• What: Eliza Rickman with Amanda Rose Cagle.
• When: 8 p.m. today, Nov. 15.
• Where: Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave.
• Admission: $10.
• Phone: 624-5347.
• Venue website: www.barkinglegs.org.
• Related links at current.timesfreepress.com.
"Gild the Lilly"
"O, You Sinners"
Growing up, Eliza Rickman fostered a secret desire to be a singer that was fueled by a never-ending series of Disney musicals. Yet when she was told all music majors at Los Angeles' Azusa Pacific University had to take an introductory vocal class, she begged to be exempted.
"It didn't work," she said, laughing, adding that she had become convinced that her voice was horrible despite never singing for others.
"The teacher was this cute, little old lady, and she said my voice was great and that I should join the women's choir," Rickman continued. "I thought she was just saying that, but I was the only person she said it to that day. That was the little nudge I needed at the time to know that my voice wasn't atrocious."
Now, Rickman is an indie singer/songwriter who has become well-known for her distinctively sultry, yet plaintive voice, a talent she honed by critiquing her singing on a borrowed four-track recorder.
Today, Nov. 15, she returns to Barking Legs Theater after a show in April that promoter Robin Merritt described on the theater's website as "one of the most dazzling performances of the year." She will be joined this time by local multi-instrumentalist Amanda Rose Cagle as she performs a set drawing primarily from her recently released full-length debut album, "O, You Sinners."
Besides a voice that is seductive and melancholy, Rickman is well-known for her use of a miniature toy piano, which she initially began playing simply as a way to avoid lugging her 90-pound electric keyboard to gigs.
Now a signature element of her sound, the piano's distinctive clock-like chiming provides a base atop which she layers a string ensemble and harmony vocals. This symphonic approach hearkens back to her studies as an arranger.
Rickman's songs are mostly autobiographical and inspired by her oftentimes bittersweet romantic life. Even when performed with just a toy piano's chimes for accompaniment, however, she said her songs often are as emotionally cathartic for the audience as they were for her to write.
"[Early on] I would mostly make people cry, but I love that," she said. "You feel like you're making a difference when you can get that kind of response.
"Just a piano-and-vocal version or toy-piano-and-vocal version is more than enough for most people."
Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with California-based indie folk singer/songwriter Eliza Rickman about why California didn’t live up to her childhood expectations, why she plays a toy piano and her odyssey to becoming a vocalist.
CP: Who were you listening to, growing up?
ER: I was based in a really religious, conservative household, so I listened to a lot - a lot - of church music. When I was about 12, it was about the time the Beatles Anthology came out, and I became obsessed with The Beatles, in addition to Elton John. My dad had all his old Elton John records on vinyl, and I would listen to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” at least once every day.
CP: What was it that drew you to those particular artists?
ER: I wasn't in a normal place like most normal people are when they're listening to music. I was clinically depressed. My parents had moved from Virginia to California when I was 12. I expected California to be really amazing with sunshine and palm trees and celebrities everywhere, and it was not. [Laughs.] It was a total bummer, and it was hard for me to make friends.
I had a really, really hard time, and I sort of discovered music and used it as a way to retreat from the misery I was feeling. I would use it to escape. I was able to listen to people like The Beatles and Elton John and feel happy, even if it was temporary, and I remember thinking to myself that I wanted to be a musician. I knew I would never be The Beatles, but I wanted to offer that sort of therapeutic opportunity to listeners as well.
CP: Do you still feel that same sense of catharsis and escape now that you're on the other side of the microphone
ER: I do, actually. I feel like I've worked through something major after I've written a song, like I got it out. I would say that every night after a show, you do feel a sense of catharsis.
CP: Did you get the same response from the audience? Were they as moved by your performances as you were in creating it?
ER: Yes. I started playing shows in Los Angeles about four or five years ago. Pretty quickly, I started hearing that sort of thing from members of the audience. I would mostly make people cry, but I love that. You feel like you're making a difference when you can get that kind of response.
CP: Your father is a Baptist minister. Did growing up in a religious household have a lingering impact on your approach to music today?
ER: I think so. I actually got my start performing in church. I got a late start. I didn't start singing until I was about 20. I hated the sound of my voice and wanted to get comfortable with my voice on a stage. I knew a church congregation would be more forgiving than a regular audience. That's where I got my start, and that definitely shaped what I do.
