Eliza Gilkyson Elicits Songs From Late Night Thoughts

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Eliza Gilkyson’s gorgeous The Nocturne Diaries illuminates our darkest emotional recesses. CMT Edge spoke with the Austin-based folksinger about songwriting, working with her son and the elegant new collection they co-produced.

“These were songs that were written at night, but I didn’t realize it until I had most of them,” Gilkyson says. “There are certain kinds of songs that come in the night. They’re often very reflective, the thoughts you can’t run away from.”

CMT Edge: So, we’re talking overnight songs, not sundown songs?

Gilkyson: Yeah, these are 3 in the morning until dawn things. (laughs) I’ve gotten to the point in life where I don’t sleep as well through the night, and for these songs, I just got up and started writing. It was a way to deal with things I was thinking about.

Do you not usually write at night?

I’ve done it before, but I’ve never had a whole album of songs that were written that way. I at least have enough self-discipline that if I wake up in the middle of the night and there’s a song coming, I get up and do it because I don’t remember it in the morning. I’ve lost a lot of songs that way.

Tell the story behind writing “Midnight Oil.”

I have a place in New Mexico, which is my spiritual home. I wasn’t there when I wrote that song, but I was trying to calm myself, and I imagined my home and the moon coming over the mountain in Taos. It’s a very spiritual place where emergence mythology comes from.

I was imagining that moon coming up and shining down on the fields where my house is and how the sky looks. It was like a letter to my grandchildren and to the future, thinking about the problems that lie ahead of you. I couldn’t run from my fears about the future for them.

Does spirituality typically play a role in your songwriting?

It does, although I’ve never been religious. I don’t ever name that force or mystery, but I do think of myself as a questioner and a seeker, in a way. So, yeah, at least the search and the journey for something greater than myself has been a theme that runs through all my stuff.

Describe how “All Right Here” took shape.

I was traveling with a Danish guitar player and songwriter named Jens Lysdal. We were at a gig in Europe doing soundcheck and he was getting his guitar set up. He started playing this beautiful progression that had this lovely melody to it, and I looked up and went, “Ah! Wow. Jens, do you have words to that?” “No.” “Do you mind if I have a crack at it? I think I can write to that.” He said, “Hey, yeah.”

He sent it to me when I got home, and I wrote that immediately. That was one of those easy ones. It’s about the other path you can take with music. You go, “Hey, I’ve had a great life even if I never was a big household name.”

A 21-year-old can’t write a song like that.

I’ve got lots of those. (laughs)

The electric guitar really adds richness to that song.

Yeah, my son Cisco [Ryder], who produced, was very good at helping me get sounds. We recorded this album differently. We didn’t do anything with a band and built everything around my part. So we had to have something that stood by itself, a signature thing, as the initial idea.

We spent a lot of time finding the right thing for each song. He helped me dial up this wonderful electric sound. I was like, “God, that sounds great by itself.” It’s a great old guitar, a guitar my brother [musician Tony Gilkyson] gave me, a Kay Swingmaster from the ’60s, one of the few great buys still out there. You don’t want to disguise that sound.

What are the pros and cons working with your son as producer?

(laughs) Well, turning control over to anyone, much less your kid, is built on trust. They have to earn my trust, even if it is my son. He earned it step by step. We’ve been playing together for years. There were times in the studio when he had to take me aside and say, “Look, mom, it’s fine if you have something to say to me, but you need to take me aside and not announce it over the PA system.” (laughs)

He had to create boundaries, but it’s very clear we both care so much about what we’re doing. We make sure that we work everything out.

What did you learn about songwriting from your dad [Terry Gilkyson, the celebrated “The Bare Necessities” songwriter]?

He could really write structure. He was very disciplined and went into his office every day from 9 to 5 to write songs, and he wrote great songs. He took his job seriously, but there was always some little thing in his songs that had an emotional, universal connection that was real. That really influenced me — his feel for dark melodies. He was fearless about going to a dark place with his melodies and loving being there.

Did he encourage you to get into music?

In his later years, he often said, “If I had to come up in this climate, I never would have done it. It’s just too awful.” In his day, there was an innocence and respectability, whereas now everybody’s doing it and it’s so competitive. Every stone has been turned.

I don’t think he would have had the heart to try today, but he never made me feel like I, as a woman, didn’t have a place in music. He used me for his demos. When I was 14 years old, I sang his demos for Disney. He just automatically assumed I could do it.

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