Boise, Idaho native Eilen Jewell’s country-folk career started in the midst of her days at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. Having dabbled in piano and guitar through childhood, the singer-songwriter made her beginnings at local gigs and street performances. She met her calling in Boston, where she became a regular at various clubs and eventually self-released her full-length Boundary County in 2006. Said release brought her to Signature Sounds Recordings, through which Jewell released her national debut Letters from Sinners & Strangers in 2007. The 33-year-old chanteuse most recently recorded her sophomore full-length Queen of the Minor Key and has toured internationally, her music also having been featured on hit television series like the CW’s Hellcats and HBO’s True Blood.
If Eilen Jewell is the Queen of the Minor Key (as we’re to presume from the title of her fourth and latest full-length album), you can count us among her faithful subjects. But every queen has to start somewhere before they take the throne, and Jewell’s story starts in her hometown of Boise, Idaho. At the age of seven, she first started playing piano, but eventually moved on to the guitar at the age of fourteen. She left the Potato State to attend college in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she was known to busk on the streets when not attending classes. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, where she often performed on Venice Beach, Jewell moved to Boston, where she’s now based. It’s been over seven years since she released her 2005 debut album, Boundary County, and in that time she’s done everything from a gospel album (2008’s The Sacred Shakers), to an album of covers of one of the most renowned female country superstars (2010’s Butcher Holler: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn).
But it’s 2011’s Queen of the Minor Key that truly encapsulates Eilen Jewell’s musical persona. Recorded in a tiny cabin in the mountains of her native Idaho, where there was no running water or electricity, it’s a 14-song collection of songs that similarly hark back to a different era, drawing on the roots of classic American genres like country, blues, and folk. However, Jewell puts her own theatrical twist on everything--never in a dark way, but more in the sense that she could be taking on a dramatic film noir persona. Opening track “Radio City” could very well be a song that plays during the opening credits of an early 60s spy film, with a wah-wah’ing trumpet and mysterious guitar riff. On “Warning Signs,” there’s a slightly tongue-in-cheek horror movie feel that comes through with lyrics about a raven winking his beady eye, and a rattlesnake hissing in her ear, all anchored by a sassy beat and quivering keys.
The album’s title track has more of an early rockabilly feel, as if it could be the song playing in the first saloon you enter after driving for miles and miles down a dusty desert highway. And after shooting back a few shots of whiskey in said saloon, “Over Again”, with its melancholy twang, is the song that might just cause the tears to flood--until somebody sidles up next to you, puts an arm around your shoulder in a reassuring ‘it’s all going to be OK’ gesture. Moving from the saloon to the ocean is “Kalimotxo” (named after one of Spain’s most popular drinks, a combination of half-red wine and half-cola). Combining a riptide of cool guitar riffs and Jewell slyly saying, “kalimotxo” (the only vocals in the song), it’s her take on classic 60s surf rock. Though she tackles many different styles of music, she always manages to sound, first and foremost, like Eilen Jewell.