Unlike many singer-songwriters, Boston-based guitarist and singer Eilen (pronounced as if it rhymes with “feelin”) Jewell has never had a serious bout of writer’s block. She admits that her own standards for perfection get in the way of what she eventually chooses to record. “Writing was something that just came naturally to me from the time I was young,” she says, “and it was something I’ve always done.” She performs on Saturday, October 18, at Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville.
“I struggle now to write things I feel confident about and that has to do with my being picky and hard on myself. Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to enjoy myself during the process of rewriting and editing things I’ve written,” she says. “Now I find I have to be selective and just can’t keep saying the same things over and over again, so I’ve tried to direct my writing into new channels and new arenas.” She says she’s been carrying a notebook around and jotting down her song ideas and snippets since she was in junior high school.
Her second album, “Letters from Sinners & Strangers,” was released in summer, 2007, on the Signature Sounds label, based in western Massachusetts. Jewell has based herself in Boston, which has a healthy coffee house and cafe scene, since 2003. She’s already played several prestigious northeast folk festivals with her band, including the Philadelphia Folk Festival last August. The same band that’s on her record will perform on October 18, and includes her drummer and manager, Jason Beek; Jerry Miller on electric guitars; and Johnny Sciascia [prounounced sha-sha] on bass.
Jewell, 28, recorded her debut album, “Boundary County,” on her own and released that album in early 2006 to generally good response in Boston and around the country from radio programmers. “Letters from Sinners & Strangers” reached the Top 10 on the “Americana” weekly radio chart and landed on many roots music critics’ “best of” lists for 2007. The Americana radio format includes blues, traditional folk, and country music. The “Letters” CD includes “How Long,” her compelling retelling of one of Martin Luther King’s speeches from 1965, and the blues-based tunes “Rich Man’s World,” “High Shelf Booze,” and “Heartache Boulevard.”
Since her career began to take off in the summer of 2007, Jewell says her performing high points include opening for Loretta Lynn last year, the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August of this year, and opening for Lucinda Williams at the Grass Roots Festival in upstate New York in July of this year.
Jewell left Boise, Idaho, where she was raised, right after high school and attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, graduating in 2002. “I basically wandered until I ended up here in Boston,” she says of her travels around the country since graduating college.
Growing up in Boise she says she was exposed to blues and other roots music at a very young age. “My dad was into Howlin’ Wolf and had a lot of old blues records, and he had Bob Dylan and Mississippi John Hurt. One day I was going through his record collection when I discovered these records and it piqued my curiosity, so I went out and got a record player at a yard sale. All that started when I was about 14,” she says. She took piano lessons as a seven-year old but began focusing her efforts on guitar when she was 15.
She says she was particularly inspired to continue writing her own songs and playing guitar by Dylan’s recordings. “When I was 15 we took a family road trip around Yellowstone and northern Montana and one of the Dylan bootleg series had just come out, so on that trip we listened to all three of those tapes nonstop. That was the first time I remember thinking, I really wanted to learn better guitar and get into this music more.
‘I didn’t seek out the chance to perform publicly, even though I took piano lessons from the time I was seven all through high school,” she says, noting that as a shy person, she would get nervous about the annual recitals. “Performing my own songs was something I gradually got into while I was in college, and it was basically through busking (performing in public spaces for tips) in Santa Fe,” she says. “Because there was no stage involved, it didn’t intimidate me quite as badly.”
How did she get up the courage to go busking on the streets of Santa Fe? “I had a friend who was into it, and we would just hang out and play music. He would go down to the farmer’s market every week, and I sat in on a couple of tunes. After he graduated I had another year of school, so I continued doing it on my own.”
Jewell’s mother is an administrative assistant and her father is an electrical engineer who owns a tree farm. “His real love is his tree farm and working the land,” she says. “Neither one of them really plays music but both were very receptive to my wanting to play music. My family in general is not particularly musical, but my dad’s mother is an organist. She would play along to silent movies back in the 1930s.”
Jewell’s second album for Signature Sounds is now ready and slated for a spring, 2009, release, but she adds she and her band mates are struggling with a title.
Also performing at the October 18 show is Texas-based singer-songwriter Caroline Herring, who, like Jewell, also touches on blues, real country, and traditional folk songs in the course of her shows.
At her live shows Jewell and her band run the gamut from traditional country and blues to rockabilly and western swing and some early rock ‘n’ roll. She says she also pays close attention to audience requests. “I think how it ends up working is we will play the songs that people have tended to request the most and the ‘hits’ from both records,” she says. “Then we like to mix it up between mellower, more sparse kinds of songs with more upbeat ones in case people want to dance. Other people are attracted to more pensive songs, and we kind of like to throw a lot of variety out there. We’ll usually do at least one Loretta Lynn song. We also always work in a couple of gospel tunes into our live shows.”
Eilen Jewell and Caroline Herring, Saturday, October 18, 8 p.m., Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, 268 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. Eilen (rhymes with feelin’) Jewell is a singer, songwriter, and musician whose CD, “Letters from Sinners & Strangers,” was released in 2007. Caroline Herring is a former folklore scholar with her latest CD, “Lantana.” Concert, $20 in advance; $22 at the door. All you can eat Texas chili dinner. $7. Reservations are recommended. 609-406-1424 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.