I'm never really conscious of it while I'm writing a song, and I realized after making my album that there's religious symbolism and metaphor all over the place. That hasn't changed since then.
I think there's a lot of rich material in the Bible to use as inspiration. More than anything for me, I think the metaphor of God or Christ's love for the church and more carnal love between two people is something that even non-religious folks can identify with.
CP: You began playing piano at a pretty young age and only started singing later in life at the behest of a teacher in college. Was it a shock to realize you were such a capable vocalist?
ER: I started taking piano lesson when I was little and hated it. I begged my parents to let me quit after about two weeks, but they didn't let me. I think my parents did the right thing in my case because they could see this natural ability there.
I played piano for a while, and when I got to college, every music major has to take a vocal class. I really, really, really didn't want to. I remember begging the counselors at school to not make me take the class. It didn't work.
The teacher was this cute, little old lady, and she said my voice was great and that I should join the women's choir, and I thought she was just saying that, but she never said that. I was the only person she said it to that day. That was the little nudge I needed at the time to know that my voice wasn't atrocious. I really hated the sound of my voice. I think many people, when they first hear the sound of their singing voice are thrown. I was really grateful to her.
From that point, I taught myself by borrowing somebody's four-track and singing into it and listening back to it and thinking, “That's great, I need to do more of that” or “Don't do that ever again.”
[Hearing that I had a good voice] was shocking at the time. When I was little, I wanted to sing, and I loved music, and I watched way too many Disney movie musicals. Especially as a teenager, I was so shy and introverted that I didn't think I had it in me to perform, at least not as a singer. I was very pleased that I could so something most people dream about or would give up one of their limbs to be able to do.
CP: Did you immediately start singing as much as you could or was it more of a gradual tradition?
ER: I would say it was gradual, but it was still pretty quick. I did go home and did it in a withdrawn way. I didn't tell anyone about it, just borrowed the four-track and started singing in it. I remember vaguely telling people like, “I can sing now - do you want to hear it?” and let them listen to my little four-track demo.
From then on, I started gigging at little coffee shops in San Diego. I did tons of covers when I started. There was a lot of '80s things, like Susie and the Banshees and some more classical folk-y stuff by Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. Then, I decided to take these songs I was writing on the side and sneak them into the set. I really expected audience members to come up to me and say, “I really enjoyed your set tonight, but those last two numbers - don't do those again.” They didn't, though, and that really gave me some confidence, so I started sneaking in a few more and writing a few more.
I still do covers. I still try and do at least one each set. I do a version of “Ring of Fire” that everyone really enjoys. It's a little more downbeat than Johnny's version of it. My version brings a femininity to it that's really lovely. I played it on the radio the last time I was in Chattanooga, and it got a thumbs-up. The other thing about covers that you should know is that I'm obsessed with playing Nick Cave covers - a lot.
I recently got an autoharp and have been doing some Bob Dylan covers, and that's great. I also just learned to whistle. Holy shit! After 29 years, I finally have figured out how to whistle.
CP: What was the thought process behind re-releasing “Over Cold Shoulders,” “Cinnamon Bone” and “Black Rose” on “O, You Sinners?” Only one of them, “Over Cold Shoulders” seems dramatically altered from the first album.
ER: I felt like “Black Rose' and “Cinnamon bone” were the strongest songs and my favorites off the EP. They were also ones I had made videos for. The album was going to be released on a larger scale, and I wanted the audience to have those three songs.
They were remixed a little bit. The background vocals on “Cinnamon Bone” are great. “Black Rose,” I haven't listened to the two versions back to back, but I think they sound the same. “Over Cold Shoulders” I've been playing the way it is on the album since the EP came out. I thought it would be fun to put that version on the album.
CP: What kinds of things do you find yourself inspired by? Did the places you looked for inspiration change between “Gild the Lilly” and “O, You Sinners?”
ER: Yes and no. I am well aware that every song I've written about is about some guy who treated me like shit. [Laughs.] Even the ones that don't sound like sad songs have an element to them that is bittersweet. I really don't think that's ever going to change. That's what inspires me and makes me feel like writing, working through stuff.
