From a family that included her father, folk singer and songwriter Hamilton "Terry" Gilkyson, and her guitarist brother Tony, formerly from Lone Star and X, Eliza Gilkyson seemed destined for a stellar musical career.
"Music first started out as a way to represent myself, almost as an image to hide behind. I got into it for all the wrong reasons," she says from her home in Texas. "But that fell by the wayside and what emerged was a sense that it was my teacher and my path.
Initially, the New Age label seemed to be the key Gilkyson had been searching for. Her 1987 album, Pilgrims, yielded the ethereal "Calling All Angels," later covered by Canadian Jane Siberry.
"Pilgrims was a little side project," Gilkyson explains. "I had read this book that explored Jungian concepts. That was the first thing that put me on the map and it gave me a New Age reputation. Then I kept trying to pull it back. I was trying to figure out who I was while I was charting with this New Age synthesizer kind of thing and I wasn't sure how to rationalize that with my folk roots. So it's been a process of trying to get back to that."
Gilkyson's family has strong ties to Tucson. Tony has been a frequent musical visitor, recording and performing with local bands. Their father first came to the Old Pueblo in 1937 after dropping out from the music program at the University of Pennsylvania. He worked here at a ranch until World War II. After the war, he moved to California and had a folk music show on Armed Forces Radio. His song "The Cry of the Wild Goose" became a number one hit for Frankie Laine in 1950. He also formed a trio, the Easy Riders. They had success with the calypso-influenced "Marianne." He also wrote the Dean Martin hit "Memories Are Made of This." His song "The Bare Necessities" from the Disney film The Jungle Book was nominated for an Oscar.
"I'm hook-oriented," Eliza notes. "My dad was the same way. He really had this pop sensibility. He was never going to get complex. I don't think he ever wrote a song that had more than four or five chords in it. He did cowboy songs and movie songs. He was looking for the common denominator, rather than all the variety and flourishes."
She attempted a more pop-oriented style, but couldn't shake the flaky songstress image. Working in Europe with New Age harpist Andreas Vollenweinder didn't help, either.
"He was having to live it down, too," she admits. "He was perceived as a kind of spaced-out guy, when he's actually an intelligent, classically rooted artist. It didn't help my reputation one bit to hang out there."
Nonetheless, her sojourn in Europe helped clear her head. She was married to her manager and unsure just who she was.
"It was great to get out of the country because I was stuck," she confesses. "I was stuck in a relationship. I was stuck in my musical style. It was great to get away from everybody and reinvent myself. Andreas was a real task master, but he was always looking for the spontaneous moment. He was always trying to drive you past yourself. It helped me to break free."
She eventually joined the Austin singer-songwriter community. She stripped her music back to its folkie roots. Hard Times In Babylon, with its brutal self-examination and minimalistic production, cost her many of her remaining New Age admirers, but won her newfound critical respect.
"I went through a very dark cycle with my last CD," Gilkyson concedes. "I'm in a better place right now. People here are so supportive of stripped-down music, so I felt comfortable getting rid of the overproduction and the stacking. It was no accident that I moved here right at the time I wanted to start simplifying things. As an artist, I'm very comfortable with what I'm writing and how I'm producing. I feel I'm still on the edge of discovery."
Gilkyson played a strong set at this year's Tucson Folk Festival that won her new fans.
"I'm a storyteller," Gilkyson says of her live performances. "I think I balance the weightiness of my material with stories where I find common themes. I like to shine the light on the feelings that we're all going through."
Singer-songwriter Ana Egge will open this week's Tucson show.
"She's really quite special and we're good buds," Gilkyson says. "We're gonna work up some songs together. I really like playing in Tucson. It's gonna be fun."