- April 03, 2020
- Kim Ruehl
- Hear It First
by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley
As a sign of the times, on the day of our recent interview, singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson had been isolating for ten days following exposure to someone who had been diagnosed with Covid-19. (Her 14-day isolation has since passed, and she’s still healthy.) She was at home in Austin, Texas, feeling fine and happy to talk about her new album, 2020, which is due to be released by Red House Records on April 10.
The album’s 10 songs delve into emotionally compelling themes about where we are as a country and where Gilkyson would like to see us go.
She cycles through her trademark style of heart-tugging story-songs and others that spring from the various emotions this moment in history might inspire in empaths who pay attention to politics.
She also covers songs by Bob Dylan (“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”) and Pete Seeger (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”), and delivers one tune (“Beach Haven”) she “co-wrote” with Woody Guthrie about a segregated property owned by Fred Trump.
All told, the album is a stirring, timely, beautifully written message about the importance of unity and collaboration in a time of great partisan divide. Timed on purpose for an election year, Gilkyson couldn’t have possibly foreseen the social and political environment into which the album would release.
And that is where our interview began. It has been edited for length.
Kim Ruehl: Speaking of [big historical moments], you made a record called 2020.
Eliza Gilkyson: Yeah. I wrote a record for an election year, not for a pandemic.
KR: Some of the songs translate, though. “One More Day,” for instance.
EG: Yeah, “One More Day.” “A Hard Rain” … there are some things that do fit.
We really have to keep our eye on the prize. We’ve got to get them out of office. … What we need to be doing right now is unifying … the Democratic party. It’s got to be a hundred percent. Everybody’s got to come together and put aside their differences. That’s the kind of revolution I’m looking for.
KR: I was thinking about an interview I had with Ani DiFranco years ago, where she was talking about how it’s hard to write political songs because it’s hard to distill everything that’s wrong down to just a few minutes that rhyme. How do you feel about that? When you sit down to write about what’s wrong, how do you get it down?
EG: It’s a big challenge. You don’t want to just spew rhetorical messages, because that’s kind of off-putting.
It’s about tapping into the emotion of a political scenario, inspiring unity or finding the things we have in common, finding the emotional places in myself—the place of anger, the place of determination—and writing from that point of view. [I try to] tap into the feeling of it, as opposed to just the politically correct statements. That’s what I usually set out to do. [I ask myself,] How am I feeling right now?
KR: With “Peace in Our Hearts,” you don’t have to necessarily agree with your politics for that one to resonate.
EG: Exactly. I didn’t want to take an ideological stance other than that of inspiring unity, because that has to happen first, before any movement can take place.
It’s very hard to write political music if you’re a complex songwriter. I usually like to write with depth … [songs] that mean different things at different levels. The more you study them, the more you find hidden. I do a lot of stuff that can be interpreted. But when you’re writing political, you want to … have a refrain that people will sing.
With “Peace in Our Hearts,” I want[ed] to write a song that people would sing in a march. It has to be something they can jump in right away.
There’s something glorious about people singing together. It’s so communal and so important in terms of bolstering our spirits and our resolve, giving that sense of community and solidarity. … I started singing it in front of people and they jumped in and started singing. It was very assertive and very affirming to repeat those lines over and over again.
Mary Gauthier talks about that when we do our workshops, about writing a refrain that’s literally just a repetitive line over and over again, not getting complicated. I love that idea that the repetitive line actually takes on more meaning the more you sing it.
KR: Speaking of simplicity, you did “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” You can’t beat that. There’s like 10 different words in the whole song.
EG: It’s kind of a corny old-school hippy flower people song, and at the same time it’s so archetypal and universal. When I first started working it up, I thought, can I do this without people just [saying,] OK Boomer? … But I don’t care because this is a great song. …
KR: A lot of people have been recording unfinished Woody Guthrie songs, but “Beach Haven” is from a letter he wrote. Can you talk a little about that?
EG: When I decided, last summer, that I was going to make this record and get it out for the election year, I contacted Nora [Guthrie] and said, I want to get to Tulsa and get in the [Woody Guthrie] archives and root around for a good song, some kind of lyrics I can put together for this record. …
[Then,] I was in Fayettville doing a festival and I ran into Adina McCloud, the director of the archives. … She said, I was thinking about you the other day because there’s this letter and I really think [it] has got wings for a song.
We all knew about the Beach Haven apartments being segregated apartments. Woody had actually lived there in the early ‘50s. …
The letter is an amazing work in itself. … It was just like a letter to Beach Haven. … It was a lot of Woody going off here, going off there.
Putting it into a cohesive thing was really daunting. But … he actually says, “We could shake hands together and get together and work together and play together and sing together,” and all these things. That was verbatim. I was like, Okay, this is where we start.
… I went almost with a Traveling Wilbury’s groove to it. It had to be upbeat and energizing. Once I got that, I was able to go through and find some of his brilliant lines and piece them into verses.
One of the brilliant [lines was]: “This hateful fuel that poisons you like redstampt whisky.” What a great line that is!
KR: In your own songwriting, do you ever do it like that: Write stream of consciousness and then try to pull stuff out of it? It seems like a very complicated way to write a song.
EG: I do go into sort of a meditative place, but I start with the music, usually. There is sort of … almost like speaking in tongues thing that happens before something appears. But I don’t put pen to paper and just see what happens, not like Woody did in that letter. I really don’t write like that.
It’s all about making order out of chaos for me. I think [Woody] was very content to live in chaos—so many artists are. But it’s just my nature to go in there and make order out of chaos. It can be a fruitless task. Chaos is probably pretty natural in the universal overview, but I try.
KR: What are you hoping people get out of this album?
EG: A sense of community. That’s what I want.
… This is where we are, and then this is how that feels, and then this is what we do to move through it as a collective. We sing together, we march together, we fight together.
What I wanted to achieve is a shared purpose and unity within our ranks. We’re not going to convince them to come over to our side, you know, but within our own group we’re very divided. That’s what worries me.
2020 is out this Friday, 4/10 via Red House Records and available for pre-order: HERE