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Judge for Eilen Jewell

Watertown, MA
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Portrait of Eilen Jewell
Boise-born and Boston-based, Eilen Jewell has quickly distinguished
herself as one of the rising stars of a new generation of
roots musicians. Her first two albums, Boundary County (self-released,
2006) and Letters from Sinners and Strangers (Signature
Sounds, 2007) were astonishingly assured efforts, which matched
Jewell’s understated yet insightful songs with a rugged blend of
Americana styles. They were met with a great deal of acclaim, with
No Depression raving “Jewell is showing she can wander with the
best of them, and write riveting song-stories about her adventures
along the way.” Indicative of Jewell’s strong following in Europe, The
Word in the U.K. described her as “A voice of real distinction [that]
manages to transcend some powerful influences and pierce the fog
long enough for her own point of view to emerge.”
“On those albums,” she reflects, “people told me they heard folk,
country, western swing, rockabilly, and even jazz…but a part of my
roots has been left out up until now.”
On April 21, Signature Sounds will release Eilen Jewell’s third album,
Sea of Tears, a recording that fills in a vital, hitherto missing
element of her musical persona. “Before I discovered Woody Guthrie
and folk music,” she explains, “I was listening to Elvis Presley,
Buddy Holly, and, later on, the Animals and the Kinks. I love that
stuff, and I love to play it.”
With Sea of Tears, Jewell and her longtime band of Jason Beek
(drums, harmony vocals), Jerry Miller (electric, acoustic, and steel
guitars), and Johnny Sciascia (upright bass) wed her elegantly
unflinching songwriting with a rustic, pre-Beatles swagger that encapsulates
vintage R&B, Midwestern garage rock, Chicago blues,
and early rock and rockabilly, while maintaining the haunting, folkinspired
purity that first made her an artist to watch.
“There’s a lot of styles of music that I love equally,” Jewell says,
“and I come from all of them. For this record, I had a clear sense of
a sound I wanted to hear, and somehow I was able to communicate
that to the band. That’s rare for me…I usually just let the song go -
but these songs were telling me they had to be done a certain way.”
Together for almost four years now, Jewell’s basic band has been
variously augmented on their previous albums, and formed the
heart of the American gospel super group the Sacred Shakers, who
released a self-titled album on Signature Sounds in 2008. Sea of
Tears, however, features just the core quartet, a conscious decision
on Jewell’s part to keep the sound lean and, in its darker moments,
daringly stark. The absence of fiddle, heard prominently on Letters
from Sinners and Strangers, actually widens the band’s range - allowing
them to move seamlessly between genres, even to combine
Eilen Jewell
Biography • Sea of Tears
styles more fluidly than previously. To this sound, Jewell responds
with nine original songs that boldly stare down rejection,
denial, and change.
“I had a dream about the title track,” she recalls, “and when
I woke up, I was able to remember my dream and the song
wrote itself. I wish I could have more dreams like that…” Sea
of Tears wraps a bitter, confrontational missive in a sinuous,
sultry groove punctuated by Miller’s slashing guitar. In the
role of a woman ignored, Jewell doesn’t howl - she looks the
object of her affection straight in the eye and plainly, firmly
states that without him, “It’s gonna be a sea of tears for me /
It’s gonna be a life of misery.” The effect is disarmingly powerful
- an unadorned but undiminished statement of singleminded
devotion.
In contrast to the title track’s seething rhythmic undercurrent, “Nowhere in No Time” (a song Jewell has been
carrying with her for years, but is just now being heard) rides a gently swinging country beat, rendered with
the minimalist clarity of a Sun Records country 45. Elsewhere, such as on the swaggering, blues-informed
“My Final Hour,” Jewell introduces a new color - the Hammond B-3 - which she had never played before.
“The piano was my first instrument and my first love,” she says, “but so far normal piano hasn’t come up on
any of my records!” On Sea of Tears, the organ bridges the gap between the Vox-fueled garage rock of the
early British invasion and grinding, organ-driven American R&B and soul.
The intensity and urgency felt throughout the record is partly owed to Jewell’s chosen subjects and partly
to the uncluttered, unencumbered recording process. These songs were finished in the brink of time, and
mostly delivered to the band on the eve of the sessions, leaving no time for the performances to become
rote. “Last year I did a lot of hotel writing, coming up with bits and pieces,” Jewell says. “I think I work well
under pressure, and if I’m not under pressure I don’t work at all! I don’t need the pressure of an album to
start songs, but I need it to finish them.”
“The guys are good with picking stuff up right away, and making it sound natural,” she continues. “This album
was recorded pretty much live, with very little post-production. The material was very fresh.”
Alongside Jewell’s own songs, there are three outside numbers that point to much of the inspiration behind
Sea of Tears. “I’m Gonna Dress in Black” is a churning lament gleaned from Van Morrison’s, Them, who
recorded it originally in 1965. Loretta Lynn’s “Darkest Day” is a classic honky-tonk stomp by one of Jewell’s
biggest influences, whom Jewell was able to open for in 2007. Most intriguingly, however, is a version of the
early British rock’n’roll standard “Shakin’ All Over.” Rarely tackled by female singers, Jewell’s clattering, simmering
version is equally sensual and ominous.
“I was never in a real rock band,” Jewell shyly reflects. “But I was in a pretend one when I was seven. We
had cardboard instruments.” As witnessed on Sea of Tears, Jewell approaches rock’n’roll like any other
American hybrid - balancing the defining elements of the style with her steadfast integrity and never altering
her approach to cater to the medium.
“Since the ‘60s folk revival, there’s been this fear of rock,” she concludes. “If people define you as a folk musician,
it’s somehow scandalous to play with drums and electric guitars. It’s thought of as selling out or being
commercial…but, to me, it’s all folk music.”
 
 
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