Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, 7:30 pm Eilen Jewell $15 advance purchase | $18 at the door
Although her country-flavored and blues-infused version of contemporary folk has drawn comparisons to musicians like Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Jolie Holland and the Be Good Tanyas, Eilen Jewell’s strongest influences have been the classic sides recorded by Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (the latter artist is no doubt the source for Jewell’s characteristic and surprisingly effective stretched, slowed and even slurred vocal mannerisms). Born and raised in Boise, Idaho, Jewell began piano lessons at the age of seven and picked up the guitar when she was fourteen. She also fell under the powerful spell of Smith and Holiday (along with discovering other artists like Bob Dylan and Howlin’ Wolf).
While attending St. John’s College in Santa Fe, she began playing the local farmers’ markets and bars. She moved to Los Angeles, then relocated all the way across the country in early 2003 to Western Massachusetts, and later in the year she moved to Boston, where she threw herself into the vigorous local music scene. She recorded a live demo album in 2005 called Nowhere in No Time and put out the self-released studio project Boundary Country a year later in 2006. The critical response to Boundary Country led to her signing with Signature Sounds and Jewell’s first national release, Letters from Sinners & Strangers in 2007.
But beware, savvy observer. There is more to Eilen Jewell than meets the ear. Do not confuse the singer and her songs. The drama and darkness that give Queen of the Minor Key its gritty texture are in short supply in the Boston-based songwriter’s personal life. And in a curious twist, these fourteen originals actually took shape in a sunny, idyllic location that contrasts strikingly with the album’s moody, film noir atmosphere.
In August 2010, Jewell headed to a tiny cabin in the mountains of Idaho. Although her clan hails from the Gem State, this was no comfy retreat at the family fold. Her temporary abode had no running water or electricity, and sat at the end of a winding dirt road. Wild elk would graze in the surrounding meadows while she worked. When it was time to unwind, she availed herself of a nearby hot springs. A dilapidated truck she found on the property even made its way into the album artwork.
She had no set game plan, and her sole objective for the new material was refreshingly modest (or incredibly daunting, depending on your point of view). “My goal as a songwriter is to always improve,” she demurs. “Every time I make a record, I want it to be even more real, more heartfelt, than the one before it. I want the slow songs to be slower and the fast songs to be faster.” Drawing on a connoisseur’s love of roots music and a writer’s eye for detail, Jewell fashions her musical vignettes with impressive economy. Each turn of phrase and chord change is executed with an élan that belies the measured precision behind it.
Queen of the Minor Key, released in June, 2011, is the first Eilen Jewell album to feature a significant number of guest players, even as she continues to work in close consort with her longtime trio of drummer Jason Beek, guitarist Jerry Miller, and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia. Zoe Muth and Big Sandy (of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys) both contribute vocals. “I was writing the songs with them in mind—if I could work up the courage to ask them—so I was really honored that they agreed to sing with me.” Further augmenting the sound are Rich Dubois on fiddle, David Sholl on tenor and baritone saxophones, and Tom West on organ.
Queen of the Minor Key is currently charting at #23 on the Billboard New Artists Chart, #14 on the Folk Chart and #77 on the Indie Chart.