Article by: Angela Suico | Photo Credits: Erik Jacobs | Posted: 09/11/2012
From Scotland to Santa Fe to Venice Beach to Boise, Idaho, the locales dotting folk singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell’s life and career are like a kaleidoscopic image. Each leaves its own distinctive mark while also blending with the others to create the colorful pattern of this pensive and soulful crooner’s history.
Scotland, for one, gave her a unique name—or at least it supposedly did: when her parents were expectant with Jewell, a family friend who was “an eccentric older lady…traveling the world at the time” sent them a postcard from Scotland suggesting the name “Eilen,” explaining that it was a popular name in the country. But Jewell has yet to experience her name’s alleged popularity. “I’ve now been to Scotland several times,” she remarks. “No one there has ever heard it. My parents insist [their friend] was not the kind of person to get details wrong, but maybe it was only popular in a certain part of Scotland that I've never been to. It remains a bit of a mystery.”
Santa Fe gave Jewell her love for performing, a love she never realized she had until a musician friend asked her to join him for a few songs while he busked in the streets. Persuaded by her friend’s assurances that no one would be listening that closely, Jewell, who at the time didn’t like performing but “enjoyed singing songs and playing them on [her] guitar,” agreed, and to her surprise, she loved it.
“It was the first time I had willingly performed in front of anybody,” says Jewell, contrasting the experience with the annual piano recitals she dreaded as a child, so much so that the days after the recitals were full of joy for her “because [they meant] I had 364 days of piano recital-free life.”
With her newly discovered taste for performance, Jewell gradually transitioned into a solo street performer in Santa Fe before packing her bags and moving to Los Angeles for a summer to try her luck at busking in Venice Beach. During her time there Jewell says she encountered “strange characters…who didn't understand boundaries between performer and audience,” like the individuals who would “come up behind me…put their hands on my shoulders and say, ‘I love your music!’ in my ear…It ended up being a really great way for a girl from small-town Boise, Idaho to learn how to have a little bit of street savvy and get a thicker skin,” she concedes.
Jewell theorizes that growing up in Boise, where she experienced a happy and sunny childhood, is the reason her music focuses so closely on the melancholy, both lyrically and melodically. (Her latest album gained its title from a friend who jokingly referred to Jewell as “queen of the minor key.”) She’s quick to acknowledge how much she loves the city, pointing out the fact that she and her husband recently bought a house there because she’s missed it so much. But when asked if she thinks there’s a stigma against experiencing sadness in our society, she points to Boise, in its sunshine and cheer, as exemplary of how sadness is overlooked in our culture.
“I felt when I was growing up there was another side to human existence that was getting glossed over or shoved under the rug,” says Jewell. “I always thought of expressing sadness as being a way of showing trust with people and a way of revealing deeper truth. So I definitely believe that [sadness is] not encouraged in our society, and especially not in my world growing up, so perhaps I overemphasize it now, but I'm making up for lost time.”
Sadness is definitely a presence on Queen of the Minor Key, with songs like the hauntingly delicate “I Remember You” and the heartbroken “Over Again.” But the album’s emotional range is hardly one-note. Jewell’s voice ranges from confident and assured to hypnotic and seductive to steely and determined as she tells stories of minor key queendom, eerie portents from spiders and rattlesnakes, and return travels out to the country -- most of them set against a Western backdrop where Cupid totes a gun instead of the traditional bow and arrow.
Featuring country, jazz, rockabilly and blues styles, the musical territories Jewell covers in Queen of the Minor Key are as varied as the geographical ones that have so heavily influenced her life. Its variety mimics the diversity of her oeuvre overall, which has included forays into areas like gospel and Loretta Lynn cover tributes; (Jewell and her band released an album honoring Lynn in 2010.) With a fondness for experimentation, Jewell likes to approach each of her albums in a way different from the last. What direction does she hope to explore in the future?
“Songwriting has always been a solitary thing for me,” explains Jewell. “I'd like to get to the point someday where I could collaborate with people just because I think it would be a fun way to explore new ways of songwriting that I'm not even aware of.”
And with six albums now under her belt, Jewell has come a long way from busking in Santa Fe. When asked what she would tell herself if she could travel back in time to when she first started recording, she says she would advise herself to embrace her inner perfectionist. “There are certain songs [where] I can hear a flaw that…would have had a really simple fix at the time,” says Jewell, “but I was just too afraid of appearing to be a studio Nazi or something. So there's always those little battles that you have to choose and I guess I would tell myself, ‘It's okay to choose more battles…You can fuss a little more.’”
Given her versatility and her sharp, vivid songwriting, it will be exciting to see where Jewell takes her music next—be it through collaborative lyrics or showing more of her fussy side, or maybe through taking a different direction altogether. Regardless of the route she takes, one thing is certain: with Eilen Jewell’s music, you’re guaranteed to wind up somewhere interesting.
Eilen Jewell - "I Remember You"