Eilen Jewell grew up in Boise, Idaho in the American mid-west. At age 18, Jewell decided to head to the American west coast to the city of Sante Fe to study music at St John’s College. St John’s has a reputation for progressive teaching methods – prescriptive teaching methods or eschewed in favour of a focus on critical analysis and creativity.
“It was a really funky college,” Jewell says. “At the time it seemed the right thing for me to do. It’s a strange curriculum – no textbooks, no grades, no professors.” Jewell pays tribute to the influence of the idiosyncratic teaching style on her approach to writing and performing music. “I learned how to think critically, and I learned how to write songs while I was there. I don’t fake my way through writing, and I learned to question everything I do,” Jewell says.
Jewell had started playing piano at primary school, before ‘dabbling’ in violin. Her parents, while not musicians, provided a musical foil to Jewell’s predominantly classical education. “My parents are great lovers of music,” Jewell says, “especially my father, who’s a fan of lots of music. I got my love of Bob Dylan from my father.”
While conceding that Boise isn’t the world’s most vibrant artistic scene, Jewell maintains a strong affection for her hometown. “It was pretty great,” Jewell says. “I loved growing up there – it was great being a kid there. But the city didn’t really offer a whole lot in the music scene. The arts scene is certainly not as vibrant there. But I still feel that Boise is a huge part of who I am,” she says.
Despite moving to Santa Fe to study music, Jewell says it took a while before she decided to throw her hand into live musical performance. “I guess I didn’t ever really mean to get started as a performer,” Jewell says. “I never really thought of myself as a performer. I was hanging around with some friends who were performing, and I started strumming along. Eventually they asked me to play with them at a farmers’ market. I started to enjoy it, and when my friends – who were a year older than me – moved away, I kept going.”
Jewell became enamoured with iconic female country and blues singers, including Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn (whom Jewell paid tribute to a couple of years ago with an album of cover versions), Wanda Jackson and Mavis Staples. In fact, Jewell managed to secure those performers’ autographs on her guitar, that she’s only recently stopped playing – partly due to the increasing value of that signed guitar. “I had to stop performing with it recently because it became too precious,” Jewell laughs. “Plus, I was lucky enough for someone to custom make me a great guitar that I use now.”
Jewell threw herself into the touring circuit, regularly traversing the bars and coffee houses of continental United States. “I like touring, though I do get worn out on the longer tours,” Jewell says. “But when I’m at home I start to get antsy, and I look forward to getting back on the road. I try to be grateful for all the different days that are on my calendar.”
Eventually Jewell settled in Boston on the American east coast, where she now lives with her husband and drummer, Jason Beek. “I’d been living in rural Massachusetts, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, and then I realised that I wanted to be a musician,” Jewell says. Through her soon-to-be husband Beek, Jewell had become immersed in the Boston music scene. “He was really tapped into the scene, and there’s some really great musicians there,” she says.
Jewell’s latest album, Queen Of The Minor Key, reflects both contemporary and historical influences. “At the time of writing the album I was listening to a lot of Fred Eaglesmith – the record he’d just put out,” Jewell says. “And I was also listening to a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival, as well as lots of '60s girl group music.” Jewell says the minimalist 60s production sensibility was something she was interested in exploring on the album. “I really like that simple production style,” she says. “I’ve actually been really into that early '60s stuff recently, also early 60s country music – in fact anything with ‘early’ in front it,” Jewell laughs.
The title of the record was taken originally from a line used to introduce Jewell at one of her shows. “A friend of mine said so many of my songs were written in a minor key, so when he introduced me at a show, he said I was the ‘queen of the minor key’,” Jewell says.
Jewell is about to head out to Australia for her second Australian tour; her first tour included seeing a koala while on the Great Ocean Road. “We went through this little town on the way to the Port Fairy Folk Festival, and we stopped and looked up in the trees and saw him – it was the cutest thing I’ve seen,” Jewell says.
BY PATRICK EMERY
EILEN JEWELL plays the Corner Hotel on Thursday March 22, Meeniyan Hall on Saturday March 24, the Caravan Music Club on Sunday March 25, Byron Bay Bluesfest, taking place between Thursday April 5 to Monday April 9 and Boogie Festival in Tallarook on Sunday April 8.