“My dad was my biggest influence, especially melodically. He loved dark melodies,” says Eliza Gilkyson of her father, the late Terry Gilkyson. As the title of her latest CD hints, The Nocturne Diaries mostly habitates the darker side.
Her dad sang with the Weavers in the Folk Boom and co-wrote the Dean Martin hit “Memories Are Made Of This.” He could write a happy-go-lucky ditty like The Jungle Book’s “Bear Necessities” or as sad a love song that ever was, like the Brothers Four’s classic “Greenfields.”
“He was a very disciplined songwriter; he’d go to his office every day, like nine to five, and write songs – as well as writing at home. And I saw the magic, the charisma when he performed. He loved writing a good bridge, and there was a lot of classic songwriting structure that stuck with me. In fact, that haunted me when I wanted to break out of my box.”
Considering that her brother Tony, a veteran of Lone Justice and X, is an accomplished guitarist whose credits range from Peter Rowan to Alice Cooper (in addition to several of Eliza’s albums), and Eliza’s son, percussionist Cisco Ryder, co-produced Diaries, the family makes a strong case for the role of genetics in one’s destiny, or at least talent.
“Something gets opened up early on that you start to depend on,” Gilkyson feels. “Whatever that is, you don’t want to shut that off. You’re hooked. And certain decisions in your life that would require you to shut off that tap – you just can’t do it. You feel like you’ll die.”
Surrounded by excellent guitarists in her home base of Austin, Texas, Gilkyson thinks hard about which guitarist to use for a project or song. Longtime collaborator Mike Hardwick appears on half of the CD’s dozen originals. “He brings a certain kind of flow and atmosphere, and the emotional way he plays is almost orchestral,” she says. “He can shred, but he’s more of a parts player and is really good at hook lines.”
Gilkyson’s own guitaring is nothing to sneeze at, nor is her collection. “It helps having different guitars, because different sounds bring different things out of you as a writer,” she explains. “That’s one of the reasons I started playing electric. The Gibson CF-100e has two pickups. A Highlander acoustic mic goes to its own preamp and pedals, and the P-90 goes to a SansAmp and other effects, so I can switch from acoustic to electric with one guitar.”
She and Tony share their dad’s ’53 D-21. “Tony has a real feel for obscure old guitars that are not overpriced – yet. He’s hipped me to lots of guitars, like the Regal Parlor with stenciled flower pattern and plastic fingerboard. I use it a lot for recording because of its sweet, rich tone. And My Kay Swingmaster was a gift from Tony. I’ve recorded all my electric guitar stuff on the last two records with it.”
Gilkyson got to pick her ’36 Gibson L-00 out of a collector’s stash of L-00’s and, she smiles, “this one was the bomb! It wasn’t ’til later I found out it had the floating bridge, which really does make a difference.”
She uses her Goya when nylon strings are called for. “My dad took me into Wallach’s Music City on Sunset and Vine, and let me pick it out in 1965,” she recounts.
Obviously a Gibson fan, she explains, “The B-25 has the wider nut, which gives it a great feeling for writing at home, but I love my ’65 J-45 for warm and dark rhythm playing. It’s my warhorse. People think I’m crazy, because I like the strings dead and thunky.”
Of folk’s current resurgence, she laughs, “We’ve been the shameful ones for years, the ones John Belushi made fun of in Animal House – sort of parodies of ourselves. When I teach songwriting classes, I say, ‘Don’t be a parody; get into what it means.’ Folk isn’t connected to the rest of the industry particularly, but it has its own system – press, radio, festivals, fan bases, venues. It’s a whole life that you can live, but don’t expect to hit it big out there. I didn’t buy my own home or have a decent car or health insurance until I was in my 50s. But if you love the community and the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, folk music can be a great outlet if it suits the life you want to lead. You have to be true to it and walk the talk. If it’s contrived, everybody knows. It means a lot to me to stay current. I’m not by any means a traditional folk singer, and I don’t ever want to be a parody of a folk singer.”
This article originally appeared in VG June 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.