Toy Pianos and Vintage Gowns: Eliza Rickman Is Not Your Average Singer-Songwriter

Toy Pianos and Vintage Gowns: Eliza Rickman Is Not Your Average Singer-SongwriterEXPAND
Courtesy Eliza Rickman

On the first day of February, singer-songwriter Eliza Rickman marked her return to Los Angeles in a tiny side room at Hollywood's Hotel Cafe. She looked as if she were about to be filmed in black-and-white: a black lace gown long enough to graze the cables on the pint-sized stage, a gold cuff bracelet, tall wedge shoes that she later removed. Crammed amidst an assortment of gear and the string players who accompanied her, she moved between an array of instruments including autoharp, ukulele and a large keyboard.

Rickman has the sort of voice that can make even a love song sound melancholy, but she balances that with her frequent between-song banter. She jokes about the gown, which seems to catch on everything on the stage; about a microphone that keeps falling and the out-of-tune ukulele. She shares stories from the road that she has been traveling for six years now. She covers Nick Cave and David Bowie. She puts on an effortless show, the kind of performance that comes from years of playing night after night to new crowds in unfamiliar cities.

She isn't an easy artist to describe. The imagery that the term "singer-songwriter" conjures isn't her. "I'm not the dude with the acoustic guitar," she says. Live, there's a brooding quality to her music that recalls the great alternative artists of the ’80s and ’90s, but that's not her either. She's not a new Kate Bush or a new Tori Amos.

Rickman says that a friend once referred to her music as "post–Prince Charming," and she's cool with that assessment. "It's like the Disney princess who has maybe been screwed over more than once or twice," she says. She looks like Snow White or at least a 1940s actress playing her in a silver-screen fairy tale. She sounds a bit like the fairy-tale character, too; even Rickman acknowledges that she has a "Snow White voice," high and clear.

She learned to sing in and around Los Angeles, arriving here as a college junior to study piano at Azusa Pacific University. Singing wasn't part of the plan, but music majors had to take a voice class and Rickman couldn't get out of the requirement. She did her duty, hard as it was for someone who admits to having been "really painfully shy," and the teacher encouraged her to continue. "There was part of me that thought, oh my God, I sound so bad that she was being overly nice," Rickman says inside a Chinatown boba spot, "but I quickly got over myself and I'm glad."

Rickman booked gigs at whatever club would have her, often dragging a large keyboard into piano-less venues to play the songs she had written. She performed at farmers markets and on Third Street Promenade. She picked up a toy piano and for a while played only that, because it was easier to carry around with her. "Bless those people who thought that was great," Rickman says, "because I think that would drive me crazy as a listener."

She went on tour — just a quick jaunt along the West Coast — and thought that maybe she should keep going. Rickman got rid of her apartment and said goodbye to L.A. She spent more than six years wandering. Earlier this year, she came back to settle.

"I can't do this whole nonstop thing, floating around living out of a suitcase, anymore," Rickman says. In the years on the road, she tried out other cities: New Orleans, Chicago, Seattle. None of them fit her as Los Angeles did.

When Rickman left town, it was with a goal. "I was not willing to come back and pay rent every month on a place of my own untilI I felt like it was right," she says, "until I reached a certain level."

The nomadic artist life took its toll on Rickman. After two years of touring, she developed twitches.

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She recalls driving when her finger wagged uncontrollably. On the night of that incident she felt muscles move in her head and her toes and fingers. She called her doctor, who insisted that she return to San Diego and see a neurologist. Rickman moved back in with her parents for six months. "Fortunately, I was fine," she says. "All that weird muscle stuff, all those movements, all those twitches, that was just strange, long-term of effects of how stressful my lifestyle had been."

At what she considers her "lowest point," Rickman fell in with "Welcome to Night Vale," the creepy humor podcast that shares the weird news of a fictional small town. She provided music for a couple of episodes and toured with the live show, which turned out to be a huge career boost. "I feel eternally indebted to them because they let me just poach their fan base," she says. She crowdfunded her second and third full-lengths: Footnotes for the Spring, which came out in 2015, and a covers album, still in progress.

Now that she's back in L.A., Rickman has been getting settled, rekindling friendships and preparing to work on a new music video. Plus, she accomplished her mission and established enough of a following from touring that she could stay put for a little bit. "I'm certainly not famous," she says, "but I've come a long way and done a lot of great things."

Eliza Rickman plays Friday, March 17, at 9 p.m. on the second stage of Hotel Cafe. TIckets and more info.


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