On the North York Moors

Eilen Jewell

Fri 16 October 2009


Born in Boise, Idaho, now based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Eilen Jewell has quickly distinguished herself as one of the rising stars of a new generation of American roots musicians. Her first two albums, Boundary County (self-released, 2006) and Letters from Sinners and Strangers (Signature Sounds, 2007) were astonishingly assured efforts, which matched Jewell's understated yet insightful songs with a rugged blend of Americana styles. They were met with a great deal of acclaim, with No Depression raving that "Jewell is showing she can wander with the best of them, and write riveting song-stories about her adventures along the way." Indicative of Jewell's strong following in Europe, The Word in the UK described her as "A voice of real distinction that manages to transcend some powerful influences and pierce the fog long enough for her own point of view to emerge."

"On those albums," she reflects, "people told me they heard folk, country, western swing, rockabilly, and even jazz...but a part of my roots has been left out up until now."

On April 21, Signature Sounds will release Eilen Jewell's third album, Sea of Tears, a recording that fills in a vital, hitherto missing element of her musical persona. "Before I discovered Woody Guthrie and folk music," she explains, "I was listening to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and, later on, the Animals and the Kinks. I love that stuff, and I love to play it."

With Sea of Tears, Jewell and her longtime band of Jason Beek (drums, harmony vocals), Jerry Miller (electric, acoustic, and steel guitars), and Johnny Sciascia (upright bass) wed her elegantly unflinching songwriting with a rustic, pre-Beatles swagger that encapsulates vintage R&B, Midwestern garage rock, Chicago blues, and early rock and rockabilly, while maintaining the haunting, folk-inspired purity that first made her an artist to watch.

"There's a lot of styles of music that I love equally," Jewell says, "and I come from all of them. For this record, I had a clear sense of a sound I wanted to hear, and somehow I was able to communicate that to the band. That's rare for me...I usually just let the song go - but these songs were telling me they had to be done a certain way."

Together for almost four years now, Jewell's basic band has been variously augmented on their previous albums, and formed the heart of the American gospel supergroup the Sacred Shakers, who released a self-titled album on Signature Sounds in 2008. Sea of Tears, however, features just the core quartet, a conscious decision on Jewell's part to keep the sound lean and, in its darker moments, daringly stark. The absence of fiddle, heard prominently on Letters from Sinners and Strangers, actually widens the band's range - allowing them to move seamlessly between genres, even to combine styles more fluidly than previously. To this sound, Jewell responds with nine original songs that boldly stare down rejection, denial, and change.

"I had a dream about the title track," she recalls. "and when I woke up, I was able to remember my dream and the song wrote itself. I wish I could have more dreams like that..." "Sea of Tears" wraps a bitter, confrontational missive in a sinuous, sultry groove punctuated by Miller's slashing guitar. In the role of a woman ignored, Jewell doesn't howl - she looks the object of her affection straight in the eye and plainly, firmly states that without him, "It's gonna be a sea of tears for me / It's gonna be a life of misery." The effect is disarmingly powerful - an unadorned but undiminished statement of single-minded devotion.

In contrast to the title track's seething rhythmic undercurrent, "Nowhere in No Time" (a song Jewell has been carrying with her for years, but is just now being heard) rides a gently swinging country beat, rendered with the minimalist clarity of a Sun Records country 45. Elsewhere, such as on the swaggering, blues-informed "My Final Hour," Jewell introduces a new color - the Hammond B-3 - which she had never played before. "The piano was my first instrument and my first love," she says, "but so far normal piano hasn't come up on any of my records!" On Sea of Tears, the organ bridges the gap between the Vox-fueled garage rock of the early British invasion and grinding, organ-driven American R&B and soul.

The intensity and urgency felt throughout the record is partly owed to Jewell's chosen subjects and partly to the uncluttered, unencumbered recording process. These songs were finished in the brink of time, and mostly delivered to the band on the eve of the sessions, leaving no time for the performances to become rote. "Last year I did a lot of hotel writing, coming up with bits and pieces," Jewell says. "I think I work well under pressure, and if I'm not under pressure I don't work at all! I don't need the pressure of an album to start songs, but I need it to finish them."

