American Songwriter describes Eilen Jewell as “one of America’s most intriguing, creative and idiosyncratic voices.” That singular voice springs forth from a woman of more than one mind, and she taps into many of them on 2019’s Gypsy on Signature Sounds.
By turns personal and political, pissed off and blissed out, Jewell’s first album of original material since 2015 expands brief moments of joy into lifetimes, and distills epic sentiments and persistent doubts into succinct songs. Yet rather than pulling artist and listener this way and that, the tensions within and between these 12 tracks propel her eighth studio album forward as a remarkably cohesive full-length.
The disc kicks off with “Crawl,” a rollicking country rocker that revels in indecision, pitting the terrifying urgency of now against nostalgic longing:
I want to crawl right out of my skin
Go back in time, cake walk in red fringe
I want solitude, don’t want to be alone
Want to put down roots, want to be a rolling stone
“I’ve been writing bits of that one for close to eight years now,” says Jewell. “I’ve felt that polarity in my life a lot, ever since I can remember, and I wanted to capture that discomfort and angst. Putting it into words and music felt cathartic. Now, whenever I feel that tug-of-war, I can sing my song about it.”
“Witness” sits at another end of the spectrum, a celebratory sunset burnished with honesty and understated brass, written quickly in a Central Idaho cabin. “I was still a relatively new mother, and experiencing this frequent opening of my heart, realizing that it had been clenched like a fist for so long. Little ones have this way of disarming us, and so do little moments that startle you, like a beautiful sunset or a bird song… but that openness is always there. You don’t have to seek it out, you just have to choose to open yourself up to it.”
Agitated by the state of the world, Eilen gave herself permission to tiptoe into protest music on Gypsy, too. “79 Cents (The Meow Song)”skewers sexism and discrimination with pointed humor, while “Beat the Drum” lifts up a rallying cry to fellow travelers struggling to maintain hope in the face of adversity. Startled by backlash from both sides when she casually spoke some common sense about the Chief Executive in a recent interview, she decided to speak out rather than shut up. “I don’t see politics as separate from the rest of life. They’re intertwined. This is personal, especially in the past few years.”
Further testing her limits, Jewell played electric guitar on Gypsy, the first time she’s recorded on the instrument. “That posed its own set of challenges,” she admits. “Playing it on stage, where there’s more room to have things sound not exactly the way you want them, is one thing, but in the studio I’d think ‘Is this really the way I want to portray this song?’” Not only did certain sounds elude her, so did the words to express precisely what she was seeking. “I lacked the vocabulary, but it’s great to feel humbled in that way. You realize that the world of music is so vast that even one aspect can represent a lifetime of learning, and that’s what makes it so cool.”
Longtime fans who love Eilen Jewell in classic country mode will delight in “These Blues” and “You Cared Enough to Lie.” She describes the latter, the sole cover on Gypsy, as “one of many songs I wish I’d written.” Even so, her foray into the music of Idaho legend Pinto Bennett felt as intensely personal as any original.