"I was such an angst-ridden little girl, I saw (songwriting) as a real vehicle to express what I saw as my confused and strange views of the world," she says on the phone from her home office in Austin, Texas.
"There was never anything else for me that mattered as much. I had no other signs that I should do anything else. It seemed like there was nothing I wanted to do, or could do."
Gilkyson, who has performed several times in Tucson, will return to town to play Saturday night, May 31, in the cozy courtyard at Old Town Artisans, as part of the Rhythm and Roots concert series.
Her brother--acclaimed guitarist Tony Gilkyson, who has played with such bands as Lone Justice and X--will open the show with a 30-minute set and join his sister and fellow six-string player Robert McEntee during her set.
Both guitarists are among the all-star collection of backup musicians on Gilkyson's latest album, the amazing Beautiful World, which was released Tuesday, May 27, on Red House Records.
Gilkyson remembers that as a child, she was obsessed with musicians. And they always seemed to be around, thanks to her father, who bridged the folk and pop worlds, authoring songs performed by Dean Martin, Johnny Cash, Doris Day, Frankie Laine, the Weavers and the White Stripes, as well as "The Bare Necessities" from the Disney classic The Jungle Book.
"I was way enamored with musicians, partly because they always seemed to live outside the law in every sense of the word. He played with young players, and when I was a teenager, some of them were only a few years older than me. So I got into (music) for one of the oldest reasons: I wanted to meet boys.
"But music starts to give back to you at some stage. Even if you get into it for the wrong reasons, you discover there's more to it than that."
As the 1960s closed, Gilkyson moved to New Mexico, eventually raising a family while she nurtured a career in a musical form that has come be known as Americana, a combination of country, folk, blues, rock and pop. She made several independent albums that are now out of print, but her first big splash came in 1987 with Pilgrims, the atmospheric textures of which found her mislabeled as a new age artist.
On that album was the cut "Calling All Angels," which has become something of a new age touchstone and has been covered by artists as diverse as Jane Siberry and Train.
Today, more than a dozen albums later, Gilkyson admits to wincing a little when talking about that tune.
"My belief systems were so two-dimensional then. I was still buying into some sort of beliefs that I think have become more multifaceted since then. At the same time, I recognize that I was already seeing a world out of balance and that we were living in an unsustainable way and on the verge of collapse. If you listen to my music since then, throughout the whole of my recording career, you will see my message then was coming out of that consciousness."
Beautiful World is perhaps Gilkyson's richest and most powerful musical statement. She calls it "my most varied and adventurous collection of songs."
The tunes on the new album illustrate her concern for the state of the world, as well as her optimism that it can become better. Points of light pop up in the darkness, and shadows sometimes fall across the brightest moments.
For instance, album opener "Emerald Street" is a cheerful, whistle- and horn-laden charmer in which lyrics such as "little birdies go tweet tweet tweet / all because I'm in love" alternate with "whole world's goin' up in smoke / hard times comin', I ain't jokin' / just trying to keep my heart wide open."
"I am really pretty much a joyful person," Gilkyson says. "I don't want to be the queen of doom, but I do recognize we're in for a huge period of transition in terms of the world's financial stability and its reliance on the dwindling supply of fossil fuels and the debasement inflicted by the corporate world on the rest of the planet. But I also sing about how beautiful the world is.
"I think I was able to get the right balance of shadow and light on this one."