Eilen Jewell’s father exposed her to Beethoven’s piano sonatas on a 1,500-mile family trek to Anchorage when she was just seven. Perhaps this trip was the catalyst for what was to come: the development of a thoughtful musician with an old, wandering soul. Jewell learned music while growing up in Boise, Idaho, performed at farmers’ markets and bars in Santa Fe during college, became absorbed in the street-performer scene in Venice Beach, and ventured to the East Coast old-time music and folk scenes in the Berkshires and Boston, which she now calls home.
Jewell’s self-released debut, Boundary County, received wide acclaim in 2005. She was compared to June Carter Cash and Gillian Welch for her resonating voice and early country style. Her latest album, Letters from Sinners and Strangers (Signature Sounds), is set for release July 17, fusing elements of blues, jazz, and country. The contents are well-crafted with intriguing twists, like the country twang behind jazz-laced vocals in “Where They Never Say Your Name.” Letters feels like a Midwest barn dance on one track and on the next, Jewell’s sultry, mature voice—at just 27 years old—resounds like it would in a smoke-filled lounge of another era. Mike Jurkovic spoke to Eilen Jewell in early June.
Mike Jurkovic: With the glowing reception of your indie release Boundary County, what was your mindset while recording Letters from Sinners and Strangers, your national debut on Signature Sounds?
Eilen Jewell: Because Jason [Beek, drummer], Jerry [Miller, guitarist], Johnny [Sciascia, bassist], and I actually came together as a band while recording Boundary County, I wanted this record to present a picture of what we really do live.
Signature Sounds [home of Kris Delmhorst, Richard Shindell] picked you up very quickly.
We released Boundary County in April of last year. Then we got an e-mail from Jim Olsen, head of Signature, saying he’d like to help us in any way he could. We took a while to respond because we couldn’t figure out what to say. Finally it was like, “Well...you could sign us like you did Josh Ritter.” In August Jim came to our show at Club Helsinki in Great Barrington with a contract in his hand. Then he was like, “I suppose I should see you play first.” Luckily he didn’t have to go back on his words. I was very fortunate.
You credit Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series as a major influence. How did something so contemporary result in such an authentic sound, like you’re playing alongside the ghosts of the greats?
I was 14 or 15 when I heard Dylan sing about Woody Guthrie. I just went backwards from there to Bessie Smith, Howling Wolf, and Billie Holiday.
Speaking of Woody, I don’t hear anything as topical on the new record as “The Flood” on your last.
That’s true. “The Flood” was a very emotional response to the failure of our leadership during Hurricane Katrina that, because of the current situation, has become political. But honestly, I’m just not writing that way lately. I’m afraid the war has left me desensitized.
You’re not alone.
I know, sadly.
Is this the sound you’ve always heard in your head?
It’s pretty darn close. Maybe I’d make it sparser.
Do you think that’s possible?
I suppose if I could I would have done it. I really like to let the songs go off in their own direction.
So what goes into your writing and selection of cover songs?
All the originals come from me. The guys helped me out with one of the new ones, “Too Hot to Sleep.” I have a penchant for obscure covers. I’ll be listening to a compilation or some other thing and I’ll see and hear the band playing it and think, “Wow, that’s an amazing song!”
I don’t understand the Norah Jones comparisons. I mean you’re not at all afraid to change tempo.
I don’t hear it either and our material is so different. Maybe it’s the similar timbre of our voices, I don’t know. But I’ll take it as a compliment.
Anything special planned for the CD release party at the Rosendale Cafe on July 14?
We’ll have two CDs for sale this time! We had cake and candles at one release party last year. Perhaps we can do something like that again.
Eilen Jewell will be at the Rosendale Cafe on Saturday, July 14 at 8pm. 434 Main Street, Rosendale. (845) 658-9048; www.eilenjewell.com.