Chances are, even if you haven’t heard Jewell’s albums such as her 2005 debut Boundary County or later releases Sea Of Tears and Letters From Sinners & Strangers, you have probably already heard a few of her songs. Her cover of Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” appeared on the second season of HBO’s “True Blood” and her original composition “Till You Lay Down Your Heavy Load” popped up on the vampire saga’s third season.
Jewell’s recordings have also appeared on The CWs “Hellcats, ” the ABC-TV 2009 special “Earth 2100” and CMT featured her “Too Hot To Sleep” in its 2009 TV lineup promo.
Pollstar caught up with Jewell just days before the release of her latest album, Queen Of The Minor Key, as she and her band featuring husband Jason Beeks on drums, guitarist Jerry Miller and upright bassist Johnny Sciascria were on their way to a gig in Arlington, Va. With Beeks driving the van (Jewell had just completed a turn driving the vehicle through a storm in Maryland), the artist gave us a peak into what it’s like being a very unique artist on the rise.
With Queen Of The Minor Key coming out in a few days, do you feel like a kid anxiously awaiting Christmas or is it more like dreading that first day of school?
I was one of those children who always liked the first day of school. There is a bit of that excitement [but] there’s also quite a bit of anxiety. We put so much into this record and it’s always a little nerve-racking wondering how it’s going to be received by the public. I go through this with every record we release.
When do you eventually lose the feeling of anxiety? Does it happen on the day of release, or does it slowly slip away during the days following the album going into stores?
It’s a gradual thing. I think it’s when the first reviews come in. Once a few people break the ice, it gets easier. But the first few reviews are always the toughest. It’s our baby out there and we want the best for it.
You take reviews seriously?
A good review is a helpful thing. We’ve made fans because they said, “A star review of your album and was curious about what it was all about so I checked it out.” Some of my favorite albums of all time were not very popular when they first came out. So it’s not the end-all-be-all, but it’s nice to read positive things about your work. I heard that The Rolling Stones had quite a few records that were criticized and I loved pretty much every record of theirs.
Are you comfortable with the labels and descriptions attributed to your music, such as country, alternative and alt-country?
I am because I sense people have a hard time figuring what category to put me in. That makes me more comfortable than being called on particular thing. I really think my band and I draw from a lot of different musical influences so it’s hard to pinpoint just one genre. When people call me a “country artist” one day and a “jazz singer” the next day, I have to laugh a little bit. They’re not at fault. Sometimes I consider myself to be doing a country song. The next one could have more jazz influences and the one after that could sound like a blues song. So no one’s really wrong. Unless you say I’m a death-metal artist.
A lot of people hear different female singers in my voice I don’t necessarily hear, but I think whatever people hear, there must be some honest truth to it. I don’t really know because I’m not trying to stick to one particular genre.
What can you tell us about Queen Of The Minor Key that’s different from previous albums?
It’s more bold, in my opinion. With each record I release I feel like I try to summon something slightly different than I’ve done before. Not just for the sake of being different but for the sake of trying to grow as an artist. I don’t want to make the same record twice. With this record I’ve done a few things that are new to me. All the songs are original. I haven’t done that since my first record, Boundary Country. Two of the songs are instrumental. I’ve never attempted that before. I always wanted to write an instrumental and never really thought I could.
I had two guest vocalists singing with me – up-and-coming Seattle artist Zoey Muth, and Big Sandy from Big Sandy & His Fly Rite Boys – when I was writing material for this record, I had them in mind. I was nervous as to what they would say, whether they would agree to do it. It took a lot of guts for me [to ask them] because I’m kind of shy about things like that. I was happy when that all worked out. They sound great on the record. I feel like there’s more variety than previous releases.
Is it more difficult to write an album’s worth of new material than it was when you wrote the songs for your first album?
I think in some ways it gets easier because I’m more comfortable with my own writing style, learning how to find my voice and what’s best for me. But it’s harder because I have less and less time to do anything. When my first record came out, I had my entire life to figure it out and no one expected anything from me. Now, with each record, there are more expectations. People are now comparing this album with ones before it. That’s kind of new. Then, of course, you really have to push yourself to write in slightly new ways and to grow as an artist and not stagnate. In a way it’s a lot harder.
You mentioned writing songs with your guest vocalists in mind. But for the majority of your work, when you’re writing, do you hear the song in your head as if you’re singing it, or is it more like composing words and melody without hearing anyone’s voice?
In my mind it’s always me singing the song. Except for when I wrote the songs for Zoey Muth and Big Sandy. I definitely had them in mind and was imagining their voices singing with me. I usually write for me and my voice. I still haven’t really learned to write with someone else. Collaborations are very foreign to me.