"The guys are good with picking stuff up right away, and making it sound natural," she continues. "This album was recorded pretty much live, with very little post-production. The material was very fresh."

Alongside Jewell's own songs, there are three outside numbers that point to much of the inspiration behind Sea of Tears. "I'm Gonna Dress in Black" is a churning lament gleaned from Van Morrison's Them, who recorded it originally in 1965. Loretta Lynn's "Darkest Day" is a classic honky-tonk stomp by one of Jewell's biggest influences, whom Jewell was able to open for in 2007. Most intriguingly, however, is a version of the early British rock'n'roll standard "Shakin' All Over." Rarely tackled by female singers, Jewell's clattering, simmering version is equally sensual and ominous.

"I was never in a real rock band," Jewell shyly reflects. "But I was in a pretend one when I was seven. We had cardboard instruments." As witnessed on Sea of Tears, Jewell approaches rock'n'roll like any other American hybrid - balancing the defining elements of the style with her steadfast integrity and never altering her approach to cater to the medium.

"Since the '60s folk revival, there's been this fear of rock," she concludes. "If people define you as a folk musician, it's somehow scandalous to play with drums and electric guitars. It's thought of as selling out or being commercial...but, to me, it's all folk music.


LA Daily News:
Sometimes as darkly damaged as Lucinda Williams, at others as defiant and teasing as prime Peggy Lee and always authentically Americana in the Gillian Welch tradition....She's mighty good.

Jewell is showing she can wander with the best of them, and write riveting song-stories about her adventures along the way.

Sometimes as darkly damaged as Lucinda Williams, at others as defiant and teasing as prime Peggy Lee and always authentically Americana in the Gillian Welch tradition, Jewell knows just how much emotion to give - and, crucially, to hold back - in the lyrics. She's mighty good.

With her knack for giving older songs a traditional feel with modern flair, Eilen Jewell is bound to draw comparisons to Laura Cantrell -- and the vocal similarities will only add to that association.

On her song "In the End," Jewell conveys a plaintive world-weariness that very much recalls Lucinda Williams. That old-soul quality pervades the rest of the 27-year-old singer and songwriter's national debut; but the way she insinuates herself into classic country, folk and blues styles is very much her own, and makes this insistently low-key performer one of the freshest and most exciting new voices in Americana.

"Letters from Sinners and Strangers" is Jewell's first national release, not that she ever lets on. The singer-songwriter possesses a calmly assured delivery that recalls Lucinda Williams and a love for vintage blues and country that evokes Gillian Welch.

These Letters are dust-coated tributes to twangy old-time folk, tear-soaked country ballads, and devil-may-care romps.

"Letters" is stunning and original, a discovery well worth seeking out.

"Jewell has a languid, world-weary delivery and a deep Hank Williams pocket of songs that seem like timeless classics already."

Blessed with a pure, pliant voice, solid song craft and with a killer combo behind her, Jewell is destined to make waves.

The 27-year-old Boise-born, Boston-based Jewell follows up her 2006 "Boundary County" debut with a doozy of an album, a swinging blend of mountain music, folk, jazz, country and whatever else moves you.

Jewell seem[s], on the evidence of these songs, to be gunning for an opening slot on the Never-Ending Tour. Not only does her signature sound consist of the sepia-tinted blues, shuffles and gypsy jazz of which Dylan is enamored, but her gender-role-reversing persona would make her an ideal Joan Baez-like foil for the 21st-century Dylan stage.

This record should be a wake-up call to Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle etc, etc; that they somehow need to get back to their roots, get back to when they were hungry, back to when they were doing it all themselves without high priced producers and impeccable session players; basically back to when they gave a damn.

