On her four original albums, Eilen Jewell has deliberately given each one a slightly unique feel while maintaining the basic elements that have converted so many fans and critics. Her first two albums, 2005’s Boundary County and 2007’s Letters from Sinners & Strangers, were hailed as the work of a legend-in-waiting, while reaction to 2009’s Sea of Tears was decidedly mixed; some reviewers thought it was a logical progression, while others felt Jewell was treading water and not moving forward.
When Jewell began her fourth original album, after completing her 2010 tribute to Loretta Lynn, Butcher Holler, none of that was on her mind. Good, bad or indifferent, Jewell doesn’t allow outside opinion to sway her creative decision-making process.
“I try to take good and bad reviews with an equal grain of salt,” Jewell says from her Boston home. “I focus, as much as I can, on what I want to hear from the next record and how I want songs to sound. With every record, we take a slightly new direction and my goal is to have that decision come from my own heart and not from what people around me are thinking.”
With the recently released Queen of the Minor Key, Jewell views her love of Country and Folk music from different stylistic perspectives and attempts some unusual experiments, which results in highlight moments on the album.
“I want to expand and grow with each new record, and with this one in particular I wanted to try some new territory,” Jewell says. “I’ve never had a guest vocalist on any of my records before. We’ve had guest musicians, like horn players and organists, but we’d never done the guest vocalist route.
So I decided I’d work up the courage to ask Zoe Muth and Big Sandy to join me. I’ve never been much of a collaborator. I think it’s because I’m a little bit shy.”
In addition to pushing her Country/Folk sound into areas that skirted the edges of Jazz and Surf-and-Spy thematics, Jewell also slightly tweaked her lyrical methodology to incorporate a lighter viewpoint.
“I’m beginning to realize that moving out of your comfort zone is the only way to grow as an artist,” she says. “There were a couple of songs that made an attempt at humor and I’d never done that before, in any of my songs, anyway. I was always wary of doing that because, to me, songs that are funny come across as sounding campy. Finally, I was like, ‘Well, I’ve got to explore new territory and I’m ready for the challenge.’ I tried it with ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and even the title track is meant to be tongue in cheek — queen of nothing, basically.”
Although Jewell added new spices on Minor Key, her basic sonic recipe remained unchanged. She loves playing with her amazing band — her drumming husband Jason Beek, guitarist Jerry Miller and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia — which affords her the opportunity to confidently write in any style. Even with sporadic genre variations, Jewell stays true to her core influences.
“With ‘Bang Bang Bang’ and ‘That’s Where I’m Going,’ I was kind of looking toward CCR a little bit, which I think we’ve hinted at in previous records,” Jewell says. “People have said they hear that swampy thing, but this time I was really hoping we’d work some more of that guitar sound in. Definitely some girl-group stuff coming back, but the title track is verging on Psychobilly, which we’ve never done before. We’ve definitely done Rockabilly, but never unhinged Rockabilly.”
Ultimately, the singer/songwriter game is about life experience and incorporating that into one’s art. Jewell has life experience to spare; a rural Idaho childhood where she learned to play piano, college in Santa Fe, N.M., where she busked and learned to perform, and then to Boston where she prospered in one of the country’s most competitive Folk scenes. Those experiences have informed every note that Jewell has played, particularly the ones making up the magnificent Queen of the Minor Key.
“I’m mostly influenced by Idaho and New Mexico,” Jewell says. “The West is always in my mind; I’m always writing with that imagery in my head, even when I’m not out there. But Boston has also been a huge influence. It’s where I learned about Rockabilly and early Rock & Roll and the earlier Garage stuff, the edgier stuff, because it’s an edgier place. So I feel my music really is a blend of the West and East Coast.”
EILEN JEWELL performs Friday at the Southgate House with Lauren Houston. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.