by Robin Tolleson, MAY 31, 2011
Eliza Lynn can't ever remember not singing. "Music has always been my medicine," she says. " Singing and dancing it's how I feel comfortable being alive." Lynn is now releasing her fourth album, Together, a collection of covers hand-picked by her fans.
"Singing is like a way of being for me. I'll be walking around and realize, 'Wow, I've been singing for the last ten minutes, I wonder what I've been singing.'"
Born in Nashville, TN, Lynn moved with her family to Chicago when she was two. "I grew up singing old gospel stuff," she recalls. "I would sing lead and my dad would sing the harmonies. My parents are musical. My dad is from the Deep South, Georgia, and he sang in quartets growing up, and played trombone in jazz bands when he was 14. My mom was a tap dancer, and danced on TV when she was a little girl. She is a great singer, and played the banjo."
Visitors to the Lynn home were often treated to an early glimpse of Eliza's talent. "I had to sing for them, and do the clog," she smiles. "My parents would put me on the phone for everybody who called, before I was two, to sing 'Georgia On My Mind.' I remember writing songs on the way to pre-school."
Music sometimes took a back seat as she went through school, but even a grueling gymnastics schedule couldn't keep her from singing. "I actually made up song sheets for the gymnastics carpool," she recalls. "I would sing to them, and taught the whole gymnast group 'Mama Tried.'"
On a college search in 1996, Lynn decided to visit Warren Wilson. "I knew I would be on work study, so I wanted to go someplace where everybody was doing that," she says. "I remember driving onto campus it was my first time in North Carolina. We came on Halloween weekend, and the colors were unbelievable. I was just stunned."
She enrolled at Warren Wilson, balancing world religion and social justice studies with lessons on clawhammer banjo, and sessions with the Common Ground Drum and Dance Ensemble. She made trips to Africa and India, and also discovered her songwriting voice. "I had written songs as a kid and a little in high school. But I remember at college, I constantly wanted this low bluesy song. I craved it but I didn't have the follow through to find the song I wanted. I was in the cafeteria when it hit me 'If you know the song you want to sing, just sing it.' That was the beginning of my songwriting."
Lynn grew up listening to a cappella vocal groups like Sweet Honey In The Rock, and old country music from the likes of Lefty Frizzell. At Warren Wilson she fell in love with the acoustic music of Africa. "My favorite album still is Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate's In the Heart Of The Moon. It calms me down," she says. "The relationship to the music is most important to me, just the experience of it.
"I love roots music. I love that low, belting, bluesy stuff. The last ten years I've been obsessed with old blues - Reverend Gary Davis and those kinds of folks. I just love acoustic music. In Nashville lately I've become obsessed with classical music. I love that pure sound."
It took a few years after college before Lynn convinced herself that music could be not only her medicine, but her life's work. "My mom and dad were community organizers, and also ministers in the Episcopal church," she explains. "My mom runs the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. Social justice was so huge in my family, I really thought I needed to do something that was more literally helping people. I didn't really understand how much art helps people, and that it's enough."
In 2005 Lynn left her job as a Diabetes Wellness Coordinator for the Asheville YWCA to concentrate fully on her music. Some of her first shows were at The Back Room in Flat Rock. "The Back Room was an amazing help," she recalls. "When David [Brannock] opened, he let me have Fridays for four weeks. That was a real performance lab. I would play for three hours and go through all the songs I knew. I learned a lot there."
That year she released the album Frisky Or Fair, followed by The Weary Wake Up in 2007. In 2007, Lynn's "Sing A New Song" (from Frisky Or Fair) was featured on an Americana compilation album put out by the Putumayo label. That exposure led to the singer being invited to perform annually in Scotland at Dougie MacLean's Perthshire Amber festival.
In 2009 she released Haven, recorded with Nashville producer (and Nanci Griffith guitarist) Thomm Jutz. "My songs have been the mending of me," she says. "Even if I'm writing a silly song, a lot of the time it's coming out of feeling that same uncomfortability, or just feeling lost and broken. Singing and writing makes me feel better. It's a real literal experience."
Since moving back to Nashville, Lynn has found several songwriting partners. "I've explored the self-healing aspect for myself," she says. "It's neat to take it to a different place with other people who have different skills, and craft something. I never had a desire to craft anything before. But it still has that medicinal thing, even when you go, 'Hmmm, let's see how we can make that a little bit better.'"
When the singer returns to the Purple Onion on June 25th, it'll be her first solo show there. "Dougie MacLean's manager, his lovely wife, Jenny, has been trying to get me to play solo full time," she says. "I'm excited about it. It's just been settling into myself in a different way. I'll probably do a bunch of original stuff and some songs from the new album close and intimate."