Letters from Sinners and Strangers stands as a wonderful second release. It's full of surprises. The album haunts like Chris Isaac, swings to country and jazz, goes south of the border and gets down with some acoustic blues, all the while maintaining its straight-up country vibe.

There's an off-the-cuff manner to the opening songs of Eilen Jewell's Letters from Sinners & Strangers that makes the album easy to like...she mixes oldies with originals and, arrangement-wise, is capable of replicating everything from Western swing crossed with rock ("Heartache Boulevard") to jazzy blues ("High Shelf Booze")...Jewell's low-key, off-the-cuff strategy works well from beginning to end on Letters from Sinners & Strangers, delivering a fine contemporary folk album. 
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr., All Music Guide

One of the brightest stars currently rising in the already bright Boston folk scene, Eilen's songwriting is declared across the board to evoke the senses with a bold and daring use of space...This year the Boston Folk Festival will feature Eilen as one of the newest and most promising young singer/songwriters the city has to offer.

Sounding like a hand-picked playlist from Bob Dylan;s Theme Time Radio Hour, Letters From Sinners & Strangers, is a rousing and confident tour de force.... Not only is there a single track you'd want to skip over, there's not a bad note or clumsy arrangement within a thousand mile radius.

Forget about classifying this disc, as it will be futile. It is eminently modern and thrust in the present moment, and yet it harkens back to the time and work of Bob Wills...[it] might just snatch your breath away with longing and heartache.

A voice of real distinction [that] manages to transcend some powerful influences and pierce the fog long enough for her own point of view to emerge. Recommended to box-car riders everywhere.

In an industry in which it's too easy to do it wrong, Eilen Jewell has done it very, very right, resulting in this superb and seamless romp through swing jazz, smoky country ballads, and nostalgic old-time music... It's a winner.

Jewell's music has the languorous quietude of (Gillian) Welch or Norah Jones, but there is something more direct, almost in your face, about her stark, neo traditional melodies, subdued vocals, and confident, slow-swaying groove. It's as if she's daring us to say we miss the bells and whistles of pop...Jewell's songs are achingly good, twanged-out elegies to a world of barbed wire, rusty trucks, and a frontier that no longer exists. Listen for the swagger of "Mess Around." Blue state or red, cowboy or city girl, this is likely the best song about cutting loose that you've heard all year.

Best of Show: Eilen Jewell. I loved Boundary County and have spun it a lot on KSYM, but the live show, with more uptempo material, proved Ms Jewell is the real deal with range.

The name of the CD is misleading, as Jewell seems to abandon the concept of boundary on this record, evoking all at once the confines of a smokey barroom and the far-flung frontier. Her voice combines the in-your-face attitude of Lucinda Williams with the polite gusto of June Carter Cash.

Jewell is a rising star who carves indelible lyrics into jazzed-up country-based music. Influenced by the grace of Billie Holiday and directness of Hank Williams, Jewell is a young artist loaded with both talent and promise.

Eilen Jewell's country-blues flavored folk on Boundary Country will remind listeners of many new, talented women singer-songwriters without ever seeming like a copy. Like the Be Good Tanyas, Jewell relies on fairly eclectic arrangements, though she's more progressive in her marriage of electric and acoustic elements.

Like (Gillian) Welch, though more languorous and intimate, (Eilen) combines a spare Appalachian sound with personal lyrics, and if she's going to be dogged for a while with Welch comparisons, there are much worse fates and a follow up, due later this year, may define her own individual identity.

Whether it's the soft longing for better times of "Boundary County" or the violin led romp of "Mess Around" or even the stripped down live in the studio sound of "The Train..." as far as I can tell every song is indeed a jewel.

Like Gillian Welch or perhaps a folksy Norah Jones (but so much better the The Little Willies), Eilen produces music that's beautifully melodic and ageless, with poetry for lyrics and vocals that produce auditory bliss.

Jewell's music draws squarely on the western swing tradition, and throughout this and other songs she ably demonstrated her ability to fuse jazz and country into a soulful original sound.

Eilen Jewell website

Share this page