Sunday, March 4, 2012

Eilen Jewell Discusses Her Journey As A "Queen Of The Minor Key"

Singer Songwriter Eilen Jewell has steadily been honing her craft and releasing a wealth of albums since her independently-released debut record, Boundary County. It was that album that caught then attention of the good folks at Signature Sounds, and since then, the artist has created a prolific output of solo albums including Letters From Sinners & Strangers and Sea Of Tears.

In addition to her finely-crafted solo work, Ms. Jewell has also composed two stunning collections of interpretations: the Loretta Lynn tribute album called Butcher Holler, and the self-titled, gospel-county longplayer with her band The Sacred Shakers.

When I read that Eilen Jewell would be appearing at The Bell House in Brooklyn on March 8th, I  decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to speak with Eilen Jewell regarding her trajectory as a songwriter, her prolific discography, and her most recent effort, last year's critically-acclaimed Queen Of The Minor Key.

What drew you to music growing up? When did you begin playing music? What was your first instrument?

Eilen Jewell: I started playing music when I was seven years old. I heard Beethoven playing on the tape deck in our station wagon and decided I wanted to play just like him. My parents agreed to let me take piano lessons, which I continued to do all through high school. I also played the violin for a while, and the saxophone very briefly, since I could only ever make it squawk.

I picked up the guitar when I was 15, mostly as a way to have something in the background when I sang my favorite songs by myself in my room. I never thought I would be a performer.  That came much later.

Who were some of your earliest musical influences that inspired you to learn and play music?

My earliest influences are still my biggest influences: Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday, the Rolling Stones, and especially my best friend Rafaelle and her piano-playing father (who also happened to be my piano teacher).

When did you begin writing your own songs?

Eilen: I always wrote songs as a child. They were about things that were important to me at the time, like popsicles, the Easter Bunny, and my dog. But I didn’t write anything that I could perform in front of anyone until I was in my early twenties, which is almost ten years ago already.

I’d like to briefly discuss your discography, working our way up to your latest record, Queen of the Minor Key.

Can you describe your experiences making your first record, Boundary County?

Eilen: In a way, that first record was much more difficult to make than my later ones, but in another sense it was much easier. The difficulties mostly revolved around the fact that I had no idea what was important and what wasn’t. I thought I was supposed to have a producer, since that’s what everyone does. But I didn’t know how to work with one, and I still don’t. I knew what I wanted the songs to sound like, and my band and I had been performing together for a little while.

I didn’t realize we could be our own producers, which is what we do now. So there were some growing pains. It was easier in a way too though, because no one really had any expectations for the album. There was no fear of disappointing anyone.

After making that record, and touring the album, how did those experiences begin to prepare you for making the next record, Letters From Sinners & Strangers?

For the second record, we were determined to do the production ourselves. That worked out much better. I entered the studio more confident than I was before, and my band and I were much tighter after performing together for a year.

After releasing Boundary County independently, we caught the attention of the record label Signature Sounds. We now had their backing, which made things easier for us financially.

One album I particularly enjoy of yours is the Sacred Shakers self-titled record. Can you describe how the Sacred Shakers band formed, and the collective experiences crafting the record?

Eilen: The Sacred Shakers were the brain child of my husband, Jason Beek. A musician friend of ours mentioned to us that he was doing a country gospel brunch every Sunday in Santa Fe. Jason liked that idea so much that he decided to get a similar thing going in the Boston area.

We performed every week for a few years, with a constantly changing roster of guest musicians. We had so much fun performing together that eventually we just morphed into a band and made a record. The Shakers were actually a precursor to my band.

An aspect I continually enjoy about your work overall is that, stylistically, you are very brave and willing to explore new directions. Sea of Tears infused your work with R&B, rock and roll, blues, and rockabilly. Can you briefly discuss what you were listening to during this time, and how the material for this album came together?  

Eilen: At the time of writing Sea of Tears, I was listening to all the same stuff I’ve always listened to, but started leaning a little more towards early sixties rock n’ roll and primitive garage. My songs started to reflect that.

It seemed to some people like a strange thing for me to do, but I never told anyone I was always going to play just one kind of music. As for material, the songs came together the way they always do for me, on exactly their own terms. I never go chasing after any particular sound. I just write the songs and they tell me what they want to be like.

Lastly, before we move onto your new record, can you provide some brief highlights and insights into your Butcher Holler album? Specifically: can you describe your own history of listening to Loretta Lynn’s music, and your inspiration for making the tribute record?

Eilen: I got introduced to Loretta’s music relatively late. I was in my mid-twenties and working in a café in Cambridge, Mass. I was already a big fan of classic country music, but for some strange reason, I had never really heard Loretta Lynn before. “Honky Tonk Girl” came on the sound system in the café and I was instantly drawn in. Such a perfect voice, and that song in particular is so great, I didn’t know how I had gone so long without hearing it.

