Eliza Rickman just might be a ghost, or, at the very least, a medium channeling vibes from days of yore. That's not to say the Escondido-reared chanteuse is only slanging rehashed classics in the vein of Madeleine Peyroux, it's just that there's a decidedly old-timey, almost spooky, air to what she's doing.
Listening to her beatific voice, heavy on soul and emotion, is an experience leaning as much on the theatrical as the musical. Part of that is also roused from her uncanny, rather sparse, instrumentation.
Rickman's only release, a six-song gem of an EP titled Gild the Lily, is wholly composed of her vocals backed by the downright freaky sounds of an antique toy piano. The two-octave apparatus, which looks like the one Schroeder lugged around in Peanuts, emanates with a sweet, yet stark, timbre clearly separating Rickman from her contemporaries. When she sings over it, the result falls somewhere between a rhythmic tribal chant, an old Pinetop Perkins recording and PJ Harvey.
The best part is that none of it is calculated. Rickman came upon the diminutive instrument as a matter of convenience rather than a contrived oddball accoutrement to be remembered by.
“I really just got tired of carrying around a 90-pound keyboard every time I played, so I had to come up with an alternative,” she says. “I saw the toy piano and thought, I wonder if I could just use that instead, so I gave it a try, and it worked out.”
Rickman, who has a college degree in arranging, doesn't plan to build her young career solely around the tiny ivories, but, for now, they remain an integral part of her arsenal. She relishes the limitations of writing in just two octaves, adding that it compels creativity to flow from a different vantage.
“It forces me to write simply,” she said. “When you're thinking in terms of arrangements, things can get intricate and difficult. With the toy piano, I have no option—I have to present my ideas in a simple way.”
However, as Rickman sees it, there's more to her music than aural affectations. It's in the live setting that she conjures her theatrics to give her tunes verve. Of course, a lone figure on the stage with a tiny toy piano doesn't leave much for the drama fans, but she manages to bolster her already-alluring appearance to give the songs buoyancy.
“It's important to me to make my performance visually exciting,” she says. “I always have to wear a costume; aesthetics are a big part of making the show entertaining. I feel that if I don't dress up, it just gets kind of boring.”
Adding to her penchant for the dramatic, Rickman has plans in the new year to collaborate in New Orleans with a puppeteer on a production. The thought of her using her tiny piano to push along a narrative on a miniature stage makes sense, but there's more to Rickman's songwriting than that. There's an edge that takes the sugary sweet exterior and puts a sharp finish on it. Her voice might be angelic, but there's a definite mean streak in it.
For her full-length album, she plans to employ a string quartet and whatever other accompaniment she sees fit. However, before that can happen, there's more work to be done—only she's not miserable enough.
“I've never been a prolific writer,” Rickman says. “I've always been the kind of person that has to wait for inspiration to strike, and that usually happens when I am miserable. I don't think I've been miserable enough lately.”
So, as she waits for her mood to shift toward the dour side, Rickman plans to hone her chops as a performer by hitting the road in the spring. While most traveling acts, at the very least, are accompanied on the highways by a roadie or merchandise hawker, Rickman will go it alone.
“It's a little scary because it's just going to be me in my car with my stuff driving from venue to venue, but it's exciting, too,” she said.
Eliza Rickman plays with Asa Ransom and Bobby Fantasy on Friday, Dec. 18, at the Ruby Room. www.myspace.com/elizarickman.