Eilen Jewell Brings It All Back Home to Boise
Boise is a place caught between two worlds.
The city, which rises on a high desert plain in Southwestern Idaho, is both urban and wild. The Boise River snakes its way past monuments of industry, while mountains rise to the northeast and stretch to the far southeastern tip of the city limits. It’s here, with the push of modern life and the pull of the Old West, where singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell feels most at home. She was born here, raised here. But dreams of a music career took her far from this place.
It was in Boston, a world away, where Jewell’s music – a hybrid of country-folk and Western swing, punctuated by some rockabilly and jazz flourishes – first found an audience. After a decade in that area, though, Jewell felt a longing for home. So in 2012, she and her husband and bandmate Jason Beek packed their things, bought a house down the street from Jewell’s mother, and returned to Idaho.
In the years since, ghosts from the past and hope for the future have flowed from every chord of her well-traveled guitar. Her latest album, Sundown over Ghost Town, out May 26 on Signature Sounds, is a revelatory journey rich with cinematic visions, elegant, sweet, and smoky vocals, and hauntingly autobiographical songs inspired by her return to the West.
“I’ve come to a point in my life where I’m more focused and more introspective than I ever was before,” she says over the phone from her home. “I would say it’s my most autobiographical album so far. My previous albums, the characters were more fictional. They were real in the way that fiction feels real, but the stories were largely made up. So I’m excited to be telling stories that are true and very real and dear to my heart.”
To find that truth, Jewell peeled through the layers of her own musical journey, which began in a very different place. Long before she was inspired by the likes of Loretta Lynn and Mississippi John Hurt, Jewell had a deep admiration for Ludwig van Beethoven.
“My great ambition was to play the piano just like Beethoven,” she says, referring to the piano lessons she began at age seven. “I really wanted to be able to play his piano sonatas – that dark and dramatic stuff. I’ve always been drawn to that material.”
By eight, however, she already started to stray from classical and tried writing her own songs. “I have a whole collection of songs about things that were really important to me at the time like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and popsicles,” Jewell says. “I even had a little tape player and I recorded them with a friend. We had this imaginary band. Well, I should say it was a real band with imaginary instruments.”
Although the family record player had long been broken, Jewell’s discovery of her father’s record collection boxed up in the garage piqued her musical curiosity.
“My dad had some Bob Dylan records that [were] an early influence as well, but there were two names that stood out the most – Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf,” she says. “Part of it was just their names. How was somebody named Howlin’ Wolf? I was so intrigued, I got myself a record player and fell in love with that early blues stuff.”
When Jewell got a guitar at age 15, it was Hurt’s fingerpicking style that she tried to emulate.
“It was a lot less formal than the piano,” she says. “I only had a few months of lessons on the guitar and I’ve never had voice lessons. I’ve thought that maybe I should study the guitar more intensely or take some voice lessons, but I also am glad in a way that I avoided doing that. It’s all been more organic. When I sing, I sing the way that I feel and not the way a teacher told me to.”
It was at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she began playing her songs for a different audience. Daniel Fram, who is also a member of her gospel side-project, the Sacred Shakers, was drawn to what he says was Jewell’s “unassuming and unpretentious interpretation of blues songs at campfires and small parties.” Eventually, he convinced her to start busking with him on the street.
“I had stage fright so bad as a kid when I had to do piano recitals, I thought there was no way I was going to willingly perform in front of people again. But busking kind of changed that,” says Jewell. “A couple times [Daniel] said, ‘Come and join me.’
“I sat in with him and it turned me onto this whole world of performing that I didn’t realize was there – this give-and-take between the audience and performer, which I never felt before, doing piano recitals. Busking taught me you can perform a song that you like just because you want to and people might like it and respond in a really positive way.”
Fram remembers, “[Eilen] could sing harmony to anything and when she led a song, you felt just guaranteed that something magical was going to happen. She was always shy and timid and a whisperer but you wanted to listen close. She had amazing taste and a lot of faith and no grudges. All she seemed to care about was the expression of real feelings. And you could listen to her voice all day. … I wanted her to show up to my gigs whenever possible because I knew that she would take them to an entirely different dimension."
After Fram returned to Boston, Jewell missed busking, so, for the first time, she tried it on her own with her guitar and a harmonica on a rack. “People would give me things they bought at the farmer’s market that day and all kinds of little presents and money,” she says, “but what was more important to me was the smiles that I’d see when people liked something.
“Wanting to be a musician was a very slow and gradual realization for me,” she continues. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was feeling a little lost. A friend of mine [in Massachusetts] was about to have her first kid and they had a room open in their house, so she invited me to come live with them and help with the baby.”
