Five (or more) questions with Eilen Jewell

Photo by Otto Kitsinger

Singer-songwriter Eilen Jewell grew up in Boise but lived in Santa Fe, L.A. and Boston, and toured the Canada, Europe and Australia before settling back in Idaho. Her new album, Sundown Over Ghost Town, was largely inspired by that return — it’s a collection of songs that feels unhurried, dreamy and haunting — timeless without being retro.

Jewell and her band play The Grey Eagle Wednesday, Sept. 16. Angela Easterling opens. 8 p.m., $12/$15.

Xpress: Since you travel a lot and have lived in many areas of the U.S., do you feel like where you are affects how you write?
Eilen Jewell: Where I am definitely affects how I write. I used to be able to write anywhere — in the van, in the hotel room, at home — but these days there are more demands being made on me from all sides, so I have to go to the mountains of central Idaho and be completely alone and completely unplugged in order to write. No Internet, no phone, no television. I eat only rice and beans so I can’t be distracted by some grandiose cooking project. I live like a monk while I’m writing. It’s great.

Do you feel like the different places you’ve lived have affected your sound?
It’s hard to say exactly. The places where I’ve lived have definitely affected who I am as a person, so I assume they must have affected my sound, too. I think it might have more to do with the people I’ve met in those places though, rather than the places themselves. People teach me a lot about music. For instance, my husband Jason has a radio show on KRBX in Boise, and he had one out of MIT in Cambridge, too. His show has been a huge part of my education as a musician. I wouldn’t have had that education if I hadn’t moved to Massachusetts, where I met him. But I wouldn’t say my music has a Massachusetts sound.

Growing up in Idaho, what sort of music did you listen to?
I mostly listened to early rock ‘n’ roll, like Buddy Holly, The Zombies, The Kinks, and early blues, folk and jazz, like Mississippi John Hurt, Billie Holiday and early Dylan. I loved everybody’s early stuff but not so much their later material. I was a strange kid. Not much has changed.

No Depression called Sundown over Ghost Town the most emotional writing of your career. Was there any trepidation about putting out an album that was really personal?
I had no trepidation about it. It felt like it was time to tell some true stories. All of my previous albums were almost entirely fictional, or based on someone else’s real-life events. I’ve become more introspective since becoming a mother, so telling my own true stories just felt like the natural thing to do.

Do you feel like you achieved the sound you had in mind for the album, or did the idea morph and/or surprise you in the recording process?
I do feel like I achieved the sound I had in mind. There were a couple of songs that I recorded for it that didn’t seem to fit that vision, so they were left on the cutting room floor. I’m not completely ruthless about it — sometimes I let an album go in a direction I hadn’t originally intended — but I try to stay true to what I feel I need to do.

What’s your favorite song to perform live right now?
My favorite song to play at shows these days is “Songbird,” because I love having an excuse to talk and think and sing about my little girl, Mavis. She is a topic I never grow weary of. And it’s the only song I perform completely solo, so it’s a unique challenge.

It’s been a decade since your first release — what does that anniversary mean to you?
It means that time flies when you’re criss-crossing the country in a van with three guys and a bunch of gear. I honestly can’t believe it’s been a decade already. That’s more miles than I care to calculate.

Since your husband (drummer Jason Beek) is in the band with you, are you able to bring your daughter on the road, too?
We do bring little Mavis along on every tour. And Jason’s mom is the road-nanny. She watches Mavis while we perform, and she plays with her for a little while in the mornings when we’re packing everything up — the crib, the nightlight, the diapers, the toys — there’s a lot more stuff involved now. That extra set of hands is crucial. We wouldn’t be able to do it without her.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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