Eilen Jewell on the Pandemic, Playing Live, and Gangster Rap… (10/19 at WCL)

For the past decade and a half Eilen Jewell has been kicking out jams that she has come to describe as, “Hillbilly-Rock n’ Roll-Noir,” a blend of the origins...

For the past decade and a half Eilen Jewell has been kicking out jams that she has come to describe as, “Hillbilly-Rock n’ Roll-Noir,” a blend of the origins of alt country, Rock N’ Roll, and garage, that pay homage to the kinds of music celebrated by the Mystery Trains of both Greil Marcus and Jim Jarmusch, and also fit quite well alongside the best Americana of the 21st Century.  Her most recent album, Gypsy (released on Signature Sounds), dropped in 2019.  However, after her initial touring behind the release, the pandemic took hold and, like many musicians, she was left to deal with more serious matters.  However, Eilen Jewell is back on the road, with live dates through the end of the month, including a stop next Tuesday, October 19th, at our very own World Café Live.  She recently took some time to talk to me about her fondness of the University City musical landmark, amongst other things…

Izzy Cihak: I heard that you’re currently based in Boise, Idaho, your hometown.  What is the music and arts scene like there?  I have to admit, I’m not familiar with it at all.

Eilen Jewell: Boise has a vibrant little scene going on.  We’re home to a trendy music festival called Treefort, a number of cool venues for acts of all kinds, and some really talented artists.  I continue to be surprised and impressed by what my little city has to offer.

Izzy: A lot of musicians recently have been telling me that the pandemic gave them a lot of time to re-explore their record collections.  What have you been listening to a lot of recently, whether albums you grew up loving, or stuff that you’ve become kind of obsessed with more recently?

Eilen: I think the grief and stress of the pandemic have caused me to gravitate towards some heavier stuff.  I’m on kind of a gangster rap jag these days.  Something about it is really cathartic.  Also Lizzo and Nicki Minaj have been getting me through.  Some of my fans have mentioned over the years that they can see me pulling off any genre I choose except maybe gangster rap.  So, who knows?  Maybe I’ll test that theory sometime soon.

Izzy: For that matter, how have you spent your days over the course of the past year and a half or so, throughout the pandemic?  I saw that you streamed a number of things back when that’s really the only way musicians could perform.

Eilen: Yeah, I did quite a few streaming performances during the height of the pandemic.  That was a godsend, to be able to stay in touch with my fans like that and keep performing, albeit in a much different way than I’m used to.  I think someday I’ll look back on these trying times and see that they were actually good for me, because I’ve really been pushed out of my comfort zone, but mostly I’ve just been trying to stay sane and make ends meet.  My life fell completely apart and I’m still piecing it back together, so it wasn’t the halcyon album-writing experience it could have been.  I’m trying to let go of the fact that I didn’t write many songs.  I survived.  There’s a lot to be said for that.

Izzy: You recently played a handful of shows.  How did they go?  Did it feel like live music is back to normal, or is it still a bit weird playing amidst the pandemic?

Eilen: My first shows back on the road went well, all told.  My band and I definitely had to knock a little bit of pandemic-related rust off of ourselves.  The whole thing is definitely a bit weird.  It feels to me like every aspect of public life is tinged with a touch of uncertainty and anxiety.  But people on the whole, my band and myself included, are really ready to get back to normal life again.  And we’re all pretty thirsty for live music, so it feels good to be back at it again, however tentatively.

Izzy: I noticed on a recent setlist (or at least according to setlists.fm, haha) that you only played one song from your most recent LP, Gypsy, which stood out to me.  Do you feel like you’ve already toured those songs to a satisfying degree and you’re ready to re-explore other portions of your catalogue, or do you just have a different setlist every night?

Eilen: When lockdown began, it felt like everything related to my career just went on pause and all bets were off.  I set my new album aside because we weren’t touring behind it and I didn’t want to wear it out before it got its fair share of the spotlight.  I started experimenting with playing solo, which had become very rare for me.  I also began performing with fellow Boiseans, as two of my three bandmates live on the other side of the country and travel was impossible.  So, it became necessary to revisit old material, in order to keep things fresh and to fit with the new, unprecedented situation.  Now it’s a matter of revamping the set list once again to reflect this new moment we’re in.  It might take a few shows to settle back in.  In short, you might say my set list is having an identity crisis but it’s starting to find its way again.

Izzy: You have a bunch of upcoming dates.  Are there any shows you’re especially excited to play, or cities you’re especially excited to visit or revisit?

Eilen: Well, it’s always a pleasure playing Philly.  World Café Live has been a highlight of many of my tours for many years.  It’s just a great place to hear music and to play music, and the sound is always excellent for us.  Honestly, I’m looking forward to each show for different reasons, but the third week of this three-week run will be as a duo with my guitar player, Jerry Miller.  We’ve never toured as a duo before, so I’m really excited to see how that goes.  The duo idea is a result of pandemic-era creativity.  We weren’t sure if we would be able to tour as a quartet, or what the situation would be with the venues in terms of budget, so we decided to try something new.  It could be the wave of the future, so stay tuned!

Izzy: Yeah, World Café Live just reopened and you’ll be playing there next week.  What can be expected of the evening?  I noticed it’s a fully seated show.  Is that how you generally prefer to play to audiences?

Eilen: I’m so happy that World Café Live has survived.  I’ve been worried about all the independent venues I call home.  There’s a lot to be grateful for, so it’s bound to be a fun evening.  I’ll play some songs from the latest album, some songs from early albums, and I’ll even take requests if I can.  It is a fully seated show.  I don’t really have a preference about that kind of thing, frankly.  I just want my audience to feel comfortable.  Seats versus no seats have a long and vicious rivalry that I’ve learned to steer clear of.

Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you, after these dates wrap up?  Is there anything you’re especially excited about in the last part of 2021 or the first part of 2022?

Eilen: This tour will mark the first time I’ve been away from my daughter for more than a week, so the thing I’m most excited about in the coming months is spending some quality time with her.  She’s the light of my life.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.