Jewell took the offer and moved to Western Massachusetts. She started playing music in and around Great Barrington, including the legendary Club Helsinki, where she opened for Geoff Muldaur.
“It was there that I realized I wanted to get back into performing, and Club Helsinki really took a chance on me and gave me a lot of encouragement,” she says. “But if I was going to get serious about music I knew I needed to move to Boston.”
‘Old weird folk music’
When she finally landed in Beantown, Jewell got back in touch with Fram, who was tapped into Boston’s music scene. It was he who introduced her to drummer and future husband Jason Beek.
“It was like, OK, you two like the same old weird folk music so you should know each other,” Jewell says, laughing. “At first we were just bandmates. He became my drummer and promised to find me the best musicians in Boston.”
Those musicians were guitarist Jerry Miller and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia. The band self-released Jewell’s Boundary County album in 2006, which caught the attention of Jim Olsen who owns Signature Sounds Recordings, a singer-songwriter, Americana, and modern folk label based in Northampton, MA.
“That whole album feels like reading a long letter from an old friend,” Olsen says. “It is one of the best debut albums I’ve ever heard from an unsigned artist. [But] what sealed the deal for me was seeing Eilen and her band perform live at Club Helsinki. I loved everything on Boundary County, but the live set took her eclectic musical tastes one step further. … It was clear that Eilen had spent a lot of time listening to the masters of roots music. I remember thinking three songs into the show that this was an artist I had to work with.”
While both Boundary County and its 2007 follow-up, Letters From Sinners & Strangers, tout her heavy folk influence, Jewell began to test her own musical boundaries with 2009’s Sea of Tears, highlighted by her electrifying cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” originally a 1960 chart-topping British hit for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
“I had always been into rockabilly and early rock and roll,” she explains, “but these were things I didn’t think I could play. By Sea of Tears, I felt like I had really locked myself into this folk music genre, and I realized there was this whole side of me I wanted to explore, and that was one with a little more of a rock-and-roll tinge to it.”
With the success of Sea of Tears, and no more self-imposed limitations, Jewell spun in a new direction and followed a year later with Butcher Holler: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn.
Although she had already covered Lynn’s “The Darkest Day” on her previous album, the dozen selections on Butcher Holler went deep into the coal miner’s daughter’s catalog with compositions that highlight her often defiant, genre-expanding lyrics and diverse topics, ranging from offbeat gospel (“Who Says God Is Dead”) to brazen infidelity (“Another Man Loved Me Last Night”).
“Her songs are really challenging to me in all the right ways,” Jewell says. “They really stretch my voice and are so refreshingly pure, classic country. I love her confidence that comes across in her songwriting. She’s so self-assured and cheeky and really has a great sense of humor.”
The recording sessions for Butcher Holler awakened something in Jewell’s own songwriting. She wanted to be that confident, that honest, and set out to do so on 2011’s Queen of the Minor Key. While the album features guest appearances from Big Sandy and labelmate Zoe Muth, Jewell penned all the songs. One of its radio favorites is “Warning Signs,” with references to a black widow, a rattlesnake, and a beady-eyed raven.
“That’s where I started realizing that the autobiographical song was really worth exploring,” she says, “I didn’t see the point anymore of limiting myself to one particular genre. My band can play anything, they’re not limited. And there’s all [these] other kinds of music to explore, so why don’t we try all these sounds?”
The Slow Tug of the West
After recording Queen of the Minor Key, something still felt incomplete. While Jewell has a deep affection for Boston “it never really felt like home,” she says, “at least not with a capital H.” Her thoughts instead turned to Boise, and she began to feel the slow, deep tug of the West calling her back.
The way Lynn mined songs from life in Kentucky, Jewell taps into her own Idaho story on Sundown over Ghost Town.
The 12-song album was written entirely by Jewell, with what she calls a “combination of practicality and following my heart.” The few guest artists brought in to lend some extra layers – Jake Hoffman on pedal steel, Jack Gardner on trumpet, and Steve Fulton on organ and electric piano – also hail from Idaho, emphasizing the connectivity between sound and place.
The album kicks off with “Worried Mind,” a bittersweet song of searching and redemption propelled by Hoffman’s wistful pedal steel. Its lyrics also set the album’s autobiographical tone:
Been all around this world, just to come back to you
Oh my love, my sweet love
It’s a long and lonesome highway, it’s a bitter shade of blue
Oh my love, my sweet love.
“It’s almost a love song to Idaho, really,” Jewell says. “I feel like I’m a Western girl at heart, and tapping into [my own life] in a way was easier, simpler. The stories were already there. Most of them are things that I have thought or felt or that have happened to me, or all of the above. They were already there, I just needed to find the best way to express them.”
