Words & Deeds

Michael Deeds: Boise’s Eilen Jewell balances music, motherhood

After picking up a guitar as a teenage girl, Eilen Jewell spent the last two decades journeying to her current position as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. Jewell’s fifth album, “Sundown Over Ghost Town,” written in Idaho’s mountains and released in May, earned her praise including a profile on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and a brief appearance on NBC’s “Today.”

But when Jewell stands on stage performing with her crack band, she sometimes finds her mind drifting to baby Mavis.

“I’m thinking about her and does this all make sense,” admits Jewell, who will perform at an album-release party Aug. 21 at Visual Arts Collective (9 p.m., $20 advance, Brown Paper Tickets). “I feel like each audience and each venue has to meet a certain standard now. It’s got to be worth bringing my 13-month-old out and keeping her in the van for many hours at a stretch. There has to be a connection now between us and the audience to make it all worthwhile. I feel like it’s more of a mindful process now.”

Like a calf roper trying to tie a stubborn Angus, Eilen Jewell wrestles to label her music. She’s 36, but her elegant voice has an old-soul quality. Her fondness for minor keys and melancholy melodies lures the word “noir” into descriptions of her sound. She’s not exactly a country singer. Then again, she released an album of Loretta Lynn songs in 2010.

The best label for Jewell’s most important craft might be mom. And that’s not necessarily incongruous with her other job.

“I feel like it has changed me as a songwriter,” she says. “I feel like this most recent album was much more autobiographical and introspective. I guess I just am less interested in fictional stories and kind of more interested in expressing where I’m at right now.

“You know, it’s kind of strange. I think that sounds a little bit self-absorbed, and I think people usually become less self-absorbed when they become mothers. And I think I am. But my songwriting has kind of changed in that way.”

Critics have noted that home is a recurring theme on her new album. It makes sense. Jewell, who grew up in Boise but spent lots of time on family property in Idaho City, moved away in 1997. She went to college and busked in New Mexico. She headed to Los Angeles and busked some more.

She returned to Boise briefly, but it didn’t feel right. So she relocated to the life-changing Boston area. Over nine years, she formed her band, made albums and toured. She married her drummer, Jason Beek.

But in 2012, the City of Trees lured Jewell home again.

It’s not accurate to treat “Sundown” as a 12-song metaphor for returning to Boise. Heck, Jewell’s phone number still has a Boston area code. (“I just can’t fully let go,” she quips.) Still, her inspired lyrics, woven throughout beautiful song arrangements, will make any Idahoan wistful.

“All of my albums have a lot to do with the West, a lot of Western imagery,” Jewell says. “With this one, though, I kind of let go of the reins, so to speak, on the whole Western theme. It’s not necessarily about coming home. But it is all about my love for the West or my love-hate for home and the West and a lot of childhood memories from growing up out here.”

Jewell has reached a point in her career where she could be based in a place like Idaho City and still be successful with music. She and her band will tour heavily next month in the East before traveling to Europe in October.

“Our biggest draw is a tie between Madrid and Melbourne,” she says. “Madrid — before Mavis came along, we were going to Europe at least twice a year and playing Spain at least once a year. They’re really into whatever this music is: Americana or roots music, whatever you want to call it.”

Yes, whatever you want to call it.

“Sometimes people call us a bluegrass band, which is just way off,” she laments. “I think real bluegrass bands might be kind of angry to hear that.”

Next week in Garden City, nobody will care what label is used. Friends and family attend whenever she plays a hometown gig, which is once or twice a year. A former grade-school teacher or two might show up. Dad likes to appear, of course.

“It always feels really mind-boggling,” Jewell admits. “Mostly in a good way.”

Life is like that. Even when your priorities evolve, it pays to cherish the blessings.

“ ‘Mindful’ is the word that I would use to describe how this whole motherhood thing has changed me,” Jewell decides. “It’s been really good training for being on stage, too. With a little one, if you’re not in the moment, you’re either missing something really fabulous, or you look away and she falls down the stairs. You can’t be letting your mind wander.”

Unless, of course, it’s to think about Mavis. A couple of seconds between verses won’t hurt.

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