Eilen Jewell: Songbirds and Worried Minds

Eilen Jewell talks about Idaho, her daughter and her new album


"Songbird," the last track on Eilen Jewell's new album, Sundown Over Ghost Town (Signature Sounds, 2015), features a surprise guest vocalist. If you listen closely, at around the 2:08 mark, you'll hear Jewell's infant daughter, Mavis--whose name comes from the Old French word for a small bird called the song thrush--crying in the background.

Jewell and her husband, drummer Jason Beek, loved the happy accident, but they worried listeners wouldn't hear it.

"And then we thought, 'Well, if they can hear it, would it be distracting? Should we do another take?'" Jewell said. "But we really felt like that was the one. So we decided to keep it and give her guest-vocal credit on the album."

The unplanned cameo suits both the song—a tender tribute to Mavis—and the album as a whole. Written in Idaho City and McCall and recorded at Audio Lab Recording Studio in Garden City, Sundown draws inspiration from Jewell's experiences in her home state of Idaho. Signature Sounds released the album on May 26, but Entertainment Weekly premiered the album on its website on May 20, declaring Jewell's "Americana-driven brand of country music sounds tailor-made for sweltering, stagnant summer nights."

While Jewell didn't plan to make a Gem State-centric album, the focus for Sundown sharpened when she started writing.

"Whenever I set out to write a new album or even just a new song, I don't go into it with any expectations or any particular motive," she said. "I let the songs do their thing. And it just turned out this way: That everything that I was writing seemed to be about—if not Idaho, then somewhere out West here—but mostly Idaho. That's really where my thoughts have been for the past... well, forever, really."

Judging from Sundown's lyrics, Jewell's thoughts on Idaho are complex. On the bluesy ballad "My Hometown," Jewell looks back fondly on the summer days and friendly neighbors of her childhood. By contrast, songs like "Half-Broke Horse" and "Green Hills" meditate on the negative impact of development and industrialization. On "Needle & Thread," Jewell honors how Idaho City has helped shape her while describing a place full of decaying buildings and broken-down people.

Jewell, who moved back to Boise with Beek in 2012, admitted having mixed feelings about how the city has changed over the years.

"I really feel like the progress that Boise has made has been a double-edged sword," she said. "And it's been pretty bittersweet to return to that—to return to this place that is my hometown and yet I have to get to know it all over again because it has changed so much."

Touring has also changed drastically now that Mavis accompanies her parents.

"Sometimes, we'll go to bed—the earliest we can manage is at midnight—and she'll wake up randomly in the middle of the night at 1," Jewell said. "And then it'll take awhile for her to get back to bed. So it's a lot of sleepless nights."

Still, they appreciate having their daughter with them on the road.

"It's really, really, really hard, but then I suppose leaving her at daycare would be really, really hard too," Jewell said. "So at least this way, we get to bring her with us. We get to be close to her all the time and not have to leave her behind."

Jewell is also grateful for the support that Boise has given her and Beek. In August 2014, the couple's promotion company, Mess Around Music, held its first show, a concert at Cinder Winery featuring Zoe Muth and Miss Tess. Jewell considered the show "a total success."

"Local fans really seemed to have a great time," she said. "I think there were quite a few people who weren't familiar with their music, or maybe they knew of one of the bands but not the other. So there were quite a few people who walked out of there saying, 'Wow, I hadn't heard these people before and now I'm a big fan.'"

Jewell's own music got some love recently, too. On April 11, Visual Arts Collective hosted a tribute show for Jewell as part of the new We Got You Covered series. The concert featured Bill Coffey, Rocci Johnson and other well-known local musicians performing her songs.

"It was really great to see how much thought people put into these songs. Most people bothered to learn all the lyrics," Jewell said. "That's something I don't even do with my own songs at first. It takes me awhile to learn the lyrics of my own songs."

For now, Jewell's big plan is to learn how to balance her professional and her family life. She looks forward to seeing how her relationship with Idaho evolves, too.

"I think any great love—of anywhere or anybody or anything—tends to be a mixed bag, at least for me," she said. "But that's part of what makes it so deep."