Eilen Jewell’s blues journey comes full circle

Eilen Jewell

It’s not out of the realm of possibility to say that Eilen Jewell was the only teenager in Boise, Idaho listening to Howlin’ Wolf. Maybe the only teenager anywhere. Not that she was exactly sharing that information with anyone.

“I must have kept it to myself,” she laughs. “I didn’t have a whole lot of friends in high school. I guess the ones I did have could get on board with some of the stuff I was into, like Billie Holiday. I remember playing one of my friends ‘Fine and Mellow,’ and there was some line in another song about jumping in the river, and my friend was like, ‘Oh no, you can’t listen to this.’ (Laughs) After that, I kind of knew not to really expose my love of the blues to just anybody.”

Call Ms. Jewell one of a kind then, a fact reinforced by her latest album, Down Hearted Blues, which pays tribute to the music she fell in love with during her formative years. From Wolf to Willie Dixon and Memphis Minnie and Betty James, these 12 songs are a throwback with a modern feel, and when you listen to them, they’re as fresh as they were on the day they were born. To Jewell, the reason is simple.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the lyrics and the themes that are covered in these songs,” she said. “Most of them pertain to the human experience. It’s mostly about heartbreak, someone’s going to leave or has left, or is dreaming of leaving. And I think that’s a pretty universal emotion or experience. And the stuff that gets dated quickly are things that are a little more trendy or of the time. If it’s about emotion and it’s raw and it taps into that elemental theme, then no matter what genre, it will last. I think humans are always gonna get their hearts broken.”

That type of insight makes it clear that Jewell wasn’t the typical teenager, and unlike many of us who cringe at what we listened to in high school, she retains that same love for the blues years later.
 
“I just really tuned out in high school, and it wasn’t even drug-related,” she laughs. “I was straight-laced, but whatever kids were into, if it was really cool, I was gonna do the opposite. I feel like the fact that my musical taste hasn’t changed a whole lot since then is evidence of the fact that I wasn’t just doing it to be a ‘rebel.’ It’s really where my heart is. It’s almost like a past life thing. In my previous life I was a kid in the 50s or 60s and that’s where I was at.”

About the only issue the renowned singer-songwriter had when it came to her affection for this music was picking the 12 tracks for Down Hearted Blues. But she made it work.

“It’s usually a personal thing,” she said of the track selection for her new album. “There has to be something in it that really feels like something that I could have said if I had only thought of it first. Or maybe I had thought of it but hadn’t put it in those words specifically. In that way, when I go to sing these songs, they don’t feel like someone else’s because I’ve already adopted them as my own stories, so to speak. Sometimes it’s just one line or one phrase that really calls to me and I think that phrase needs to be repeated. I need to say it over and over again on stage for one reason or another.”

Sunday night, October 15, fans at City Winery in New York City will hear Jewell sing the blues. And while the entertainment value in her visit to the past is evident, it can also be an educational journey, and that’s part of the fun in it for her, the idea that maybe there’s a teenager like her getting their first shot of this music.

“That has been one of my most rewarding and joyful experiences about being a music lover myself, discovering an artist and discovering who influenced that artist,” Jewell said. “And it really started with Bob Dylan. I had to discover who Woody Guthrie was, and who Leadbelly was, and I always loved that process of going back in time and figuring out who influenced who and how we’re all interconnected. And I do hope that some girl in Boise, Idaho a few years from now will find this album and say, ‘So who was Howlin’ Wolf or Bessie Smith or Memphis Minnie?’”

Eilen Jewell plays City Winery in NYC on Sunday, October 15. For tickets, click here

For more information on Eilen Jewell, click here