a person feel safe enough to consider other ways of looking at things.”

“Dream Lover” is about the damage inflicted by Internet porn. What inspired that song?

“Well, Robert Jensen, who is my partner, has written a book called Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. It’s a great book, because this is a subject that the new feminists really don’t touch because they’ve pretty much sanctioned the sex trade industry as being a woman’s choice. But after having really studied this issue, I really see Internet porn as being a huge and powerful bastion of patriarchy that is being allowed to grow at a phenomenal speed and really do treacherous, dangerous work in terms of the social conscience, and the cultural underpinnings of our society. Because, really, what we’re looking at is not the porn that maybe people from my generation remember as pretty much maybe straight or group sex or something–this is violent, degrading, abhorrent treatment of women. And it’s only getting worse, this gonzo porn–it’s like an addiction and it only gets worse.

“And I think it needs to be marked not as a moral issue against these women who are choosing this. What we’re seeing is that these people are suffering. These women are suffering, and they have suffered probably their whole lives. Ninety percent of them were abused as children–I mean, even if a porn queen is telling you this is what she’s chosen to do with her life, you have to really ask yourself, is this a profession that you would want your child to aspire to? I think society has to look at this industry–a huge industry run by men–and ask ourselves the tough questions. And I think it’s really a lot on the men: Is this what I want intimacy to look like?

“I think these are ethical questions we need to be asking ourselves, not hitting yourself over the head with ‘You’re going to go to hell.'”

You’re appearing with Jensen at a few events around the country that are a fusion of music and literature. How are these events structured?

“We’re just starting to experiment with this. Right now I do a few songs, he speaks; I do a few more songs, he speaks: We take turns.”

And you’re tying some of your songs to the things he’s speaking about, or at least loosely?

“Yeah, loosely. I think in the case of a bookstore, where we’re doing this kind of thing, we can be closer to the subjects. Because when I do a show, the issue stuff is very hidden inside a playful night of a broad expanse of topics and music.”

And these events put them more at the fore.

“They really do. People know what they’re coming to hear, and in a lot of ways I’m setting up Robert. He’s such an eloquent speaker, though I don’t think he would agree with that assessment. The songs are kind of a way to get yourself into the emotional space, and then he gets into more specific analysis.”

“Beautiful World” is a very impressionistic, unconventional song, kind of unlike anything you’ve done. It’s almost a meditation. Were you consciously trying to step outside the verse-chorus-verse folk song structure when you wrote that?

“I was–and it’s natural for me to do that. I have stuck closer to the folk format for the last four or five records because I had been labeled as a new age artist years ago, and so I was very cautious. I wanted to really establish my honest roots as a folksinger, because that is really where I come from, and so I spent a lot of time building a foundation around a very simple, straightforward folk approach and production, as a writer and a producer.

“But this record I really felt that I just owed it to myself to just be a little bit more free-form, because I do write that way, especially on the keyboard. So it was kind of fun to just let it go.”

“Unsustainable” is another song that’s unconventional for you. It’s more like a jazz standard than a folk song.

“Mm-hmm. It was so fun to sing.”

“Wildewood Spring” is a more in the vein of a traditional sound. It almost sounds old-fashioned, if not for the lyrics about engines idling and other modern images.

“Yeah, it was kind of old-timey–kind of back hills, almost. And that was the point on that one, because it’s a song about a community, and I just wanted it to be sweet and almost corny. But then of course, it is with the backdrop that when you go into the springs in Austin, especially at 5 o’clock, you can hear the traffic moving, but you’re in this bucolic setting with these sacred springs, and you can see that just three minutes away is this whole other reality in the city. So it was just pitting that one image against the other.”

So Wildewood Spring is a spring right in Austin.

“Yes. Barton Spring pours right out of the ground, and it’s a huge pool that thousands of people can swim in at once.”

Are you already writing songs for your next album? Are you always writing?

“No, I don’t always write. I really have to screw my head on a little different when I’m writing. It used to be, when I was younger, I was able to kind of write songs on napkins as I went, but these days, touring is so grueling that I really just get into sort of a road warrior place, and it’s not as creative a place. It’s really much more about just keeping my body in shape and my voice intact, and getting enough sleep (laughs).”

Image courtesy of Red House Records.

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