Posted July 2, 2019 by Jeff in Tunes

Eilen Jewell Circles Back

Eilen Jewell
Eilen Jewell

As the reigning Queen of the Minor Key, singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell draws from surf-noir, early blues, classic country, folk and 1960s-era rock ’n’ roll. During the course of her career, she’s shared the stages with acts like Lucinda Williams, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples, Wanda Jackson, George Jones, Emmylou Harris and Blind Boys of Alabama. In addition to her solo career, Jewell has issued albums with her country-gospel side project, the Sacred Shakers. Her new album, Gypsy, arrives in August and it will be her first album of original material since 2015. She recently spoke to us via phone from her Boise home where she had just returned from a “long tour.” “We had a hellacious day of traveling so to wake up in my own bed this morning was like being on cloud nine,” she says. 

What types of music did you listen to growing up in Boise?

At the time when I was growing up here, it wasn’t the most diverse music scene. I didn’t see a lot of live music here growing up, but I did dig into my dad’s old record collection which I had come across stashed away in the attic of our garage where it was hidden very carefully. I went out and got a turntable at a yard sale and absconded with my dad’s entire record collection. I think I still have all the ones I stole from him. It was a lot of ’60s folk and blues revival stuff. There was Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi John Hurt and early Dylan records and some really good stuff. That was really influential for me. I grew up listening to the oldies station, which, at the time, only played ’50s and ’60s music. That’s what I grew up, and that’s still what I really love. My musical taste hasn’t changed at all although it has expanded to include classic country music. When I was growing up, I thought I hated country music because all I ever heard was the stuff people would play really loud in their pickup trucks. I didn’t realize there was a thing called classic country music until later. 

Did you start writing songs when you moved to Santa Fe?

I think I’ve always been writing songs. I think I was writing songs when I was really little, but it wasn’t until I moved to Santa Fe that I wrote some things that I even wanted to share with people. When I was a kid, I was in a band I named Steam. We were seven years old and had cardboard instruments. I wrote the songs from Steam. If you don’t count that and songs about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I was always writing songs but it wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that I realized it was something I needed to do to survive emotionally. 

You started busking, right?

Yes, in the farmer’s market. If it weren’t for that, I’m not sure I would have ever performed. I had thought I hated performing. When I had to do a piano recital as a kid, you’d think the world was ending. I hated it so much. I was just so nervous and had such bad stage fright. 

What was the process of making your first album (2006’s Boundary County) like?

It was really kind of amazing. I felt like it came together in this way that was meant to be. We didn’t have a set band at that point. Everyone who later became part of my band was on that record. It solidified us as a band and added a focus to what we were doing. We had been gigging casually. It was released to a fair amount of praise and gave us momentum to become a real band. Everything clicked into place.

You covered Loretta Lynn tunes on Butcher Holler. What made you want to cut an album of her tunes?

I had just recently discovered her music. I was slow to the party with the classic country stuff. I was so amazed at how great her songwriting was. I love how direct it is and how honest it feels. I love her delivering and the production of that early country stuff. The more I dove into her music, the more I realized that I wanted to cover all of those songs that she wrote. We formed a cover band called Butcher Holler. We named the album after the band. The cover band was just the four of us from my normal band. We got to perform in some of the smaller clubs that we had gotten too big to play. We could come back incognito as Butcher Holler and do all Loretta Lynn songs. It was a lot of fun. Our label wanted us to make an album of her songs. 

And what about Down Hearted Blues? Did it grow out of that experience of covering the Loretta Lynn songs?

It was really just purely an indulgence and wanting to fully focus on this music that essentially raised me as a musician. Most of the songs on Down Hearted Blues are songs I’ve been loving for a very long time, since I was a kid. I also used the recording of the album as an excuse to delve into artists that I’m not that familiar with but have been curious about — like Otis Rush. It’s a fun way to show my deep love and respect for early blues artists. 

Did you find the songs for Gypsy start to go in a certain direction?

There were things I kept circling back to, which tends to be how it goes for me when I write albums. I get stuck in these two- or three-year patterns where concepts keep coming back to me. Restlessness is a common theme for me. I often have this feeling of wanting to go somewhere and there’s often inner conflict. In the song “Crawl” I feel torn in two different directions. I want everything to be turned on its head. I’ve been looking for the words for it for a long time.

Of course, there are political themes. I don’t like to call them political because I think the political is personal, especially these days. I could not help but think about more political leanings and themes this time around. It feels like a line has been drawn in the sand, and you have to stand on one side or the other. Even if you stand on the line, that’s a stance. No one can call themselves apolitical anymore.

Where’d you record?

We recorded the last three albums at Audio Lab in Garden City, Idaho. It’s right next to Boise and just down the street from us. It’s become our home away from home. We feel super comfy there have a good relationship with the engineers there. It was very fun recording process, and I don’t use that term lightly. For me, it’s often not fun, especially with original material. I tend to get self-conscious in the studio; I think everyone does. When you show the band the songs for the first time, you keep asking if it’s the way you want to say it and if it’ll come across correctly. This time, that wasn’t how it went. Maybe I’ve learned how to write songs and record them. You’d hope so by now. It just went really smoothly, and each song was a revelation for me and the band. The band didn’t even know I had been writing songs, and some of them were only ideas for songs. Rather than it being a painful process, it was really rewarding and actually fun.

What made you want to play guitar on this record?

I’ve always played acoustic guitar, but the electric is new for me. I wanted to have a new voice in the studio and on the stage. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. With some of the songs, I was thinking of having an organ part. I played organ on all my albums but I’m not up to the task of touring with an organ. I felt like an electric guitar with heavy tremolo serves a similar purpose as the organ. It’s like a bed underneath the music, so I wanted to work that in. 

You have a Pinto Bennett song on the album. Who is he?

Pinto is a fellow Idahoan. I grew up hearing his name because everyone around here knows him and loves him. I had assumed my timing didn’t work out. By the time I moved back to Boise, he had pretty much retired from performing. Recently, a friend of ours started drumming with him once a week at a local dive bar called the 44 Club. Luckily, our friend mentioned he was drumming with him and invited us to the show. I couldn’t believe it. We went to this dive bar that has no windows and were blown away by his music. His songwriting is similar to Loretta Lynn. It’s classic country with words that manage to be simple, concise and poetic. I love that sensibility…and I love his sense of humor. It comes across how much of a character he is. We got to know him. We don’t talk politics with him, but he’s such a great guy. Jason, my husband, produced what he’s saying is his last album. It’s called The Last Saturday Night. Jason drummed on it, and Jerry Miller, my guitarist, plays on it and I sing back up. To put one of his songs on my album would be a good way to get his name out there. I wanted to spotlight him as an artist who never got what he deserved. 

These days, the record business doesn’t offer much in terms of monetary rewards. What keeps you going?

I’ve been at it for so long by now that it’s become part of me. It’s who I am now. I do have days when I fantasize about having benefits and always sleeping in your own bed, and some kind of financial stability would be nice. But when I think about what else I would do, nothing else comes to mind. I feel like what you do habitually in life becomes who you are and informs you and shapes you. At this point, there’s no turning back. I’m in it for the long haul. It’s a hard life but it’s a good life. Our little girl comes with us. As long as she can hang in there with us, we’re going to keep doing it. Somehow, it works. We’re fed and that’s really all I ask. 

Photo provided by conqueroo


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.