Once in a great while, you put on a CD by an artist you’ve never heard of before and time stops. The voice is new, yet timeless. The lyrics are original yet feel immediately familiar, lived-in, knowing. And the melodies — expertly performed by a first-rate band — carry an easy, memorable groove.
This is the story of Eilen (rhymes with feelin’) Jewell. It started after her 2005 self-released debut, Boundary Country, made its way into club-owners’ hands, onto a handful of radio shows and around the press circles of Boston, her current home base. Reaction to Eilen’s music was swift. Many compared her talents to those of Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and June Carter Cash. The Boston Globe said, “The slow organic sway of her melodies, and the sensual way she rubs against the low end of her register, will remind some of Gillian Welch. Also like Welch, her writing is both intimate and vivid, classically framed and closely observed.”
And now begins chapter two in the story of this 27-year old Boise-born talent: the release of her national debut album LETTERS FROM SINNERS & STRANGERS on Signature Sounds.
Letters From Sinners & Strangers promises to show the rest of the world what the buzz is about. Jewell’s heart-achingly hushed style and intimate grasp of roots music’s wild graces are revealed in the CD’s provocative, melodic originals and timeless country and blues classics. Set to a swaying, irrepressible groove, the subdued emotion in her soft soprano feels like music straining beneath skin. And her band evokes classic country, folk and swing without feeling nostalgic. Nothing about roots is retro in Eilen Jewell’s universe.
In an era dominated by artfully inscrutable songwriters, Jewell’s songs come on like nakedness and thunder. "You show me the well, but you don't let me drink," she sings, and you know exactly why she's "going some place where they never say your name." And when she hisses that she's "Too Hot to Sleep," you know she ain't talking about the weather.
Eilen’s keenly visual way of articulating deep emotion is palpable on her new album. She always wants you to know how her songs feel, whether she's drowning her sorrows on "Heartache Boulevard," or yearning for the "High Shelf Booze" of the good life that always seems like it's right around the next hard corner.
Perhaps the most remarkable song on the album, "How Long," is her gripping song-setting of a Martin Luther King speech from 1965. Within her world-weary, street-beaten melody, the lyrics veer ominously between certain despair and uncertain hope.
Jewell’s band – drummer Jason Beek, Jerry Miller on electric and steel guitar, and Johnny Sciascia covering the low end on upright bass – accompany her on tour and in the studio. Together they’re always seconding, but never detracting from, Eilen’s hushed vocals.
Those same hypnotic vocal talents could lull you into thinking she's not a skilled and crafty stylist. But listen to the prolonged, yearning vowels in her version of Eric Anderson's '60s gem "Dusty Box Car Wall." Her oddly halted phrasing softly reinvents the Charlie Rich classic "Thanks a Lot," turning its bitterness into something both vulnerable and resilient. Like her vocal hero Bessie Smith, Jewell always makes you think she'll be punching back at life in the morning.
Jewell is at her most daring in her use of silence, deftly placing pauses that imply deep wells of restrained emotion. “I think space is one of the most important things in writing and performing,” she says. “I don’t know why; it’s just an aesthetic that I have. I always preferred songs that leave room, that don’t get all cluttered up. There’s so much clutter in our lives these days.”
“The fewer tricks you have going on, the fewer antics, the more bare you are,” she adds. “There’s something much more real about that, and there’s also something terrifying. But I know that’s the music that really moves me.”
Eilen Jewell’s love of music began on a 1500-mile family road trip from Anchorage, Alaska to her hometown of Boise, Idaho. Bundling his wife, daughter, week-old son, and husky dog into the family Volvo, Eilen’s father (a tree farmer from a long line of Idahoans) put on a tape of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Seven-year-old Eilen was so fascinated, she begged her parents to let her take piano lessons when they got back to Boise. The 27-year-old singer, songwriter and musician plunged headlong into anything and everything musical ever since.
At 14, Jewell dug her parents’ old records out of storage, a discovery that led her to pick up her first guitar. Her favorites, Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and a Sun Records’ Howling Wolf album, led the quiet teenager to the music of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. All remain her strongest musical influences today.
Five years later, at 19, Eilen began performing at farmer’s markets and local bars in Santa Fe (as a college student at St. John’s), before moving to Los Angeles, where she became a fixture in the Venice Beach street circuit. “Busking helped me learn to establish your boundaries as a performer,” she says. “Growing up in Idaho, everyone’s so friendly. It took me a while to not get too disturbed about what strangers might say or do.”
She then journeyed cross country to New England in January, 2003 and settled briefly in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, where she got her start at the legendary Club Helsinki.
Eilen would often travel to old-time music jams near Boston, where she met drummer Jason Beek and harmonica player PJ Eastman. Seeing that Boston had a lot to offer musically, Eilen moved there in late fall of 2003 and was quickly welcomed into the famous and vibrant community of folk and roots musicians. Performing with bands as well as solo, she cut her teeth first at venues like Club Passim, Plough & Stars and Johnny D’s. Eilen learned some of her first lessons about the music business from veteran bass player and then band-mate Paul Strother (Chicken Chokers). PJ Eastman provided powerful blues harmonica for Eilen while Strother and Beek laid down her rhythm section. During this time she released a live demo to sell at shows and nearly recorded a full album that, unfortunately, was lost — along with the studio where it was recorded — in a fire.
The loss of this album opened Eilen’s eyes to the need for a new musical direction. She then put her energy towards the making of the live demo Nowhere In No Time — a sparse-sounding live demo with Jason Beek on drums and Daniel Kellar on violin. It was released on a very limited basis in March, 2005. Also at this time, Eilen began a successful Saturday evening residency at Tír na nÓg pub in Somerville, Massachusetts, which lasted until 2007.
In December, 2005, with a tight band including Beek on percussion, Daniel Kellar on violin, Jerry Miller on guitars and upright bass player Johnny Sciascia, Eilen entered Chris Rival’s renovated 19th-century barn/studio to record Boundary County. That album — until now the best representation of Eilen Jewell’s music — received swift and overwhelmingly positive attention from clubs, radio programmers and the press.
Summer 2007 brings the release of Jewell’s first national release, Letters From Sinners & Strangers, recorded at the Signature Sounds studio in Pomfret, Connecticut one snowy week in March. Eilen and her band will tour nationally beginning this summer.