Armed with an unusual instrument, Eliza Rickman conjures up a one-of-a-kind sound.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
After Eliza Rickman graduated from college, she started gigging around Los Angeles. The petite, porcelain-skinned girl – an army brat born in Okinawa, Japan – was tasked with the constant challenge of hauling her enormous keyboard because many of the venues she played didn’t provide a piano.
“Lugging my 85-pound keyboard around got really old very quickly,” she says. “That’s pretty much what I weigh.”
One day, Rickman was sitting in her apartment before heading out to perform when she noticed a small Schoenhut toy piano her mother gave her.
“I had been dreading the task of loading the keyboard into my truck by myself again,” Rickman says. “I had never touched [the toy piano] before but wondered if I could use it instead.”
The musician ended up taking the antique piano to her gig and dazzling the audience with its quirky sound. On Friday, she’ll bring it to Pierce Ranch Tasting Room for a free show.
Rickman says she is able to make many of her songs fit the miniature instrument. There are a few tunes that just don’t work on the Schoenhut, but that only inspired her to write more.
“When I started taking the toy piano to shows, I began making it a point to write my new songs on it,” she says. “That forced me to start writing more simply and I think it was really good for my songwriting. It helped me write songs that were a lot more to the point.”
Rickman’s self-taught chops on the toy piano have garnered praise from the Schoenhut Piano Company president Renee Trinca:
“Eliza’s beautifully unusual voice, accompanied only by the unique tones of a toy piano, is mesmerizing,” Trinca says, “absolutely exquisite.”
Each song on Rickman’s toy piano-based EP Gild the Lily, hovers around the 3-minute mark, including the heartbreak ballad “Black Rose,” a standout she says almost didn’t make it onto the album. Her sweet, honest and unapologetic exploration of a recent breakup might be the best track in the lineup.
“Pray baby pray, over our sins/ You know, we’ll grow our own,” Rickman sings, unleashing a lasting vibrato that sounds like it’s in love with the rhythmic, bell-like clanking of her toy piano. Watching the raven-haired singer-songwriter perform, meanwhile, is like seeing one of the sexy secretaries on Mad Men happily work on a typewriter.
Rickman is putting the finishing touches on her full-length debut – recorded with Chicago-based engineer Mark Greenberg (Andrew Bird, Wilco, Mavis Staples) – and hopes it will be released in February. She says it will be much different from her EP mainly because she’s reincorporated a normal-sized piano. Not that the tiny Rickman is backing away from trying out new and different tools, a la the toy piano.
“I try to mix it up a lot now,” she says. “I’ve also picked up a little bit of accordion and I’m starting to do things with the looping pedal.”
ELIZA RICKMAN plays at 8:30pm Friday, Jan. 6, at Pierce Ranch Tasting Room, 499 Wave St., Monterey. Free. 372-8900.