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Eliza’s blue rendition of folk shines

By Staff | Sep 30, 2010

What’s an inspiring singer-songwriter to do when she’s too fraught with terror at the prospect of playing her songs for people, let alone on a stage, that she can’t even strum her guitar?

Invent a stage persona with a new name, of course.

The name change may have initially been in jest, but after all these years, Eliza Blue, the Appalachian-influenced, Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter, has come to fully inhabit the new name and a newfound confidence, in part, because of it.

“I was writing songs that I’d never play for people because I’d get so overwhelmed with terror that I couldn’t use my hands,” Eliza said during a recent break from touring. “My friend made a joke that I had to invent an alter ego that didn’t care what people thought. So when I started playing out, I decided on a whim to give myself this more of a band sounding name and thinking that would be something I could grow out of. It’s funny now because it does sort of feel like my name.”

And that’s good news for us, because Eliza, whose real name is Elizabeth, is coming to Thomas’ Purple Fiddle on Oct. 17. And you don’t want to miss this performance, especially if it’s anything like her sophomore album, “The Road Home,” a gorgeously constructed album that’s at once intimate and haunting, beautiful and melancholic, lush and spare.

Eliza recorded “The Road Home” mostly alone in her attic in Maine, with just recording equipment, a banjo, acoustic guitar and violin. At times, you can hear crickets buzzing in the background or chirping sparrows joining the chorus.

A lot’s been made in the press of this recording process and how it sprouted out of Eliza’s stage fright — she was simply too terrified to record her music in a traditional studio.

But the more interesting aspect of the story, and of the album, is that, through this process of layering tracks, searching for complimentary violin parts to match her softly strummed acoustic guitar and banjo, Blue grew. You could say she blossomed with the newfound confidence in herself.

Hearing this struggle come through in the recordings lends a depth to the album that’s often not found in most mainstream pop music.

“I think there is a correlation between that type of learning and learning about yourself,” she said. “It felt like a transition. I’d been a performing songwriter, been out on the road, but I didn’t own (my music) on some level. It felt, at the end of the process, that I had sort of proven something to myself, that I was capable that I could do it. Depression is definitely a big issue for me and it felt like, as strange as this sounds, the psychic album was really healing as an acceptance to where I was in life.”

It’s a theme, one of finding yourself and heading home, wherever that may be, that’s readily apparent in the music and Eliza’s lyrics.

“The nature of a musician is you don’t have a lot of stability because you’re touring,” she explained. “Through this album, in some weird way, I found out there was a stability in that. I can rest in the knowledge that this is my job that I love and I have a community and a network of people. Home doesn’t have to be one room you return to at the end of the day. I discovered that at the end of the album and that was a good feeling.”

Remorse, or perhaps guilt, for living this transient lifestyle can be heard in “Screen Doors & Back Doors,” when Eliza sings of leaving behind cities of sand and miles of highway, while the person she’s singing to is leaving her reasons to stay.

On “Oceans & Fields,” she sings of not knowing where she’s going and not knowing where she’s been.

It’s useless to wonder at what might have been, but if you came knocking, I’d let you in, she sings.

The title track speaks also of that restless feeling you get when you’re searching for something but unable to reach it because what you’re searching for is not really what you need or want.

That restless feeling in “The Road Home” swells with every howl of Eliza’s voice and swirl of violin until it finally ends in a refrain of Eliza urging herself to get her feet on the road home.

The sentiment is found again in “Mending Fences,” with Eliza relating herself to the wind, fleeting here and there, with nets but no ocean to cast them in, with the rain, barely there at all.

This is how the story ends, again and again, she sings.

Fortunately, that’s not where the album ends. Instead, the upbeat “Gospel Song,” comes just before a reprise of the lead track. It’s an uplifting spiritual track set simply to Eliza’s strumming and her Alison Krauss-like voice reaching up to the heavens as she sings of crossing the Jordan River over into salvation.

I’m swimming for your shore, I’m swimming for your shore, she repeats as the song slowly ends.

And it’s at this point that you know she’s found what she’s looking for: another road, another path, another journey. Her soul is free to move on.

Contact Justin at jmcintosh@graffitiwv.com