What about when you cover other people’s songs? Johnny Cash spoke about considering songs to record and said that the true test was whether he could turn them into “Johnny Cash records.” How do you approach recording other people’s work?
Pretty similarly, I’d say. I try to think about the lyrics. I have to be able to latch on to the lyrics. They have to please me like they’re words I can imagine myself saying. And the songs have to fit my voice and the band has to be comfortable with them. But in a way I think that’s right. I have to turn them into “Eilen Jewell songs.”
Are there songs you like to sing in private but would never put on a record or perform publicly – songs you sing for the fun of singing?
There are a couple of songs I sometimes find myself singing at sound checks that I would never want to perform or record because they’re too stylized or overly done. I like to do “Stormy Weather.” I’ve always liked that song but it’s been done too many times. I like to sing old standards. I like jazz a lot but I don’t particularly want to do too many jazz standards. Actually I don’t really like doing standard anything.
You’ve come a long way from singing in the streets. Would you recommend busking to someone just beginning a music career?
Yes. For me it was the perfect experience. At the time I was terrified of getting on stage and dealing with the whole business aspect like finding a gig. I didn’t know how to sing into a microphone yet. For me it was the perfect training wheels that I needed to ease my way into the world of performing. I never saw myself as a performer. I would get terrible stage fright when I was a kid and had to do piano recitals. Busking was perfect for me at the time. But now I would be terrified by busking if I was going to do that now.
Some singers say they were shocked when they first heard recordings of themselves singing. Was it like that for you?
I would record myself singing songs I wrote when I was about seven-years-old. Looking back on them, they were very ridiculous songs, but they had verses, they had little hooks and choruses and everything. So I’ve always been recording myself. I had a video camera – an old security camera my dad owned – and I would film myself singing and dancing.
But the first time I heard my voice in a professional setting, I think it was around 2003. I had made a little demo of some songs I’d written. That was when I was living in the western part of Massachusetts and thought, “Yeah, it sounds like me.”
So hearing your voice in that setting wasn’t a surprise?
No surprise. Although I was really shocked and in awe when I first heard one of my songs on the radio. Then it was kind of in context with what I was used to hearing on the radio. It still sounded like me but it was a wonderful feeling. It was one of the songs from that same demo. I felt very honored to be part of that which I thought was so unattainable.
What about movies and television? Any soundtrack work?
We had two spots last year on “True Blood.” They’ve been really good to us. So far, no films. That would be fabulous. There’s a show [on HBO] about New Orleans that has good music and plays a lot of stuff by artists who are similar to us. It’s called “Treme.” I’m hoping that works out too.
You’re playing Europe and the U.K. this fall. What differences have you seen in audiences across the Pond compared to U.S. audiences?
Most of the European and U.K. audiences tend to be a bit more reserved than American audiences. They also tend to be more knowledgeable, on average, about American music. So it makes for a different performance experience.
As your career progresses, does it become more difficult keeping your writing based in reality or on subjects the audience can easily relate to?
Yeah. I think a lot of songwriters have a hard time with that. We start to see a lot more songs about life on the road because that becomes what you know. But most people don’t spend their lives on the road. I do like songs about the road but I find they tend to be a bit romanticized. I try to keep things in the realm people can relate to. That’s why I write so many sad songs.
Do you read a lot?
I do. I read as often as I can which sucks when you’re on the road and spend a lot driving. When I’m in the passenger seat, I try to read. I certainly read a lot growing up. That was one of my favorite activities.
When Hollywood films your life story, who would you like to see play Eilen Jewell?
For some reason the only person coming to mind right now is the comic actress Kristen Wiig. I’m a big fan of hers. She seems really goofy and I feel I have a goofy sense of humor to. I really love to see comedians play serious roles. Maybe a comic actress would be perfect to play me.
One more question: While doing press to promote the Queen Of The Minor Key, what’s the one question no one ever asks you?
I don’t think anyone has asked me what my favorite song on the record is.
And that would be…
I don’t know. I think it might be “That’s Where I’m Going.” It’s sort of an unsung hero.
Eilen Jewell’s upcoming tour dates include Buffalo, N.Y., at Sportsman’s Tavern July 8; Oneonta, N.Y., at the Oneonta Theatre July 9; the “Black Potatoe Music Festival” in Clinton, N.J., July 14 and Bethlehem, Pa., at Levitt Pavilion Steelstacks July 15. For more information, be sure to visit EilenJewell.com.