I quickly became a big fan, and I started delving into her early recordings. My band and I decided, just for fun, to put together a Loretta Lynn tribute band. We called ourselves Butcher Holler, after Loretta’s hometown in Kentucky. A year or two later, the folks at Signature Sounds heard us perform as Butcher Holler and asked if we wanted to record the songs we’d worked up. Since we were in between original releases, we jumped at the chance to record our favorite Loretta tunes. It was a great experience. Loretta’s songs manage to have depth and a sharp sense of fun at the same time.

I am curious if you could discuss your own personal songwriting philosophy?

Eilen: I interact with songs as I do with people. To me, they each have their own character and their own individual will. I can’t make a song be a certain way any more than a mother can force her child to have a certain personality. It’s a passive experience for me. I try to write down what I hear and then get out of the way.

Let's move onto your latest record, last year's Queen Of The Minor Key.

You headed out to a cabin in the mountains of Idaho to work on the new record, without a set “game plan”. Can you talk about your decision of working in this way, specifically the process of stripping down your processes and letting spontaneity and exploration guide you?

Eilen: I make a point of never having a game plan, when it comes to songwriting. I think it does the songs a disservice to try to make them be a particular way. Most of my songs come into the world with melody and lyrics intertwined. I try not to fuss with that. If I like the lyrics but don’t like the melody, or vice versa, then I set the song aside. I do that because if I tweak it too much, it will forever sound forced in my ears. I will hear the work I put into it, and I’ll see it as "my Frankenstein", not as a song with its own life. There’s nothing I dislike more than a song that sounds forced or over-worked.

How did the location itself, specifically your immediate surroundings, and the sense of isolation over the time you had given yourself influence your songwriting for the record?

Eilen: I went to a shack in the woods because I wasn’t able to write while I was on the road, and I was always on the road. I felt like I had to get far away from all of my distractions and just go to a place where I could relax and let my thoughts catch up with me.

I chose a place in central Idaho, near where I’m from, because of its beauty and its familiarity. I needed a place that felt like home and yet was inspirational too. There was really only one place I could think of, so I went there.  As soon as I arrived I started writing and I didn’t stop until I left ten days later. I’m very grateful for my time there. I don’t think this new album could have happened without it.

What was the first song that came together? Can you discuss that experience?

Eilen: I think the first song that came together for the new album was the instrumental “Radio City.” I was in a hotel room messing around on the guitar and this little melody came along. It didn’t have any lyrics though. I kept thinking, “When are the lyrics going to happen?”  But they never did.  So I figured it wanted to be an instrumental. Lo and behold, it is the first instrumental I ever wrote.

I showed it to Jerry Miller, the electric guitar player in my band, and it really came to life at that point. Aside from it being an instrumental, that’s a pretty typical chain of events for my songs. The songs tell me what they want to be, I try to listen. When I figure them out I show the songs to my band. Then they start living and breathing. The band makes them go from black and white to color.
The new album seems to be inspired by a diverse number of musical styles and genres. What were you listening to at this time, and how did these sources feed into your work for this set of songs?

Eilen: While I was working on Queen, I was often listening to Fred Eaglesmith’s record Cha Cha Cha. I love his songwriting, and I especially love the early rock n’ roll feel and the dark shades of that album. I was also listening to Zoe Muth’s music a lot at that time, as well as Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys. I wrote with them in mind. I’ve been obsessed with 1960s girl group stuff for the past couple of years.

I’ve also been loving the poems of Miller Williams (father of Lucinda Williams). You could say I put all of those influences in a big pot and let them stew for a while. Queen of the Minor Key was the result. 

Can you discuss your experiences working with the players on Queen Of The Minor Key?

As always, I worked closely with my band: upright bassist Johnny Sciascia, electric guitarist Jerry Miller, and drummer Jason Beek. In addition to my band, I was fortunate enough to be joined by Rich Dubois on fiddle, David Sholl on sax, Tom West on organ, and Zoe Muth and Big Sandy on vocals. It was truly an honor to work with everyone. It was fun, easy, and drama-free. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who are both really talented and really solid.

Now that the record is completed and has been out in the world for a bit, how do you see it within your discography?

Eilen: It seems to me that it adds an element of humor, albeit somewhat dark. It’s very tongue-in-cheek. Even the title is somewhat of a joke. The implication is that I’m the queen of all the things most people cast aside or try to steer away from—the queen of nothing, so to speak.

You will be playing at The Bell House, in Brooklyn, NY this Thursday (3/8). What can fans expect from your upcoming live dates?

Eilen: I always play with my band: upright bassist Johnny Sciascia, electric guitarist Jerry Miller, and drummer Jason Beek.  The set list is usually a mix of songs from all of our albums, plus every now and then a song or two that we haven’t recorded yet.


  1. Nice interview and an interesting look back over Eilen's recording career. Thanks for posting.

  2. Eilen and her band are simply the best!