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Eilen Jewell gives country the royal treatment on "Queen of the Minor Key"

By Brian Baker, July 2011

On her four original albums, Eilen Jewell has deliberately given each one a slightly unique feel while maintaining the basic elements that have converted so many fans and critics. Her first two albums, 2005's "Boundary County" and 2007's "Letters from Sinners & Strangers," were ecstatically received, hailed as the work of a legend in waiting, while the reaction to 2009's "Sea of Tears" was decidedly mixed as some reviewers thought it was a logical progression while others felt Jewell seemed to be treading water and not moving forward.

When Jewell began work on her fourth original album, the just released "Queen of the Minor Key," none of that was on her mind. Good, bad or indifferent, Jewell doesn't allow outside opinion to sway her creative decision making process.

"I try to take good and bad reviews with an equal grain of salt," says Jewell from her Boston home. "I try to focus, as much as I can, on what I want to hear from the next record and how I want songs to sound. With every record, we take a slightly new direction and my goal is to have that decision come from my own heart and not from what people around me are thinking."

Eilen Jewell at Threadgill's in Austin during SXSW 2011

With "Queen of the Minor Key," Jewell viewed her love of country and folk music from different stylistic perspectives and took her songs and her sound in new directions. To that end, Jewell attempted some unusual experiments.

"I want to expand and grow with each new record, and with this one in particular, I wanted to try some new territory," says Jewell. "For example, I've never had a guest vocalist on any of my records before. We've had guest musicians, like horn players and organists, but we'd never done the guest vocalist route. So I decided I'd work up the courage to ask Zoe Muth and Big Sandy to join me. I've never been much of a collaborator. I think it's because I'm a little bit shy."

To that end, Jewell wrote songs specifically with Muth and Sandy in mind. Jewell was already more than just a fan of Muth's work; she was so overwhelmed by Muth's opening slot on her Seattle show in 2009 that she sent Muth's self-released CD to her label Signature Sounds and introduced Muth to her booking agent, both of whom signed her up. For Muth, Jewell penned Over Again, a classic country tearjerker designed to highlight the differences in their vocal timbres.

"With Zoe, I wrote that one thinking of her because I just fell in love with her voice," says Jewell. "I thought our voices would sound good together because I've got this lower register thing, and she can sing higher than I can. So I thought a song where she could come in on the chorus, like a haunting Emmylou Harris style thing would be great. She nailed it".

For Big Sandy, Jewell played to the Rockabilly Hall of Famer's strength with the western swing ballad Long Road, which she wrote as a more traditional duet.

"Long Road I wrote pretty much for Big Sandy," says Jewell. "I'd heard a BBC interview with him where he had been asked to choose a song he liked and explain why he liked it. Surprisingly enough, it was a rock steady or reggaeish song. The thing he liked was the topic of it was that you make all these friends while you're traveling the world and yet it's always bittersweet because you have to leave them. But there's an element of hope to it; it's okay because we'll see each other again someday. I liked that perspective on the sad songs; it was new to me, that glimmer of hope thing. So I wrote Long Road, same theme but in a country way, and I think he totally nailed it as well."

In addition to pushing her country/folk sound into areas that skirted the edges of jazz and surf-and-spy thematics, Jewell also slightly tweaked her lyrical methodology to incorporate a somewhat lighter viewpoint.

"I'm beginning to realize that moving out of your comfort zone is the only way to grow as an artist," says Jewell. "Another way I did that was that there were a couple of songs that made an attempt at humor, and I'd never done that before, in any of my songs anyway. I was always wary of doing that because to me, songs that are funny come across as sounding campy, so I was always steering clear of the humor thing. Finally, I was like, ‘Well, I've got to explore new territory and I think I'm ready for the challenge.' I tried it out with Bang Bang Bang and even the title track is meant to be tongue in cheek; queen of nothing, basically."

Although Jewell added new spices on "Queen of the Minor Key," her basic sonic recipe remained unchanged. She loves playing with her band, which includes her drumming husband Jason Beek, guitarist Jerry Miller and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia, and they afford her the opportunity to confidently write in any style she chooses. Even with the sporadic genre variations, Jewell thought she stayed true to her core influences.

"With Bang Bang Bang and That's Where I'm Going, I was kind of looking toward CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival) a little bit, which I think we've hinted at in previous records," says Jewell. "Some people have said they hear that swampy thing, but this time I was really hoping we'd work some more of that guitar sound in. Nothing earth shatteringly new; definitely some girl group stuff coming back again, but the title track is verging on psychobilly, which we've never done before. We've definitely done rockabilly, but never unhinged rockabilly."

In between "Sea of Tears" and "Queen of the Minor Key," Jewell recorded and released "Butcher Holler," a tribute album focusing on the songwriting genius of Loretta Lynn. That project ended up resonating with Jewell as she worked on "Queen of the Minor Key" in a remote cabin in her native Idaho.

"I think that might be part of where I got the idea to try a little humor," says Jewell. "Loretta Lynn has so many songs that are kind of sassy and funny, and I always loved her sense of humor and the way it comes across in her songs. Studying her songwriting brought out the fact that there wasn't that much humor showing through. She taught me it's okay to try something new. It doesn't all have to be tearjerkers. She has so much fun with her music and yet it's so heartfelt and poignant at the same time. It really is something to aspire to."

Ultimately, the singer/songwriter game is about life experience and incorporating that into one's art. Jewell has life experience to spare; rural Idaho childhood where she learned to play piano, college in Santa Fe, N.M. where she busked and learned to perform and then to Boston where she prospered in one of the most competitive folk scenes in the country. Those experiences have informed every note that Jewell has played, particularly the ones making up "Queen of the Minor Key."

"I feel hugely influenced by the places I've lived," says Jewell. "I'm mostly influenced by Idaho and New Mexico. The West is always in my mind; I'm always writing with that imagery in my head, even when I'm not out there. But Boston has also been a huge influence. It's where I learned about rockabilly and early rock and roll and the earlier garage stuff, the edgier stuff because it's an edgier place. So I feel my music really is a blend of the West and the East Coast."