Music

Gem State Jewell

Eilen Jewell digs into her roots

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Last year's Boise 150 music compilation In Our Town features an Eilen Jewell song called "Always Coming Home." It was an apt choice for a number of reasons.

"I love music by other people where you can hear their roots--where they're keeping the tradition of American music alive but not aping it [or] mimicking it," Jewell said."That's kind of my standard: Can you hear the root? And if you can, is it in an imitative way or is it new and refreshing? To me, that's the goal."

Fans and critics would agree that the Boise-raised songwriter has achieved that goal. NPR praises Jewell's music--a blend of country, folk, jazz, surf and rockabilly that Jewell calls "hillbilly/rock 'n' roll/noir"--as "a distinct style that draws on roots music without sounding needlessly old-fashioned." The Washington Post's Juli Thanki writes, "If Neko Case, Madeleine Peyroux and Billie Holiday had a baby girl who grew up to front a rockabilly band, she'd probably sound a lot like Eilen Jewell."

The so-called "Queen of the Minor Key" and her band are on tour now and play Friday, March 28, and Saturday, March 29, in Boise at the Riverside Hotel's Sapphire Room. Jewell has also nearly completed work on her fifth studio album and a live album, both of which she hopes to release later this year. In January, Jewell's gospel-blues side project, The Sacred Shakers--organized by her husband, Jason Beek, who also serves as her drummer and manager--released a live album that American Songwriter calls "spirited spiritual music for those who would never admit to liking that sort of thing."

Jewell said that she considers her upcoming studio album, which is being recorded in Boise at Audio Lab and features contributions from local musicians Jake Hoffman and Steve Fulton, "a very Idaho album."

"I think I wrote all of the material here in Idaho. I recorded here, and a lot of the songs are about a sense of place," she said. "[There are] a lot of descriptions of particular places in Idaho. It's really my 'coming home' album."

The road back to Idaho has been a long one for Jewell. She started to think seriously about performing while attending St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M. She also got turned on to classic bluegrass and country.

"I just met some folks down in Santa Fe who were into Hank Williams and The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers and stuff like that," Jewell said. "So New Mexico, for me, was a very musical place in that regard and shaped me as a busker."

After college, Jewell spent some time busking in Venice Beach, Calif., which she credits with giving her "a sense of street smarts [and] a thick skin." Living and playing in Boston further helped teach her how to be a professional musician. But after living in Boston for nine years, homesickness and Boise's lower cost of living persuaded Jewell to move back in July 2012.

"We always wanted to buy a place, and it just didn't seem like it was going to happen in Boston anytime soon; it's so expensive there," she said. "So for what we were paying in rent just outside of Boston, we now are paying a mortgage and we feel like we're making an investment in the future."

The future could hold some big changes for Jewell: She and Beek are expecting their first child in June. At the moment, Jewell doesn't know how the baby will affect touring.

"I try to imagine touring with the little one, and my imagination starts to break down after I get a little way into it," she said. "We're going to try to keep touring because it's what we know and it's the life we love, but baby's really going to come first."

She did note that being pregnant on tour meant getting more sleep and not drinking alcohol. It proved to be refreshing and beneficial.

"It's been challenging but really good for me to realize that you don't have to burn out with every tour, with staying up late and making every gig a very social event," she said. "You can pace yourself and kind of stay sane, too."

Jewell can look forward to some special wine down the road, though: The City Wineries in New York City and Chicago recently released limited Eilen Jewell bottles of zinfandel and cabernet. Jewell and her band stocked up on some of each while on tour.

"Yeah, we're storing them for the future; thinking ahead," Jewell said, chuckling.