“Hallelujah Band,” the second song on the disc, tells a couple of true stories. The first is about an experience she had as a teenager exploring an underground cave in the middle of the desert.
“Sometimes when I talk about this I feel like I must be making this up because it sounds so bizarre,” she says. “A friend of mine and her boyfriend [and I] all went into this cave in the ground and hiked around down there for hours and hours. It was this incredible cave network with this underground river. It was so otherworldly. Somehow we didn’t get lost or stuck, and after a while we popped up in what must have been miles away and it was maybe 30 feet from where we started. It was like this religious experience. I had been haunted by it so long and always knew I was going to try to get it into a song. I started thinking, ‘What did that experience really mean to me?’ I realized when these inspiring experiences happen it makes me feel like I want to be open to the miracle of this world and the unknown quality that it has.”
The second story in that song recalls a little space in the ground, where as a child Jewell would sit on the pine needles with her doll.
“I used to call it my Alaska,” she says. “I would go there and just kind of sit. I was only three. It strikes me as amazing how a three-year-old would know that she needed her own little magic place. But we all do. We all need that place where we can go that inspires us and makes us feel like we’re part of this bigger amazing thing. But adults forget that so easily. I would never be able to find that spot now, but it’s crucial that I remember to look for it though, at least symbolically.”
Another Sundown highlight is the rollicking “Rio Grande,” which, with its trumpet intro and breaks by Gardner, interwoven with Jerry Miller’s guitar, sounds a little like a great lost Mavericks song.
She started writing it over the winter, with lines that became the last verse:
The pines have lost their green, now they stare without a sound
The wind’s too cold to sing, snow is heavy on the ground.
Jewell was writing about what she saw around her but the song soon morphed into an ode to Santa Fe.
“Despite my love for that place, for some reason every time I go there something goes all haywire for me, which is why I left after college,” she says. “I wanted it to be a very Southwestern song and I wanted to capture that feeling.”
She succeeded. Even her bandmates appreciate Jewell’s ability to capture these feelings both lyrically and through her haunting melodies. “She has brilliant imagery,” Miller says. “It’s something she’s always had. It’s been a feature of her writing. You could always imagine what she’s describing, but [Sundown] feels more honest, like a real Western record.”
“Half-Broke Horse” is another of Jewell’s catchy but deeply textured compositions based on Pyro, her dad’s mustang, which, she explains, is “drawn to people and also doesn’t know what to do around people. He’s this really cool and really beautiful interesting horse that’s also kind of awkward in the world. I feel like a lot of people can relate. I’m definitely one of those people. I feel like I’m always trying to figure out what’s my place on the planet. And Pyro definitely is going through the same thing.”
While moving back to Boise certainly invigorated Jewell’s songwriting and informs much of the spirit of Sundown over Ghost Town, there’s another huge, yet tiny, force playing a pivotal role in the album. Jewell and Beek’s daughter, Mavis (named after Mavis Staples), was born about halfway through the recording of Sundown.
“She’s a dynamo,” Jewell says. “I feel like she has sent me to the most profound boot camp you could imagine. … Through the struggle and sleepless nights and epic labor there’s this overwhelming amount of love. I feel like everything had become more difficult and beautiful all at the same time. There’s a lot of room for inspiration from that because it is so rewarding. I feel like a more compassionate person because she’s really taught me how to love.”
The album’s closer, the hauntingly beautiful “Songbird,” was written about the joy and impact of Mavis. Listen closely and you’ll even hear her little voice cooing in the background.
“I had very simple motives for that one,” Jewell says, “which is also new for me. I feel like I have always demanded a lot from my songs. I want them to go places I didn’t expect them to go and I want them to surprise me. With ‘Songbird’ I wanted to just very simply express what it’s like being a new mother.
“We might be crazy,” she adds, “but we’re going to try to tour pretty hard with a baby. I have some new worries. Like how long is too long for a baby to stay in a car every day? And am I warping her? … I’ve also learned that the more an artist feels, the more inspired they can become. To foster inspiration you need to be vulnerable and receptive to the world and I think that’s what motherhood has truly taught me. … Man, she’s keeping me on the straight and narrow. I go to bed as early as I can these days. No more rock-and-roll lifestyle for me, but there’s still plenty of music left to play.”
Jeremy D. Bonfiglio is a South Bend, IN-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in No Depression, The Writer, Notre Dame Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and The Indianapolis Star, among others. He is the staff features writer for The Herald-Palladium newspaper in Saint Joseph and Benton Harbor, MI, and the author of “A Notre Dame Man: The Mike DeCicco Story.”
photos by Otto Kitsinger