In her newest album, “Secularia,” two-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson explores spiritual questions within a secular framework.
In her newest album, “Secularia,” two-time Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson explores spiritual questions within a secular framework. The collection reaches back to some of her older songs, written when she lived in New Mexico, and also includes recently written ones.
Austin-based Gilkyson has made appearances on National Public Radio, Austin City Limits, Mountain Stage, eTown, SiriusXM, Air America Radio and has toured worldwide. She is an inductee into the Austin Music Hall of Fame. Gilkyson’s songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Geldof, Tom Rush and Rosanne Cash, and featured in films, PBS specials and prime-time television.
Gilkyson will be performing here Friday (Aug. 16), 8 p.m., at the KTAOS Solar Center, 9 State Road 150, north of El Prado.
I interviewed Gilkyson by phone while she was at her home in Arroyo Seco where she has spent her summers for the past several years. This is an edited version of our conversation.
What do you have planned for your Taos show at KTAOS?
I have a new record out so I’m going to do songs from that and talk about it. And, then, I move back through my material and talk about where those songs come from. Then, I take a break. We do a lot of jamming, too. I have this great guitar player with me – Jim Henry – he also plays mandolin. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, a very talented guy. I’m just so pleased I could bring him with me on this tour. We jam and play off of each other. For my second set, I actually come out in the audience during the break and take requests. The audience writes the whole second set. It’s very spontaneous, especially in New Mexico because some of these songs can go way back. It’s very fun because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It makes it exciting.
I noticed some of your songs on “Secularia” were written in the 1990s, and others are quite recent. How did you choose the songs to make the collection?
It’s this collection of songs that I’ve been building over the years, reflective of my spiritual journey, and I should say also my spiritual dismantling. I think more than anything I was a person who was always seeking out the greater meaning, or pursuing the great mysteries of life, but … I’ve found myself deconstructing religion and spirituality, and really I think these songs are my process of deconstruction … letting go of belief systems, letting go of ideologies and still trying not to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think the songs are more about what remains when you have deconstructed all these belief systems – you’re still left with a sense of wonder, a sense of a great mystery and of not knowing … a feeling of not knowing and being okay with that, and still feeling gratitude. And even how that intersects with politics, a moral obligation of taking care of each other — that’s basically what I found myself left with after spending most of my life pursuing various ideologies.
So, in terms of choosing the songs, you were choosing songs that spoke to that journey of deconstruction?
Yes, like “Through the Looking Glass” is a really old song, written in Santa Fe in the ‘90s. I really wanted to put it on the record because it was the perfect reflection of that path, and what motivated me to go on that path. The other ones that I took from earlier time periods, I really rewrote. They still had a lot of beliefs in them that I no longer subscribe to, so I [rewrote them] … because there was some poetry in there I really liked, but I didn’t feel that it fit how I feel now.
The title of the album, “Secularia” is a Latin term?
Yeah. It’s a collection of secular works, is what it is. It’s used because you have religious texts and you have secular texts in religion, in much of the Western religions. It was a way of saying “not religious” and yet at the same time it’s still the discussion of the loftier matters, the mystery of the unknown, but avoiding the religious terms.
Can you talk about your religious or spiritual influences?
I have been a by-the-book Christian at various times. I have had a spiritual guru in India. I flirted embarrassingly with Native American beliefs — much to my shame, because the cultural appropriation that I indulged myself in, at this stage in my life, I find embarrassing and inappropriate. I became a bard. I joined the Society of Bards and Druids in England. I did ceremonies around those things … I’ve dabbled in just about everything.
Were you raised as a Christian?
No. Well, we were Episcopalian — that’s pretty Christian-lite. We didn’t go to church. The only time we went was because my dad [Terry Gilkyson, famous for many Disney film songs, notably “The Jungle Book”] liked to sing. He liked the Anglican music. That comes out in my music a lot. I love the structure of the Anglican religious music. I’m a big fan of it, and it plays out in my music a lot.
Are you working on any new recording projects at this time?
I am. I’m working on a record I’m going to release in early 2020 that is going to be a very political record for this year that’s coming. A lot of it is going to be songs to sing together, rallying songs. I’m going to do some covers of some really good political music that is about unifying and knowing what we’re up against — songs of unity, songs of purpose and some good old covers that I think will work in that context.
As an artist, what do you make of these times we’re living in?
What’s interesting is I’ve never felt more joy, at the same time I’ve never felt more deep grief of the losses – the losses of the natural world make me the most sad, because earth is so beautiful and so perfect, and to do what we are doing is such an epic tragedy. It weighs on me every moment. And, yet, at the same time I am so lucky … I’m so well-loved, I have a roof over my head, people around me are so loving and good and decent. So, there’s a conflict of such a deep-seated grief with, still, the joy. ... I think a lot of people are feeling the same way – the sense of gratitude and the sense of loss. It’s heightened now, I think that’s what it is. Everything is heightened.
You’ll be having a songwriting workshop in Taos at the end of the month?
Mary Gauthier is doing the August session with me. It is a three-day, three-night-long weekend. We meet at my house. We really get into songwriting. There are a lot of class exercises — group work, song deconstruction and reconstruction, how to bring out and invoke your muse, how to stay in a creative, artistic voice, how to honor your own voice. … It becomes almost like a family – a very supportive intimate group of people.
Are there still openings?
We just had two cancellations. We’d love to take on two more people. Mary is an amazing instructor – she’s writing a book on songwriting right now, and she’s a stunning teacher. And John Gorka does the one in June with me, and he’s also amazing. And Don Richmond joins us for both of those workshops as well. He brings so much to it. He brings a musical perspective, but also a very tender and creative addition to the workshop.
For more information about Gilkyson’s songwriting workshop and tour, visit elizagilkyson.com. Tickets for her KTAOS show are $20 with advance tickets available through ktao.com.
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