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Interview with Eilen Jewell

"No one performs in a vacuum"

Three years ago Eilen Jewell's musical star began rising. Meanwhile it's high in the sky. While on tour she answered a few questions to GeoWis.

GeoWis: Mrs. Jewell, since your widely praised debut album Boundary County in 2006 you are touring the East Coast and partly the US quite continuously. A tough job. How do you feel?

Eilen Jewell: It feels really great to be touring so much. We've been all over the US, and to a few cities in Canada, and last year we went to Europe and the UK a few times. The band has held up really well. I've always loved playing music and I've always loved traveling, so to combine both of these things is a dream come true for me.

GW: You've been in Europe for smaller tours in the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and Ireland. What were your impressions on the continent and the islands?

EJ: We went across the pond twice last year, in the spring and fall. We loved it. Our audiences were very receptive, and all of our shows were solid. There are a lot of people over there who appreciate the kind of music we do. I feel very much at home in Europe. Coming from Idaho, where the oldest buildings date back to the early 1900s, it's really amazing to explore places with so much more history in them. And the coffee is way better over there.

GW: On Boundary County alongside pure country and ballads some tunes remind to J. J. Cale (Back to Dallas; Gotta Get Right), while on LFS&S with Rich Man's World and the old Eric Andersen song Dusty Boxcar Wall June Carter rhythms seem to be apparent. May this be understood as an hommage to the old master's works?

EJ: I definitely pay homage to the musicians who have influenced me. Some people believe that a new artist shouldn't do that so much, that I should be telling everyone that I'm completely original, but I don't think there's any such thing as pure originality. I think artists build on the art that came before them. No one performs in a vacuum, whether they acknowledge it or not. I'm not shy at all about telling people that I'm influenced by my predecessors, especially Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Hank Williams Sr. And, among the modern greats, I love Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Loretta Lynn, Gillian Welch... The list goes on and on.

GW: You've just released your third album, Sea of Tears - after LFS&S again with Signature Sounds -, on which you wander through an even broader field of genres compared to your previous releases. The title song and Everywhere I Go are two potential hits, among others. Where does this musical spectrum come from?

EJ: This new album reflects a lot of what I've been listening to lately - mostly music of the 60s, such as the Kinks, Them, Fats Domino, Loretta Lynn.... I've always loved early rock n' roll, blues, garage music, early R&B and classic country. To me, they're not mutually exclusive. I just play sounds that I love and don't get caught up in the activity of limiting myself to one genre or the other. The musical spectrum I play reflects the variety of music that I love. If it's bewildering to some, well, I guess the idea of limiting myself is bewildering to me. I don't try to make sense of it.

 GW: On the album you went for your own interpretation of Shakin' All Over by Johnny Kidd, The Darkest Day by Loretta Lynn, and the Them song I'm Gonna Dress in Black. What's the story behind it?

EJ: I just really love those songs. Of all the covers that we started performing live last year, those were the ones that stood out as our favorites. Sometimes a song just clicks in a way that makes it feel like it's your own. That's how these happened for us.

GW: Some songs on Sea of Tears feature Jerry Miller's 12-string and acoustic guitar prominently, which gives the album along with Jason Beek's drums'n percussion and John Sciascia's upright bass a special drive. How did it come to this transition?

EJ: Hmmm... I'm not sure what the transition is. Do you mean our decision to have Jerry play the 12-string? He's played acoustic, electric and steel on all my records. And Jason and Johnny have always played drums and percussion and bass, respectively. We decided to go with the 12-string because it lends itself well to the 60s sound. One difference between this record and the previous ones is that I played the Hammond organ for the first time. That was a blast. I had such a great time learning my way around it, and I'd bring it on the road in a heartbeat if there were room for it in the van.

GW: How did you come together with your band? What's the story?

EJ: I met Jason Beek first, at a music showcase in the Boston area. Jason had been a fan of Johnny Sciascia's bass-playing for a few years while he played in the Tarbox Ramblers. Jason would go and hear him at least once a week. So when I needed a bass player for my first record, Boundary County, Jason recommended Johnny. And Johnny recommended Jerry. We enjoyed playing together so much that we decided to try our first tour, in the summer of 2006, and we've been going ever since.

GW: You've started your tour in January in Natick, Boston, when it was icy outside. Now it's May and sunny most everywhere. Do different seasons take influence on the mood of the audience? And what about yours then?

EJ: I haven't noticed a difference in mood, but unfortunately I've experienced the obstacles that winter can bring to our shows in New England. We've been scheduled to play gigs during massive blizzards. We've had to drive for miles in the blinding snow, thinking no one in their right mind would dare to come out that night. But someone always does come to see us, rain or sun or snow. So it's always worth it.

GW: Little is known about your time in California, where you have been busking - as Wikipedia quotes you. For how long? And how do you see this era in retrospect?

EJ: I used to busk in L.A., on Venice Beach. It lasted for only a summer. Looking back on it, it was one of my favorite eras of my lifeso far. I stayed with a friend and drove my beat-up old Volvo station wagon to the beach every day, opened up my guitar case and played for hours. The money wasn't much, by most people's standards, but I felt very rich. It was the perfect way for me to get used to the idea of performing, since at that time (summer of 2002) I really hadn't done much of it. Busking was how I got my start.

 GW: You were born in Boise, ID, moved to Santa Fe, NM, then to California, and from there to the Birkshires. What was the reason to move to the East Coast? And – how does it feel living and being there?

EJ: I moved to the Berkshires because I felt like I was spinning my wheels out west. It was hard to find a job, and I needed one once winter set in and I couldn't be outside busking all the time. I had some friends out there in Massachusetts who I'd met in Santa Fe. They were about to have their first child and needed a roommate to help them out, so I packed everything up, put it all back in the Volvo station wagon and drove to the other side of the country. It was January, 2003. It took me several days to get there, but I was glad I made the trek. The Berkshires were good to me, and from there it was a logical choice to go to Boston, which is a musical mecca on the East Coast. That's where I met my band, and the rest is history.

GW: This fall you'll tour parts of Europe again - the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, the UK, and France. Strangely enough neither Germany nor Scandinavia. How can that be?

EJ: We're working on Germany and Scandinavia. We just might get some shows booked there for this tour. There's still time.

© Questions by Uwe Goerlitz

© GeoWis (2009-05-21)

German version >>

Portrait: Eilen Jewell >>

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