Eilen Jewell is a singer-songwriter from Idaho with a beguiling voice and a knack for songcraft. We asked her about her excellent new album, Queen of the Minor Key, her approach to songwriting, how she launched her career, and Loretta Lynn.
Talk a bit about the minor key and it’s many charms.
I love the spookiness of the minor key. It has a way of drawing me in every time. I don’t know what it is about it…something about dropping that third a half step. Somehow, to my ear, it sounds heavier than the major key, more mysterious and yet more down to earth at the same time.
What are some of your favorite minor key songs?
Chopin’s Nocturnes, “Restless” by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, “The House of the Rising Sun”…are just a few of my favorites.
Take us through the arc of your career so far. How did you end up on a label?
It all started with the recording of Boundary County, my first album, back in December of 2005. The band I currently tour with was formed for that recording session. A few months after we released it ourselves, a friend of ours handed the album to Signature Sounds and they liked it enough to sign a contract with me for the next record, and each subsequent one as well. I really have Boundary County to thank for launching me into my career. It’s a mellow album of all original material, very acoustic. I never thought it would take me as far as it did. Each year that has gone by since we released Boundary County has been a step onward and upward. No huge windfalls, just a lot of hard work and a slow, steady evolution.
What moves you to write a song?
Sometimes it starts with just one word or phrase, often one I’ve heard in another song. For example, I’ve always loved the line in the Jimmy Rodgers song that goes, “I’m going someplace where I can’t hear them call your name.” One day it struck me that the line needed a spotlight of its own, so I rearranged it slightly and made that the central idea in my song “Where They Never Say Your Name.” Words and phrases, if I really like them, have that power over me. I just have to stop whatever I’m doing and write them down.
Has your songwriting process evolved over the years?
Definitely. I’ve become less hell-bent on making a song work. If it’s not turning out right, I just set it aside and return to it when the time is right. I don’t force it. At the same time, I’ve also become more critical. The more songs you write, the more you have to be aware of repeating words from one album to the next. I try to push myself to come up with more descriptive phrases that don’t use words I’ve already incorporated. In a way, songwriting becomes easier, as I get the hang of it, and yet on the other hand it becomes harder, as I become more concerned with repeating myself or falling into ruts.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
I’m curious to know what people will think about “Santa Fe.” I like the picture that it paints of one of my favorite places in the world. Although it is similar in feel to a few songs I’ve already written, I think it’s a step forward due to the chances I felt I was taking while writing it. I see it as being dark and bright at the same time, which is something I tend to strive for in songwriting.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
Maybe this is just coming to mind because I’m thinking of “Santa Fe” now, but the opening line to that song is something I’ve really been enjoying when we play it live. It goes, “You picked up a broken bottle/In case anyone gave us any trouble/And we walked all the way back to Cortez.” I think it sets the scene pretty well.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I use the word “empty” a lot. I love the word “transfixed” and would like to use it in a song sometime. I hate abbreviated words, which is why, on the rare occasions when I send a text, they are usually of annoyingly epic length.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
Words and melody come to me at the same time, almost always.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
It depends on the song, whether I revise or not. There are songs that essentially write themselves, they come to me in one piece, and there are songs that come to me in fits and starts. The latter usually require a lot of revision in order to get to the heart of what I’m trying to say. I definitely prefer to avoid revising as much as possible. My favorite songs tend to be the ones that I didn’t labor over as much, most likely because every time I sing them I can almost hear the other lines, the ones I scratched out because they weren’t working. It’s hard for me to approach my own songs with a clean slate.
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Loretta Lynn. People talk a lot about her contribution to country music, her voice, her wardrobe….But her songwriting is amazing. So unique. And I love Fred Eaglesmith’s songwriting too. He’s very underrated, in my opinion. I get the feeling, when I hear his songs, that he loves words. The imagery in his songs is poignant and playful at the same time.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
There are so many! If I had to choose one, I’d say “Visions of Johanna.” The first line alone is enough to make it a masterpiece. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet…”