Eilen Jewell has made a mark on audiences since releasing her tender Americana country debut album, Boundary Country, in 2006. Sinners & Strangers followed a year later and marked a shift in her sound with an array of moods and aesthetics. Fast forward to Queen of the Minor Key (2011) and Jewell had taken on rhythm and blues, surf rock and more. In total across eight studio albums Jewell has worked hard, fully immersing herself in her craft, in a ceaseless quest to do something different with each outing.
Interestingly, Jewell’s latest offering Gypsy (2019) was my introduction to her melting pot of country-folk-blues rock. It eventually led me down a rabbit hole in my attempt to discover more about her. I read somewhere Jewell described as “one of America’s most intriguing, creative and idiosyncratic voices”. It’s not hard to see how a statement like that resonate once you dive deep into her body of work. But don’t take my word for it, Jewell has also been describe as one of those rare musicians who has seemingly stepped out of country music’s golden age and into our modern world.
As a proven live performer, it’s fair to say Jewell’s shows sellout because of her ability to truly engage with her audience and her proven track record of perfectly encapsulating the energy of her studio albums. That said, I recently caught up with Eilen Jewell ahead of her Aussie tour kicking off next week (March 3) at Archie’s Creek Hotel. Here is some of what we talked about.
Eilen, you are about to embark on a new Australian tour. I’m always reminded how much better music sounds when people play it together. Of course everyone has their own unique synergy. What’s the synergy like in your band?
We’re closer than friends. We’re like a cross between family and old war buddies. We’ve been through a lot together. On stage, I feel like we’re one beast with eight arms.
My next question is sort of an extension of the first. How does the collaborative process with your bandmates compare to the feeling of performing to an audience?
Well, collaborating is a really creative process. Performing is less creative than a lot of people might think. There’s some creativity in it, but for me it’s mostly a matter of remembering what we came up with while collaborating. Different parts of the brain. Some lean more heavily in one direction that the other, but my band and I appreciate the variety that each thing brings.
Who will be accompanying you on this new Australian tour?
I’ll be performing with my original bandmates, with the exception of Matt Murphy on the upright bass. He joined us in 2019 and this will be his first time in Australia. We’re excited to show him around. “We” being myself and the two originals: Jason Beek on drums and Jerry Miller on electric guitar.
I understand you and Jerry (Miller) have a wonderful working relationship. How much do you bounce ideas around with each other? And what’s the best advice Jerry has ever given you?
Jerry and I are the two quieter ones of the band. We don’t say a whole lot, but we give each other a lot of creative space and encouragement. I think we’re pretty synched up musically, so we don’t really bounce ideas around very much, we just play the tunes and naturally lock in. The best advice Jerry’s ever given me? Early on he laid out the three rules of the music industry. 1. Don’t forget to get paid. 2. Always remember to get paid. 3. Don’t forget to remember to get paid. We’re half joking when we say these things, because we’re not really in it for the money. But, on the other hand, it’s pretty serious wisdom. We all have mouths to feed.
Following the covid cancellations of your 2020 Australian tour, we obviously never got to hear you play your latest album, 2019’s Gypsy. Which songs are you hoping to play and how will they be different from the album in a live setting?
From the Gypsy album, I’d like to play “Crawl”, “Miles to Go”, “79 Cents (the Meow Song)”, maybe “Witness”…not sure. I like to see what people request. I’ve got so much material these days. Gypsy was my eighth studio album, and now we have a brand new one coming out in May called Get Behind the Wheel. I’d like to do several from that one too.
You’ve often talked about Loretta Lynn, and your country influence comes across a lot through your music. What do you look for in a good country song, or any song really?
Three chords and the truth, baby! I like my country songs straightforward in terms of their structure, with plain-spoken lyrics that are clever and a bit self-deprecating or, in Loretta’s case, sassy. Hank Williams had the self-deprecating humor down pat. And Loretta was all piss and vinegar. I relate to this type of music without having to strain to understand it, as if it’s just part of my DNA.
I understand the Melbourne, Brunswick Ballroom show, will be a Loretta Lynn tribute show. Which three LL songs are your all time favourites and why?
“Honky Tonk Girl” is one of them for sure. It’s the first Loretta song I ever heard and the one that made me fall in love with her music. I heard it playing over the sound system at a cafe when I was living in Boston and just thought, “Who is THIS? That voice is everything I want country music to be.” I think “The Pill” has to be up there for me. It took a lot of guts to write that song and perform it at that time, especially in the ultra-conservative American South. It still takes some guts six decades later! I also really love “Whispering Sea”, which was released as the B side of “Honk Tonk Girl” back in 1960. It’s pure country poetry.
From the personal to political, it’s safe to say you cover an array of territory as a songwriter. But the thread that holds it all together is your integrity and sincerity in everything you write. How important is that aspect of your songwriting to you? And why?
Integrity is important. I want to be able to find something worthwhile in my songs many years from now. They have to be built to last, so to speak. They have to have a certain something I can stand behind. Sincerity? I’m not so sure about that. A lot of my songs are jokes, or they’re hyperbolic, or they’re teasing. But when I am being sincere I try to be as truthful as possible without being overly confessional.
Can we talk about my favourite song on Gypsy called Crawl? Now the lyrics are all you but was its rollicking sound inspired by your affection for Creedence Clearwater Revival? I’m sure you get this question all the time.
Yeah, that was definitely CCR-inspired. I love those guys. I got to see John Fogerty perform recently and he blew my mind. What a treasure.
I’d dearly love to know what inspired you to do a cover version of Green River?
Well, I’ve loved CCR for a long time, and the record label I’ve been working with since the beginning, called Signature Sounds, runs a festival in Massachusetts called The Green River Festival. We’ve played that festival many times and it’s always an immensely positive experience for me. For years, every time we performed there, I’d tell the band that I thought we should work up the CCR song “Green River” as an homage to the festival and all their kindness towards us. Finally, in 2019, we did it and the crowd loved it so we recorded it later that year just for fun. Next year, in the thick of the pandemic, Signature Sounds said we should release it as a single and I was happy to do it. It was my way of sending out festival vibes to the world when we were all in need of that kind of thing since even festivals were shut down.
Who else are you listening to at the moment for inspiration?
I’m always listening to old blues music. Right now I’m on a Blind Boy Fuller kick. I also really love Dope Lemon, and I’m not just saying that because Angus Stone is an Aussie.
For some of my readers you and your music will be new to them. If you had to describe your music what would you say to them?
I would say something like…it’s rock n’ roll-folk-noir. Sometimes I just call it Americana. If I get a blank stare from that, I say it’s a blend of all the different styles of American roots music. Sometimes I just say, “I dunno, come and listen. Then you tell me.”
Finally, I’m hoping to see you play in Melbourne for the first time. I’ve never been to the Thornbury Theatre and I hear the acoustics are great there. What can I expect from the show?
Expect to see four jet-lagged Americans having a blast, playing a bunch of Eilen Jewell classics and a few new ones, also some Loretta songs. The Australian audiences are always so good to us, so expect to get a secondhand buzz from their party spirit.
For tickets and touring information on Eilen Jewell’s upcoming Australian tour click HERE.
Very nice voice ! It’s the sound I like.