For some performers, playing music is about putting on a show, but for Eilen Jewell, playing her music is about putting on a new identity.
Take her most recent album, 2010’s Butcher Holler: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn, for which Jewell slipped into the tunes of another musician.
“She is just, in my mind, an exceptional person,” Jewell said, praising Lynn for not only paving the way for women in country music, but also challenging the public expectation of what a woman can be and what a woman can do.
“It’s almost like, in another day and age, I could have – or I would have if I could have – written those songs myself,” Jewell said.
While songs like “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “I’m a Honky Tonk Girl” have unmistakable Loretta Lynn sass, Jewell brings her own style to these tracks by imagining herself speaking those words and letting the interpretation come organically. She says the process is easy for her because of that connection, despite the broad vocal range and technically demanding elements of some of the country icon’s songs.
While that album was comprised entirely of Loretta Lynn covers, Jewell is no stranger to penning her own tunes. In fact, the country, blues and folk singer-songwriter has proved her songwriting chops in her five-album catalog. She is drawn to the sad stories of others, and likes to live inside their dark and tragic worlds in order to speak for them.
It’s taking on new identities that allowed her to write the song “Queen of the Minor Key,” crooning the words of a whiskey-soaked rambler destined by a gypsy’s foretelling to live in a wasteland of broken hearts and blues songs with aching wails.
The song is the lead single on an album of the same name, due out June 28. Listeners at her two-night appearance at Iota Club and Café, June 23 and 24, will be introduced to the album’s namesake sovereign, who is for Jewell in some respects a character written to tell tales, and part a product of an aesthetic that has attracted the artist since an early age.
An early love of listening to the Chopin nocturnes led Jewell to that quality of sound that would accompany the sad stories that move her, writing them in the minor key because she is drawn to its spooky, heavy and dramatic qualities.
Jewell earned herself the nickname “Queen of the Minor Key,” as her songs were written in that moody, pensive cousin to the triumphant, bright major key. In her upcoming album, Jewell is fully embracing the moniker, at first given in jest, allowing herself to explore the depths of the stormy, mysterious minor key, as well as the range of human experience.
Despite the nickname, Jewell admits that she lives the major key life, and considers herself happy go lucky outside the world of her music.
“In a way it takes a cheerful person to sing a sad song because if you are truly sad, you are consumed by the sadness, and if you’re not then you have an element of hope to you and strength,” Jewell said. “I think that’s what it takes to be able to perform and sing and write and do anything, really. You have to have that glimmer of hope and positivity.”
Through becoming the Queen of the Minor Key, and embodying the voices of the sad songs she tells, Jewell has found the catharsis that allows her to live a lighter life outside of her music.
“With my songwriting and my performing of almost entirely sad songs, I get it out of my system, so I’m actually a pretty cheerful person most of the time,” Jewell said. “I don’t dwell on the negative so much.”
• For more on Eilen Jewell, visit eilenjewell.com.