Eilen Jewell

Eilen Jewell
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“I’m already bracing myself,” Eilen Jewell reasons, matter-of-factly, “for a little controversy.”

Boise-born and Boston-based, Jewell has quickly distinguished herself as one of the rising stars of a new generation of 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.”

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