Eilen Jewell – Something in rambling
The whole notion of rambling is a lost American art. Writing songs and singing about it in a believable, meaningful way — well, that, too has pretty much gone the way of the brakeman. But 28-year-old singer-songwriter Eilen (pronounced EE-lynn) Jewell is showing she can wander with the best of them, and write riveting song-stories about her adventures along the way.
On Letters From Sinners & Strangers, her second album, the Boston-based (for now) artist belts out a dozen songs about routeless journeys. Whether they’re her own compositions, or tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan (“Walkin’ Down The Line”), Eric Andersen (“Dusty Box Car Wall”) or Charlie Rich (“Thanks A Lot”), Jewell’s achingly charming voice convinces you these characters exist, and that she has tossed back at least a few whiskeys with them.
“I hadn’t really noticed how much the rambling and train themes surface on this album until someone pointed it out to me recently,” said Jewell of the album, due July 17 from Signature Sounds Recordings. “I guess I have a love of traveling, a love of always being in motion in some way.”
Jewell was a musical late-bloomer. She grew up in Boise and spent a lot of time in that city as well as in rural Idaho. “That’s where I get my aesthetic of space,” she says. “The spread-out landscape, the big skies out there. My songs reflect that part of the country in a lot of ways.”
She started busking with her acoustic guitar on sidewalks in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and later at Venice Beach in southern California. The burgeoning old-time music renaissance brought her out to western Massachusetts and ultimately to Boston, where she latched on with drummer/percussionist Jason Beek and eventually with other musicians, including guitarist Jerry Miller (who has played with countless bands, including Jay Geils’ Bluestime) and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia.
“I never really thought of myself as an artist,” Jewell says. “I never had that clear sense of, ‘I want to be this when I grow up.’ I know I wanted to live my life and have my life be my art. But somewhere along the way, I realized, ‘Oh, I can write songs.’ And then I realized I can also perform and that I like it.”
Jim Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, says he was immediately struck by Jewell’s honest songs and her knowing vocals. He liked what he heard on her 2006 independent debut Boundary County; then he saw her perform live with her band at the intimate Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and was hooked.
“The thing about Eilen is she is an almost all-natural talent,” Olsen says. “She has the ability to absorb classic singers like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith but to recast them into a more modern song….She is a pure and natural singer in every way with no stage airs whatsoever.”
Letters From Sinners & Strangers is a true band album, Jewell says. She had some finished songs and some shells of songs and ideas for others; she brought some of those early iterations to the band, which helped to shape the recorded versions.
“I usually get a picture in my head first and that gives me the basic idea for a song,” Jewell says. “Then coinciding with those images might be a phrase I can latch onto. I might hear night-sounding images and chords, or a song that sounds like summertime: surfy and dark. On this album, the band really added so much to the creative process and helped to push me to make the songs better.”
“Rich Man’s World” is an upbeat, foot-stomping number about a “lonely rambler girl.” “High Shelf Booze” is more of a bluesy shuffle, riding Alec Spiegelman’s soaring clarinet back to another time. “If You Catch Me Stealin'” is a traditional blues-country tune that borrows some bawdy verses from Bessie Smith.
Lyrically, the rough-and-tumble theme doesn’t end with the wanderlust. She sings of drinking — name your poison: whiskey, gin, just plain old high-shelf booze. When asked about her passion for 80-proof lyrics, Jewell laughs and responds, “In some ways, drinking is similar to things like trains and gambling. It is sung about in music in so many different ways in this genre of music.
“A woman can describe how awful her man treats her by how much he drinks: the no-account guy. I use it more as imagery than as anything literal or autobiographical. But it is something I know about — staying up all night, living out of your car and knowing how that feels, being a tumbleweed in some ways.
“One day, maybe I will be able to also show my Ma Maybelle side and write songs about how I love to bake bread or dream of having my own farm someday. For now, though, this is where I am at. These are the songs I am writing.”