Boise-bred and Cambridge-based country singer Eilen Jewell’s second album, Letters from Saints and Sinners is one of my favorites of 2007, by turns rollicking and pretty, with the sort of dusty, traditional authenticity that your average local wouldn’t expect to come out of Boston. Yet it did, and Jewell—who has drawn national press and comparisons to Gillian Welch and Jolie Holland—has been touring widely with local roots stalwarts Jerry Miller (the best guitarist I’ve ever seen) and bassist Johnny Sciascia (of Tarbox Ramblers fame), to support it.
I called Eilen as she sat shotgun in the van, heading down to Virginia for a tour through the South.
You guys just got back from Europe, right?
We just got back on Friday, we did a promotional tour there where we performed on radio shows. It was kind of a way to get the European folks hip to what we’re doing, so that when we come back in the spring there will be a little bit more of a reception for us.
How was the response?
It was good. It’s kind of hard to tell because I think Europeans are generally a little more polite than we are [laughs], so it was hard to tell if they were just being polite or if they really liked us. But the response was good, and it seemed like they had a really strong Americana-ish scene there.
Really? Where’s that coming from?
Well, for whatever reason the Netherlands is really into it, and the UK. Josh Ritter had a gold record in Ireland, and he does a similar thing to what we do. But Scandinavia—I’m not sure why this is, it’s just a strange phenomenon. Maybe it’s the less commercial-sounding American music was always appealing to them.
Any good stories from the road so far?
Oh boy, let’s see. Well, one of the more trying moments is when we were South Carolina, crossing into Georgia on our way to Texas, and something huge hit our windshield on the passenger side, which was where I was sitting. It was dark out, so we didn’t see what was coming, but the way the thing hit the windshield, it didn’t come through the windshield, but it sort of broke the other side out, so all this glass went flying into my face. I was spitting out little pieces of glass [laughs]. Luckily nobody was hurt, but there was glass all over us, and definitely all over me.
Oh my God! Any idea what it might have been?
We were joking that it was a Georgia peach. That was just their way of saying hello to us.
They just greet all Yankees like that.
[Laughs] It was about the size of a peach, but who knows.
How have the crowds been?
It really varies city to city. There was a stretch there in the summer when we forgot what it was like to play to a half-filled club and a less-than-enthusiastic audience, but we’re starting to remember what that’s like now [laughs]. Summertime was good to us with all the festivals, but we played a homecoming gig on Saturday at Johnny D’s, and that was like what I was referring to. We were competing against Red Sox fever.
You guys are going to be doing a lot of driving in the next few weeks.
What’s the CD pile looking like?
Well, we had the world’s most gigantic CD pile for a while, but that got old really quick, so we got an iPod. Generally we listen to a lot of classic country, like early George Jones. We also put on the Carter Family. We like that in the mornings. It’s a good fit. And we listen to a sampling of early blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Howlin’ Wolf, and [bassist] Johnny has these crazy mixes he brings, of all these old rockabilly tunes. It’s basically all the stuff that we incorporate into our music, a little blues, a little country, a little rockabilly, a little surf.
People seem to think that it’s incongruous that Boston would have a pretty vibrant country scene. Do you come up against that at all?
Yeah, I do. I encounter that around the country. So far it hasn’t been a negative thing, so much as a surprise. It kind of makes us stand out, because people expect us to be, I guess, from the South. But when you explain it, and say Boston has these music schools and colleges and everything, it makes sense to them. I guess as a city we’re more known for Aerosmith and the Pixies, but the country vibe is there. I don’t know why, but it is. To me, it makes sense. When I was living in the country, in the Berkshires, I would drive into Boston and play music, and I would play the same kind of music here as I did there. It never struck me as odd that there would be this big folk community here.
How long have you been here for?
I’ve been in Boston for almost exactly four years.
Are you looking to stick around?
After all that!
I know! But I really want to own a house, and I’m looking for places that are cheaper.
So maybe the real incompatibility in Boston is between country singers and home ownership?
Unless you hit it really big—and maybe we will really soon, who knows—but I want to own a house, and I want a place that’s really easy to come home to from tour. It’s hard to come back to a cramped apartment in the city, as much as I love it here. That’s actually one thing I look forward to: If I do move away, I’ll be coming back on tour, getting to visit, and feel like I’m coming home.
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