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Eliza Blue rediscovers music in the middle of nowhere—with help from Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot

Eliza Blue with Billy Talbot

Eliza Blue with Billy Talbot Jack Hughes

Eliza Blue tried to give up music, but it wouldn’t let her go.

The folk singer-songwriter overcame the stage fright of her youth and began to play around Minneapolis after college. She appeared at CMJ and SXSW and released two albums. She built a network of fellow musicians and made friends along the way.

But after five years of near-constant touring, the instability of a musician’s life wore her down. Blue decided to leave Minneapolis, seeking refuge in Perkins County, a remote area on the west side of South Dakota. She eventually settled on a cattle ranch and surrendered her musical dreams. Then fate intervened in the form of Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot.

Talbot, a founding member of Neil Young’s most celebrated backing band, had moved to the same isolated region as Blue. Their meeting resulted in her third album, South Dakota, First of May, a polished pairing of Blue’s mellifluous vocals with Talbot’s masterful instrumentation. These nine tracks are like sonic snapshots from the prairie: sweeping, sparse, and achingly beautiful.

We spoke to Blue ahead of her album release show Saturday at the Aster Café.

City Pages: How did you end up in rural South Dakota?

Eliza Blue: That was about seven years ago. It was in the year after I put out my last album. I was touring a lot and wasn’t sure what the next thing was going to be. I was getting great reviews and some cool career stuff was happening, but I was still struggling to pay my rent and having to sleep in my car on the road. I was experiencing a lot of anxiety and I wanted to have a family and I couldn’t figure out how to make all those things work.

I played the main stage at the Minnesota State Fair and was wrestling with all this stuff and feeling really adrift. I went to the poultry barn after I stopped playing. Hanging out with the animals, I had a sense of something different calling me. So I ended up here in South Dakota in this very rural area. For a while, this area was famous for being the furthest from a McDonald’s that you could be in the United States. I hadn’t intended to stay here. It was supposed to be temporary until I figured out what I was going to do next. I taught English here at the high school in this little town I live by now and then I just fell in love with it. There came a point where I had to decide if I was going to stay and go and I was like, “I’m not ready to leave.” After that is when I met my husband, we got married, and now we have two kids. I’m definitely here now. This is what’s happening.

CP: You’ve said that part of you was “self-destructing” while living in the Twin Cities. Can you clarify what that means?

EB: When you’re on the road and you’re traveling, you never get enough sleep. It’s really hard to take good care of yourself. I always have grappled with anxiety and depression. That’s just been part of my life and, I thought, just part of being me. Music was the antidote for that, but the lifestyle of a musician definitely exacerbated it. I felt, and continue to feel, music is my calling. On many occasions, it’s saved my life, it’s brought me back from the brink of feeling so displaced from myself in the world, and yet, playing on the road, not being able to connect with people in a deep way, it can be really alienating, too.

I didn’t want to give up music but I didn’t know how to have music be my job and to have a healthier life and relationship with myself and to deal with those things. I now know, seven years after leaving, that the city is a big part of my anxiety. Driving is very stressful, negotiating urban settings where there’s lots of people, there’s a lot of stimuli that can be very exhausting.

When I moved up here, I made more sense to myself. I was like, “Oh, okay, I just need a slower pace of life. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not broken. This works better for my personality type.” I don’t feel like I’m living on the edge of that about-to-spin-out feeling now. My regular life is very grounded. There are times I wish everyone who struggles with anxiety could try living rurally. It might be what they need. It really was for me.

CP: And then you met Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot. How did that happen?

EB: That’s the part that, honest to God, feels like magic or divine intervention or whatever name you want to give it. I got out here and it was pretty clear early on that this was a better fit for me. Then it became: How do I keep playing music? The nearest city to me is two-and-a-half hours away. Touring here is just crazy. It costs so much in gas. Having these animals and chores and responsibilities, I can’t just take off for weeks like I used to. So I let that go and figured, “I can’t have everything in life.” I still played music and wrote songs.

Then I heard this rumor that this famous rock star was moving into our area. I figured Billy was visiting or renting or was going to live here part-time, but that turned out not to be the case, because his wife is originally from this area and he was looking to retire. Not so dissimilarly from me, he wanted a different pace of life after living a pretty exciting but fast-paced life for a long, long time. He and his wife moved out here. A neighbor introduced us. As it turned out, he had built this music barn on his property that he was going to use to record some solo stuff. He invited me to play on his solo record. I had the idea of recording an album even though I wasn’t going to tour behind it. I asked him to help me. I was just going to do something very stripped down and acoustic to put online, more for myself than for anybody else. He said, “No, I’m not going to help you with that. But I will help you make a real album.”

CP: How did Billy influence the sound of the album?

EB: He brought in a sound engineer, Jack Hughes, who lives down in the hills. We kind of had a mantra when we were working. Billy is obviously a rock ‘n’ roll guy, Jack is pretty into pop, and I’m the hardcore folkie, so we said if we could make an album we all liked, we’d really have something cool. Following through with that required a lot of compromise and communication. For example, Billy was adamant that we have drums and bass on every song, and I really disagreed! Our compromise was to bring on this amazing bassist, Andrew Reinartz, who has jazz and classical chops, and it brought a richness that surpassed all our expectations. And we ended up layering percussion that really gives the songs beautiful crescendos and nice bones without overpowering them. It felt like we were all working outside our comfort zones and the result was that we really did achieve our goal of creating something that appealed to our different sensibilities, while still being very true to the intent of the songs and my singer-songwriter roots.

CP: Do you feel more certain now that music is what you’re meant to do? Or do you still have doubts?

EB: I don’t doubt that music is what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe part of the problem when I was younger and living in the city was trying to make my whole income doing this. I felt all this pressure to be creating something marketable. People had to like it or I wasn’t going to be able to pay my bills. Now, I have the luxury of being liberated from that. It can be whatever it is.

Eliza Blue
With: Corpse Reviver
Where: Aster Café
When: 9 p.m. Sat. Aug. 25
Tickets: Cover charge on tab; more info here