Boise, Idaho is solidly Midwest. In values, in profile, in approach to life. And you might think, on first glance, that Eilen Jewell, native of Boise who returned to her hometown from the East Coast liberal haven of Boston after having her first child, would be similarly inclined. Or at least be more inclined to stay low, be quiet, and get along to get along.
Her albums have mined American roots – blues, country, folk, Appalachian gospel, rhythm & blues – and they’ve examined the loneliness and isolation, the vagaries of life and love, the pleasures of the flesh and the bottle, and the redemption sought after over indulging in some of those, of the classic American story songs.
However, when talking about her most recent album, Gypsy , a record which for the first time is out in the open with its jabs at patriarchy, digs at complacency, and calls for reaction and counter-action - Jewell has been telling people that since she was young she’s had this compulsion to “turn everything upside down”.
Like the provocation of her song about the pay gap 79 Cents (“Mr Status Quo, oh don’t you know/He’s grabbing us right in the ‘meow”), which finishes with a snippet of Hail To The Chief, that statement can’t lay untouched.
Now, two years ago, when Eilen Jewell was last on her way to Australia, trailing an album of old school R&B covers, we talked about the influences, the musical gateway drugs, which had taken her to that album, and to that point in her career.
The list, and her explanations were enlightening but only part of the story obviously. So today she agrees to dive into the formative parts of her broader life philosophies, her socio/political gateways if you will.
We can begin close to home, with the Abramovitz family, whose patriarch she recently described as “the most exotic person I could have ever imagined. It was like he was from a different planet.”, and the family to whom she dedicates Gypsy: “Long ago you folded me into your wild tribe and saved my life. You continue to inspire me and lift me up out of the muck”.
A wild tribe in Boise, a city of a little over 200,000 where 89 per cent of the population is white, 30 per cent of households have children under 18 and only 14 per cent of families are single parent ones?
“When I was about 13 or 14, I befriended someone who I still consider to be my best friend, Rafi [Abramovitz], and she has three siblings who were and are still very important to me, as are her parents,” says Jewell. “As soon as I saw them - it was at the library here in Boise and I saw them standing in line waiting to check out the books; they just moved here from Israel - I remember thinking, ‘they will be mine some day’ [she laughs] I will be their friend.”
That’s some impact. What brought this on?
“There was something about them: they seemed really strange, like outside the norms of my hometown society at that time,” she says. “They introduced me to all kinds of music that I still really love. They would always play these old records: early Bob Dylan stuff, Billie Holiday. Their parents had really interesting pasts that often seemed on the fringe of the law, on the fringes of even fringe culture. So they would be on their own trip and I think if I hadn’t met them when I did life would be pretty bleak for me, because they are what got me through the rough times that were middle school and high school for me.”
They gave her an example of existing outside the norm and being okay with that?
“And also sometimes not being okay with it, but still having that be part of the dialogue. There have always been so good at talking to each other and they have this honesty that I found really refreshing,” Jewell says.
“They would be reading us Yeats and William Blake. So I got the message from that that they found us to be worthy in some way. That we could be trusted with these really big ideas and that we actually might have some thoughts of our own to share about them. It inspired me, it always has, to be in their company. A big part of why I do what I do is because I was in a way partly raised by these people.”
That feeling, that urge to turn everything upside down, how has that manifested itself in her life?
“I think it manifested itself for me mostly in a feeling of restlessness. I can’t seem to do anything the same way twice in a row,” she laughs. “I remember when I lived in Boston my apartment was a few blocks away from the Metro station and I couldn’t walk to the apartment the same way two days in a row. I have to go some weird, roundabout way.
“Little subtle things like that, where I resist any kind of complacency. As soon as I start to feel myself doing that, then I start to feel like, ‘I don’t know,’. I just want everything to change completely and be turned upside down. And yet at the same time, I also long for complete stability.
“So it hasn’t been as simple as I always want change, because sometimes there is a revolutionary inside me but she lives side-by-side with the grandma inside me that just wants to stay cosy by the fire. Or maybe the hobbit warming her toes by the fire.”
That “tug-of-war” inside her is essentially what the album’s opening song, Crawl, is about, with Jewell listing some of her internal contradictions: “I want to crawl out of my skin … I want solitude, don't wanna be alone/Wanna put down roots, wanna be a rolling stone”.
This conflict of course is not that unusual, and for most of us it fluctuates at different points of our lives. For some the fear of change or the fear of the wider world’s refusal to be safe and comfortable hits hardest when there are children, something Jewell has spoken and written frankly about.
“Don’t take fear to be your guide,” she says in a song that might be a companion piece to Crawl, later in the album, Fear.
“I think fear is a really important part of our life and our reality, because the world is scary and humans are hardwired to respond to things that are perceived to be frightening,” Jewell says now. “But if fear is our guide, we are letting fear run the show, and that’s something that I really grappled with after my daughter was born. I just felt completely controlled by fear and saw the world through completely different eyes: ‘holy crap, has the world always been this dangerous?’.
“It was terrible and I was kind of on the edge of starting to conclude that the world was a really evil place, because she is my innocent pure angel so how could be so full of hard danger for her? But that was just the fear talking and that is something to look and recognise and not run from, because that is a form of letting it guide you too.”
What should we do instead though?
“We should acknowledge it, say ‘there you are, but I’m going forward anyway’. What other choice do you have? You can’t get stuck there on the wayside, that’s just no place to live.”
Surely it’s not a coincidence, especially in a town that incongruously perhaps has the USA’s only human rights memorial (named after Anne Frank), that these thoughts were on her mind and the next album of original music she makes after having her daughter is an album which explicitly addresses some of the failings of the world around her, from pussy grabbing politicians and entrenched discrimination to the brutal drudgery of minimum wage living.
“The climate in the US is so incredibly fearful right now. I have a lot of fear as a woman and as the mother of a young girl,” she says. “It can either kill you with this fear and sense of disgust or you can acknowledge it, yes this is happening, maybe even deal with it with a little bit of humour, but carry on and finding the strength to show that, to model that.”
Who else has modelled that for her? Who else has gone into risky areas because it needs to be said, or it needs to be done?
“Lucinda Williams is someone who struggles a lot with stage fright and anxiety and fear and I don’t know her extremely well, but she has this inner strength that is very, very inspirational to see,” Jewell says. “I guess what I’m getting at is the people who are most afraid on the inside, and yet do the thing that scares them anyway, those are the people who I owe a debt of gratitude to. Because that’s me too: scared on the inside but doing the thing that scares me.
“It’s like running into the fire. It’s not a super logical thing but it’s a feeling of being drawn to what is scary so that we can say ‘Thank you fear. Thanks for teaching me that even though I am a total chickenshit at heart that I can still look out there and say okay I can keep going forward in my life despite the fact that I’m shaking in my boots.”
Eilen Jewell plays:
March 19 – Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, March 20 – Meeniyan Town Hall March 21 – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, March 22 – Caravan Music Club, Melbourne March 24 – The Factory Theatre, Sydney March 25 – Lizotte’s, Newcastle
March 26 – The Outpost, Brisbane March 27 – Club Mullum (Mullumbimby Ex-Services)