’Empathy is the first ingredient’: A profile of singer Eliza Gilkyson

By Robert Jensen

Published in The Progressive Magazine · September, 2005

Eliza Gilkyson cracks one of her more mischievous smiles and introduces a new song to the overflow summer crowd at the Cactus Café in Austin, Texas, as “one that may get me in a little trouble.”

“The cowboy came from out of the west, with his snakeskin boots and his bulletproof vest,” she sings, and the audience jammed into the small club—quickly figuring out where the song “Man of God” is heading—leans into the song.

“Gang of goons and his big war chest, fortunate son he was doubly blessed/Corporate cronies and the chiefs of staff, bowing to the image of the golden calf,” Gilkyson sings, her voice crackling. “Startin’ up wars in the name of God’s son, gonna blow us all the way to kingdom come.”

After the first line of the chorus—“Man of God, man of God, that ain’t the teachings of a man of God”—the audience explodes, Gilkyson grabs hold of the crowd’s energy, and the fifty-five-year-old singer/songwriter finishes a passionate rendering of the song from her new Red House Records CD Paradise Hotel.

“I’m actually a non-confrontational person—I want everyone to like me,” she says a couple of weeks after that June show at a diner in Austin, her home since the early 1980s. “I don’t think of myself as particularly capable politically, but I guess I have been dragged into it.”

Gilkyson has always lived on the progressive side of the fence—from her California childhood with a folksinger father, to her back-to-the-land days in New Mexico, to her brief 1980s tour as a New Age diva (a role for which she was miscast and from which she escaped quickly), to her return to her folk roots that culminated in her first Red House release in 2000, Hard Times in Babylon.

The 2000 election pushed her to be more openly political.

“When Bush got elected, I felt like my back was to the wall,” she says. “Before that election, I thought of politics as kind of hopeless. I had it all theorized, about why I shouldn’t bother. So, I stayed out of it. But that’s just not possible anymore.”

Much of her attention these days is focused on the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush Administration, though she doesn’t believe the country’s problems will be solved by putting a Democrat in the White House.

At the core of her current political mission, beyond opposition to the Iraq War or other specific issues, is the need to “normalize dissent”—to show that one can speak out, survive, and make a difference.

“I understand that lots of people are afraid. There are musicians who are afraid to speak up,” she says. “But the reaction I get to these songs is mostly positive. There’s no reason to back down.”

Gilkyson pushed herself on the 2004 release Land of Milk and Honey, which was nominated for a best contemporary folk album Grammy. It starts with “Hiway 9,” a song about the destructiveness of the U.S. war in Iraq that sounds like a classic truck-driving song but slips into lyrics about the war’s aims: “go on and liberate my people and their o-i-l.”

Although some of her songs are political, “Man of God” is unusually blunt; typically, she doesn’t like songs that are preachy.

“I can’t stand ‘message music,’ in which the songwriter is trying to drive home a political point too much,” she says. “For me, [‘Man of God’] was more of a visceral song, an angry song.”

For Gilkyson, politics in song usually means trying to find the common ground. “Tender Mercies,” also off Land of Milk and Honey, looks at the world through the eyes of three mothers: of a child who becomes suicide bomber, a child forced to play in a toxic environment, and a child safe in an affluent American home.

“I was trying to communicate that at the core, we all want a world in which our children are safe, but not everyone has the same chance to give that to their kids,” she says. “I’ve been accosted after my shows about that song, by people saying that I am justifying suicide bombers. But that’s not the point, of course. I’m not justifying it. I’m saying we have to understand where it comes from.”

That search for understanding is also at the heart of “Ballad of Yvonne Johnson,” a haunting song based on the true story of a woman serving a life sentence for murder. For a year after reading the book Stolen Life, which chronicles Johnson’s life of rape and abuse that led to the killing, Gilkyson struggled with how to write about it. She finally drew directly on Johnson’s own words, as well as her own experience of sexual violence. The song doesn’t flinch from the brutality that Johnson endured but also conveys the woman’s strength and humanity, which is beautifully summarized in Johnson’s prayer that ends the song:

“Help me to make my amends to those that I have harmed.

Grant them love and peace so they may understand I’m sorry.

Help me share my shame and pain so others they might do the same.

And so awaken to themselves and to all peoples of this world.”

What does Gilkyson believe such songs can accomplish?

“It’s a little vain to think that art has some super power to change things, but art can make people feel safe to feel,” she says. “It can create a safe environment that lets people experience things, whether it’s the shadow or the beauty.”

She rephrases: “I think art can help us learn to think for ourselves, to de-anesthetize ourselves. It gives us opportunities to choose between healing and destruction. It makes us aware of the choices.”

When I point out that her language constantly moves between the political and the introspective—she sounds part political radical and part therapist, pulled between the world’s conflicts and her internal life—she laughs and doesn’t disagree.

That’s where Gilkyson seems to sit these days, stuck in contradictions: The person who wants everyone to like her and doesn’t care if some think she’s a traitor; the moody romantic who wants to talk politics; the turn-the-other cheek type who can’t contain her anger.

“I suppose I’m an introspective type dragged into politics, and I’m always looking for the bridge between the two,” she says.

What is the bridge?

“For me, it’s empathy,” she says. “We struggle with ourselves, which means we should be able to connect with other people’s struggles. You need the facts, the analysis to figure out what to do, but empathy is the first ingredient. For me, music and politics are both about trying to find that place to connect.”

For information about Gilkyson, got to www.elizagilkyson.com. For information about Red House Records, go to www.redhouserecords.com.

[Author’s note: I wrote this story when I first met Gilkyson, before we began a relationship.]