“I wandered all the way to Crooked River/With you burning a hole in my mind/Well I came down here to try to get better/But it just keeps getting harder all the time.”
FORGET THE CLICHÉ, everything can get worse. Ask Eilen Jewell. Then it can get better. Mostly.
When last we spoke with Jewell earlier this year, a tour of Australia was imminent and somewhere in the middle distance an album loomed, hazy in shape for us, though vividly stark to her. Most pressing at the time was the fact that these new songs she would drip-feed through the Australian tour were the product of a tumultuous couple of years, upheavals which only had something to do with Covid, given she lost close family members and saw her marriage to her drummer, co-manager and co-parent, Jason Beek, fall apart.
All of a sudden, the singer-songwriter from Idaho who had always kept a tight rein on personal revelation in interview as much as song – using explainable away characters in her material and masterful deflection in her chat – was inviting frank conversation. As she told me then, “it seemed like it would be wrong to not discuss it because this album is so, so directly influenced by everything that I’ve gone through in the past couple of years. I just feel like I would be lying if I said ‘oh, I don’t know, it’s just about people and things’.”
Well this week that album, Get Behind The Wheel, is out and talk can shift more to the immediate and practical and not just the hypothetical. So we know that when her life was dealt unexpected adjustment, she changed her approach to life; did the same happen with her music?
“Yeah, I think it held me to a higher standard of songwriting. Because this album, more than any other I felt like was really coming from my heart, I really needed to say the things that I am saying,” Jewell says.
“Before, I wanted to say those things, I wanted to sing those songs and write them, and had a good time doing that, but there’s a difference between feeling like ‘yeah, yeah, I’m enjoying writing these songs and playing’ and ‘I need to get this out there’.”
“And this is where you have to start/Oh, you crazy, crazy heart/From the ashes, from the dirt/From the wound, from the hurt”
Which isn’t to say Get Behind The Wheel is anything like a bitter, twisted breakup record. In some ways it is the complete opposite, as Jewell is surprised herself to acknowledge.
“I don’t know if other people will hear it in the album but what I hear is a lot of big heartedness. Even the songs that have somewhat sad lyrics they have – I keep using the word catharsis, but they do – a generosity of spirit in them, and a playfulness too, which is paradoxical coming out of so much grief and loss,” she says. “I think it also has to do with when in my life this was happening. I realise now that all we have is the here and now and sometimes that’s full of grief and pain, but that’s what it is, that’s the content of your life. So, shit …”
The playfulness is something that has always been part of Jewell’s song make up, whether it is the sauciness being delivered by a face that looks almost comically innocent, or dry humour delivered with a wicked gleam. Though labelled quite often, with a tag lifted from the title of one of her albums, the queen of the minor key, Jewell is also royally talented at the subtle dig, the two parts coexisting, something which has long been true in her music, which has travelled through folk and rock and country and blues in a reflection of her lifelong interests, as much as her lyrics.
“There are a couple of songs in particular that I think might be the most obvious examples of what you’re talking about. There’s a song called Lethal Love and basically the whole point of the song is to let a dark sense of humour run wild,” she says of the track that gleefully examines very wrong desire in lines like “I really ain’t asking for a lot/Please just a shot, I’ll settle for a drop/Of lethal love” set amid sultry chugging blues
“I would say this [album] leans more towards rock‘n’roll than previous albums. I was thinking a lot about Neil Young while I was writing this one, and Dylan with The Band, ‘70s era. It’s uncharted territory in the way for me to do an almost straight up rock ‘n’ album. Of course there are a few in there that are confusing [she laughs wickedly] because it wouldn’t be an Eilen Jewell album without some other twists and turns.”
“Those wild and beautiful things/Turned-up collars and rolled-up jeans/Tracks of tears caked with mud/All mixed up with the orphans' blood/Those wild and beautiful things.”
Interesting of course that the two references she cites have written some of the most revealing or most devastating post breakup records of all time. There were not often bodies, let alone relationships, in recoverable states after those. Yet, one of the fascinating things Jewell has been doing with that Australian tour, and the continuing gigs around the US and beyond, is playing with her ex-husband still in the band.
Clearly offstage that relationship is crucial, but on stage and in the studio that has been a cornerstone. How does that work after a breakup? How are they going to keep working together?
“It’s really hard to say how it is going to keep working, but it’s working really well right now,” she says. “I think that he and I both realised we love playing this music together so much and we are such great bandmates: we were bandmates before we got together, so that is our origin. Our natural state is to play music together. I thought for a minute about trying to forge ahead without him, find a different drummer, but it was just really hard for me to wrap my head around what it would take to do that.”
There’s more to it than practical business though with Jewell arguing that “it seems like it’s actually good for us, in a way. It’s a positive way to interact”, and away from raising their daughter that too matters as she emphasises “It’s our career, we built it together”.
“Things are amicable enough between us that we remain co-parents and business partners and do it so placidly really. We don’t bring our troubles into the other realms,” she says. “We’re good.”
What well-behaved, well mannered, well-adjusted mid-west human behaviour.
“Yeah,” Jewell chortles. “I don’t think, or at least as far I can tell, that we are stuffing anything away, not saying anything just to keep the peace. It is just like what we were meant to do.”
“So I pour out my heart and light the fire/And everything true, it comes alive … You gotta get behind the wheel, you gotta drive/Baby, how you feel? I feel so alive.”
Get Behind The Wheel is out now.