I am, at this point, trying to write songs that are not entirely autobiographical and am doing a good job, but I write about that elemental: Boy meets girl and treats girl like trash. That's been my life in my 20s, sadly.
Like I said early, I wasn't even entirely aware earlier that there were all these biblical references and metaphors and symbolism all over my album [“O, You Sinners”], but I think leading up to the release of the album, that was something that I drew inspiration from.
CP: You're well-known for your use of the toy piano. How did that work its way into your music?
ER: It came about by accident. I started playing in L.A. a few years ago. There are some venues that have nice pianos in them, but those are not the venues you start off playing in. I was playing all these places that didn't have pianos, and I would lug around my giant keyboard from place to place, and that got old really fast.
I had a toy piano in my apartment, not as an instrument but because I thought it was cute. I was just excited not to have to deal with this 90-pound monstrosity of a keyboard. But everyone was really into it and really encouraging that I should do more of it.
People started asking for recordings of me playing the toy piano. I talked to my friend and asked if he would want to make an EP of my toy piano stuff. We recorded “Gild the Lilly” inside a haunted chapel, which we didn't know at the time but found out about after the fact. We released that, and then of course everyone was asking when I would release an album performed not on the toy piano. [Laughs.]
CP: What is your relationship like to the toy piano now?
ER: I play toy piano at all of my shows. There was one time at Hotel Café when I left it out, and it just didn't feel right. It didn't feel right, and it felt sad not to include the songs I wrote specifically on the toy piano. “Black Rose” and “Cinnamon Bone” were both written on the toy piano.
But at this moment in time, I'm not working on writing songs on keyboard instruments, which is definitely a challenge.
CP: Are you intentionally trying to distance yourself from your where you're most comfortable?
ER: It's not distancing; I just wanted to see if I could. I knew it would affect how the songs came out and the chords I would use. The chords on the autoharp are limited, and I have a 15-chord autoharp, so that's what I'm allowed to work with, which is really hard. [Laughs.] But I knew that it would be good for me - build character, if nothing else.
CP: When you do some of your L.A. shows, you have a string section to back you up, and you studied arranging in college, which is apparent in all the textures and layers on “O, You Sinners.” Is it difficult for you to strip those songs down to the bare essentials when you go on the road alone?
ER: Yes and no. I am happy to say that I feel like the songs, with the way that they're crafted, they stand on their own. Just a piano and vocal version or toy piano and vocal version is more than enough for most people.
All the time, when I'm on the road, people will tell me, “You're just fine without a band. You don't need a band.” But then, if they go home and watch the videos of me playing with my band, they're like, “This is nice. Maybe I wouldn't mind seeing you with a band.”
It just brings more to the table, and there's something powerful about have more people on stage making music together. But there's also something that is powerful about going it alone and doing it by yourself. Andrew Bird is a favorite of mine, and I strongly prefer his solo performances.
For a while, I struggled with that, wondering if the songs were interesting enough and if I needed my band with me. I definitely get people, mostly at stupid bars, saying, “Your voice is nice, but I would really like to see you with a band.” When they say that, they mean drums and guitar and bass, but that's never going to happen. It's not that I don't love that, but that's not what I do. I don't think that would flatter my voice the way the dimensions of the string section do.
CP: Do you, as the performer, relate to the songs differently when you play them solo without back up?
ER: No, and I don't know what that says about me. It feels the same to me. I'm delivering the song and am able to get into it, especially now. I did struggled with that for a while. I'd be in the middle of the song and think, “Ah shit. You can't hear the second violin part, and it's really cool. I wonder if they're feeling this the way I would like them to.” Now, I don't think about it or worry about it. I don't think anyone has gotten wise to the lack of backing musicians.
CP: What are you playing at shows these days? Is it primarily material from “O, You Sinners” or a mixture of both albums? Any new material?
ER: I'm mostly performing songs from the album. I'm happy to say that I'm not sick of them yet. I know that can happen with some people. I just recently started playing a little bit of autoharp. I'm playing two songs on the autoharp at my most recent shows. I'm not ready to bust out the banjo yet, but that will come. I'm so bad, but I think it will work out. I always say I'm the world's worst accordion player, too, but I can still think I can make people cry with it. It's all about how you use it; it's not about how fast your fingers move.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...