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Scott Alarik

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Songwriter Eilen Jewell: "Just the Essentials"

Songwriter Eilen Jewell Just the Essentials
Everything old is new again, as the saying goes. It's often used to describe the cyclical nature of culture, but perfectly describes the hushed, rootsy sound of hot young Cambridge songwriter Eilen Jewell.
        How hot is she? When Jim Olsen of the smart indie label Signature Sounds heard her first studio CD, "Boundary County," he offered to sell it through the label's website. The only other time he did that was for Josh Ritter. Look for the 27 year-old Jewell's next album to be on Signature.
        Olsen says, "She seems to be a continuation of a long line of female country-folk songwriters - from the Carter Family to Kitty Wells to Gillian Welch - whose music is personal yet universal, and offers a particularly open view into what makes them tick. There's a real honesty to it, yet also a little mystery."
        The first time Tir na Nog owner Robby Elliott heard Jewell's band, he offered them a Saturday residency at his Union Square pub, which is still going. They also appear at Tir Na Nog's Roots Festival September 17.
        "Eilen [EE-lun] can deliver a song on its own merits," Elliott says, "so she keeps it simple. And I think audiences are getting tired of all the techno-stuff."
        Jewell's music has the languorous quietude of Welch or Norah Jones; but there is something more direct, almost in-your-face, about her stark, neotrad melodicism, subdued vocals, and confident, slow-swaying groove. It's as if she's daring us to say we miss the bellls-and-whistles of pop.
        "There is so much extra in the world right now, so much clutter," she says, "The idea of less-is-more is really making a comeback. People like me who are turned off by this culture of consumerism, of thinking you need more of everything to be happy, are going the opposite direction. It's not just with my music, but the way I live my life. I don't like extra anything - just the essentials."
        She grew up in Idaho, and her father liked to pick a particular music to play on the long car trips his family often took. When she was 14, the menu was Bob Dylan's "Bootleg Series." The effect was immediate.
        "There was something very mysterious about folk music that made me want to figure out where it was coming from. It's like any time you hear a strange sound in the night; you want to follow the trail, and see what the source is. That's how this music made me feel. Who is this guy? Where is this coming from?"
         For all her folksy simplicity, her songs ripple with unresolved emotion. She presents herself as a woman with smoldering wants, who can't quite figure what they are; swerving from tired regret to eager fantasy, obsession to ennui, loneliness to contented solitude. In this impressionistic ambiguity, her songs feel bitingly contemporary, at once old and new.
        "I want to encapsulate an image or emotion," she says, "and just let people think about it. It's like how a painter will paint the foreground in focus, and make the background blurry. That's part of the sparseness I like in music; focusing on what you're going for, and not getting distracted by the peripheral."
        Originally Appeard in The Boston Globe