With her fifth studio record, Queen Of The Minor Key, American alt.country chanteuse Eilen Jewell has produced one of the records of the year. A heady mix of country rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, surf-inspired guitar and folky balladry, Queen Of The Minor Key leaps from the stereo, pulls on its ratty old cowboy boots and struts down the street, a hip-flask in its back pocket, a spring in its step. From instrumental opener, ‘Radio City’ (this is where the surf guitar makes its first showing) to closer, ‘Kalimotxo’ (also surf-drenched, with a hefty dose of honky tonk pump), this is a record which is all in the right place, without a doubt.
“Thank you,” Jewell smiles when I get the chance to chat to her on the phone, telling her straight up how I feel about this record, one which she and the band are very excited about sharing. And well might they be excited, as this is an album which has been some time in coming. Not so much as far as time goes (Jewell’s last record under her name was 2009’s Sea Of Tears, plus the Loretta Lynn tribute record, Butcher Holler in 2010), but as far as the writing process goes. Word has it that Jewell had to overcome a fairly serious case of writer’s block before Queen… got off and running.
“Well to be honest, it’s possible it wasn’t even writer’s block,” she muses, “because writer’s block kind of implies that I was trying to write but couldn’t; I was so blocked, that I wasn’t even able to try to write. So I had to isolate myself in the mountains in order to write anything… I mean, there had been a lot of distraction on the road, fatigue, and it was hard to just get in the right mind frame to create.”
To counteract this frustrating time then, Jewell relocated, as she alluded, to a cabin (with no electricity or running water) up in the mountains of Idaho, where she’s originally from, to really get into the writing of this record. “That was amazing,” she tells. “And because it was a place in Idaho that I was familiar with, it wasn’t distracting; it was beautiful enough to be inspirational, but I felt at home there, so I didn’t feel like I had to be out exploring. I think everyone needs a place like that in their lives, whether they’re writing or not.
“And I started writing right away, as soon as I put my bags down I was writing,” she goes on. “It’s almost like I had the songs stored away in some part of my brain and I just needed to go up there in order to let them out of my head.” So the songs that went to make up Queen Of The Minor Key began to pour out, songs like the slow rolling, ‘I Remember You’, the country inflected ballad, ‘Santa Fe’ and the foot tapping road-tripper, ‘Home To Me’.
What else came out, lyrically, was humour, a tongue-in-cheek aspect which as long-time listeners of Jewell’s will attest, hasn’t been that prevalent in her writing before. Songs like ‘Bang Bang Bang’, describing Cupid as, “about two years of age, a really freaky thing to see, he was bragging about his sawed-off six gauge, hidden right up his tattered sleeve.” Not to mention the title of the record itself. “Yeah, that is a new thing for me for sure,” Jewell concurs with a smile.
“I usually shy away from humour in songs because to me, songs with humour in them can be kind of dorky or clichéd,” she goes on with a laugh. “So the title is definitely tongue-in-cheek, in my opinion, and ‘Kalimotxo’ is one of the silliest songs I could ever imagine myself singing. So with every record that comes out, I try to expand my horizons just a little bit more, and so this was new territory for me that I really wanted to urge myself into, it is possible to do a little bit of that.”
Weaved as it is in amongst the more serious writing and the music itself, the humour Jewell has injected into this record stands as an important part, a part which helps lift this record as high as it is. With this in mind then, I’m interested to know what Jewell’s overall MO was here, what she wanted to come out with at the end of this record process. “Well I wanted an album of all original material, that’s pretty much all that I knew, because we’d just done Butcher Holler last year and that was really fun, but I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a cover artist,” she explains.
“I want to be known as a songwriter, so I felt I had to get right back on track with the songwriting,” she adds. “And I also knew I wanted to get a couple of guest vocalists, because I’d never tried that before. So I wrote a couple of songs with a couple of friends of mine in mind and luckily they agreed to sing them with me. They were Big Sandy (of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys) and Zoe Muth, so that was pretty much all that I knew I wanted out of the experience and other than that, everything kinda just fell into place.” One listen to Queen Of The Minor Key proves that, a masterful record from an artist with only more to give.
Samuel J. Fell
Queen Of The Minor Key is available now through Signature Sounds Recordings and Fuse.