Listening to Eilen (rhymes with feelin') Jewell's latest release, Letters from Sinners and Strangers, is like flipping through an old black and white family photo album: There's something familiar and comforting about the people in the pictures even though they may have been gone long before your time. Jewell's arrangements and her playing and singing have the ability to transport a listener to a simpler place and time.
Raised in Idaho, Jewell now makes her home in Cambridge, Mass., but she will be back to perform at Alive After Five on Sept. 19. Earlier this year, while visiting family in Boise, she told Boise Weekly how she got from one end of the country to the other, and why her music is the sound of wide open spaces.
Boise Weekly: How do you get from Boise to Boston?
I made quite a few stops along the way. I went to college in Santa Fe, N.M. That's where I started doing the performing thing; just busking. It took me a while to get comfortable with idea of being on stage.
Singing on the street was easier?
Yes. Nowadays, thinking of doing it on the street just terrifies me. For some reason, I thought that would be a good segue. And it worked for me. After college, I went to L.A. and I did more street performance there on Venice Beach. I went back to Santa Fe for a little bit, then back to Boise. I just kind of wandered around. I put the guitar down for a little bit.
Did you think you'd do something else?
I wasn't sure what, but yes. I was just kind of drifting. When I came back here, there didn't seem to be any opportunities for street performance. Plus, it was winter. I found an apartment really easily, but I couldn't find a job. Well, I did work as a part-time substitute day care worker for pennies an hour. Right around that time [in 2003], a friend of mine said that she had a spare room in her home in western Mass. She was about to have her first child and I wanted to be there. I stayed for nine months and then decided to get serious about performing, and they told me Boston was a great town for meeting musicians and for live music. That's where I met all my band members, one of whom is my boyfriend. He does triple duty: boyfriend, drummer and manager. It's been good for me. I've learned a lot about music there.
The music scene out there must be very different than it is here.
It's very competitive out there, but in a good way. It's also really welcoming, especially in the folk music scene.
Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
It's kind of hard to categorize. It's kind of Americana. As vague as that category is, that's the best one for me. A lot of folk music has pop influences I don't feel I have. I have more country roots; a Woodie Guthrie kind of feel.
Will Letters be the one that lets you do music full-time?
I think so. For this one, we have a booking agent, and we also have a label. It's going to mean more touring. Which is what I'm hoping for. Touring is hard, because we travel by van, although for Alive After Five, we're going to fly in and then fly out.
The last time we played [in Idaho], we played a festival in Idaho City. I kind of grew up in Idaho City. I have a lot of childhood memories of being in the park with the funky, old stage. They used to have concerts there when I was a kid, and I remember watching people on that stage. It was so funny to be there. Same with Alive After Five. As a teenager, I would go down and hang out at Alive After Five.
What's your favorite song on the album?
I have no objectivity, of course, but the one I enjoy singing and playing the most is "Where They Never Say Your Name." It's the most representative of my style. If I have one, that might be it. It's what comes most natural to me. It's kind of a droning song in a minor key. I'm a sucker for a minor key. Every time I go to write a song, it's in a minor key and my band makes fun of me for it. That song stands out for me.
Is there any collaborative effort on the writing?
Not really. I don't write with anyone. I haven't yet. Maybe someday I'll give it a try, but I have a hard time imagining how exactly that would work. I did collaborate with my band quite a bit for the second record in terms of arrangements and figuring out how to do intros and endings and structure. They all have the best ideas and know so much about music.
You seem to know quite a bit about music yourself. Did you study music?
I did all of my learning about music theory here in Boise. I took piano lessons starting when I was 7 until I was about 18.
How did you pick up the guitar?
I used to go to summer camp and people always had guitars there, and I thought that was way cool that they could play guitar and sing camp songs. I started thinking, "Oh, maybe I could do that." At about age 15, I started teaching myself and then studied with Jonah Shue for awhile.
Do you ever think about going back to piano?
I miss the piano a lot. I still think of it as my instrument in a way because it was the one that inspired me. I'm kind of attached to the guitar, partly for logistical reasons. I can't even conceive of touring with a piano right now). I did record two tracks on [my first CD] Boundary County playing electric piano. It's very subtle, but it's there.
There's a lot of "space" in your music. You never feel compelled to fill the space with a note or a lyric?
That's my aesthetic. Some people on the East Coast try to connect that with the fact I grew up out West, where there's more space. In some ways I can see that, but on the other hand, there are probably plenty of people from the West who don't have that aesthetic. I guess it's safe to say I consider the West my home and I feel most comfortable in the open spaces, where I have more elbow room.
Your music definitely has that feel to it.
That's what inspires me, so if it comes across in my music, that's why.
Eilen Jewell and her band perform at Alive After Five on Sept. 19. Letters From Sinners and Strangers is available at the Record Exchange and through her Web site at EilenJewell.com.