In both voice and music, Eilen Jewell is regularly compared to Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. When such resemblances are noted, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter, one of Americana’s rising stars, says she is flattered - for the time being, anyway.
“I suppose it’s natural to compare newer artists with someone else as a way of describing their music,” says Jewell, speaking from upstate New York, near Poughkeepsie, while expressing admiration for both Williams and Welch. “So for now, I can’t get worked up about it.”
Then she adds with a chuckle, “Ask me in 20 years and I’ll probably say something else.”
Jewell, whose “first love” was the rock `n’ roll of the 1950s and `60s she heard on an oldies station while growing up in Boise, Idaho, is fast becoming a force in roots music with a homespun sound that threads together folk, old-school country, vintage jazzy blues and Sun Records-style rockabilly. Her second album, “Letters from Sinners & Strangers,” made several 2007 best-of lists. And she continues to establish beachheads touring the country with drummer Jason Beek, guitarist Jerry Miller and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia.
Jewell, who started playing piano at 7, got her first guitar on her 14th birthday. “Then I got into checking out books at the library (with) musical scores of folk songs,” she says. “That’s how I learned chords.”
She didn’t commit fully to music, however, until 2002, just before graduating from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. “I realized then that I should follow what feels best to me,” says Jewell.
During her four years in St. John’s Great Books Program - where there were no textbooks or grades, just reading and discussing works of philosophy and literature and writing papers about them - Jewell began learning her craft by busking.
While she was reading the likes of Dostoevsky and James Joyce - she did her senior thesis on “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” - her musician friends were showing her the ropes of performing at nearby New Mexico farmers’ markets.
“Busking was a great way to transition from doing music as a private experience to bringing that to a crowd without the intimidating factor of being on a stage,” says Jewell. “That paved the way to being up on stage. That’s probably why I’m in music today.”
At the urging of childhood friends she moved to Los Angeles and stayed with them for free while spending a summer busking in Venice Beach. Subsequently she moved to western Massachusetts, again to live with supportive friends, and then, 10 months later, in November 2003, to Boston, her current hometown.
Although Jewell wrote the bulk of “Letters from Sinners & Strangers’” 12 tracks, she also includes material by Eric Anderson (“Dusty Boxcar Wall”), Charlie Rich (“Thanks a Lot”) and Dylan (“Walking Down the Line”).
Asked how she judges what is suitable cover material, she answers: “When I hear a song by somebody that I love and I can visualize doing it, words that I would want to say, images I would want to convey. Sometimes it just clicks. I say to myself, `This is a song I wish I had written.’ It has to be a perfect fit, a shoe that’s just my size.”
She credits Martin Luther King with inspiring the swampy, Creedence-flavored “How Long.” “It’s based loosely on a speech he gave before the march from Selma to Montgomery (in 1965),” she says. “There’s that call-and-response thing, and (references) to `The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’
“His speeches in general are so musical, and that stands out as really musical. `How Long’ is my little part to honor him.”
As for her own compositions, perhaps the most intriguing is the moody, melancholic “Where They Never Say Your Name.” In a haunted voice Jewell chillingly sings to an abusive lover: “I’m gonna lay my head on some railroad line, last thing I’ll hear is the engine cry.”
“That’s an old image from early blues songs,” volunteers Jewell. “I kinda co-opted it.”
As for the title, Jewell notes, “Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, has a song with a line in it `I’m gonna go where I can’t hear them say your name,’ and I always loved that. I always thought that line deserved its own song. That could be its song.
The Dylanesque “Rich Man’s World” was written after she had just moved to western Massachusetts. “All the little things you have to do when you move - change your bank, your address, your license. Everything I had to do to set my life up was completely difficult, and there was suspicion on me for travelling so much.”
The Stray Cats-like “High-Shelf Booze” was written for a friend who went through a bad breakup - “Her way of dealing with it was to go out and have fun. I was amused by that” - while “In the End” is based on the passing of a friend of the family.
“He took his own life a couple years ago,” Jewell says, “and I didn’t find out until long after it had happened. I didn’t know they guy very well, but there was something about him that I connected with. He was a hard-luck character. I wanted it to be a song for him.”