Extended Audio Session Below:
Berks native a much-traveled musician
By: Don Botch
No matter where he lives – be it Toronto; Nashville, Tenn.; Los Angeles; or, presently, Paris – James Jewell always looks forward to coming home to Berks County.
The singer-songwriter grew up in Sinking Spring and cut his musical teeth in the Kutztown cafe scene of the late ’90s that forged numerous friendships and spawned bands such as Frog Holler and Crop Circle.
Now finding himself settled down in one of the world’s great cities, Jewell enjoys a culturally rich lifestyle that isn’t all that different, believe it or not, from the one he left behind.
“There are creative juices and there’s creative talent that is really, really special and has always been special,” he said by phone last month from the Paris apartment he shares with his wife, Kara, whose job took them there a handful of years ago.
Those words, you might be surprised to learn, were spoken not about Paris, but about his time spent in Berks County – specifically Kutztown, where he did a furniture-making residency in the Kutztown University art department as a young man.
He went on: “I don’t know if that’s just that it’s my home and I feel that way, but I really feel there’s a diversity. I don’t know if it’s location – it’s kind of the countryside, not far from New York, not far from Philly, in that corridor. You have that culture.
“Reading has its cultural thing, too. It’s always had the symphony. There’s always been things going on in Berks County. I’ve just always loved it.”
Living abroad, Jewell intended to spend less time on music and more on writing – he’s a published poet and aspiring novelist, and also played a record-store owner in the 2016 indie film “Early Music”- but to his surprise and delight, he found a receptive audience for some of the stripped-down folk tunes that weren’t quite right for the two highly regarded alt-country albums his former band, Shew, put out at the turn of the century.
On Friday night, Jewell will break out some of those early tunes, which he’s recording in Paris for a new solo album due in the summer, during a homecoming show with his local musical mates, the Worms, at Building 24 Live in Wyomissing. Dubbed the Pretzel City Rodeo, the show will begin with sets by Jolene Windmiller then Eric and Heather Hurlock and their band, Tin Bird Choir.
“We’re going to have ourselves a little jamboree,” Jewell said, “so that’s going to be fun. It’s going to be kind of like a reunion with a bunch of old friends getting together playing music.”
The Worms are Joel Henry on banjo, Trey LaRue on upright bass and Justin Schaefer on snare. Jewell values his friendships with each of them, and many others he’s encountered on his musical journey. Despite living an ocean away, he feels a close connection to home and sings about it often in songs like “Reading.”
“I’m a Berks County guy,” he said. “I love it there, and I miss it when I leave.”
Home away from homeJewell also loves Paris, where he’s found surprising similarities to home.
“The thing about Paris that I find different than New York or some of the bigger cities in the U.S. is there’s just a ton of music venues where you can walk in and say, ‘I want to play next month,’ ” he said. “It’s more of a community, low-fi, kind of underground scene here. It’s more neighborhoody.”
Wandering into a random Paris cafe reminds him of the times he and friends would drive the back roads of Berks until some tucked-away bar that had been there forever beckoned them. Once inside, they would strike up conversations with perfect strangers in a quest to discover some inalienable truth about life.
“There are a lot of local cafes,” he said of Paris. “You can walk down the back streets and find a little, tiny place that just hasn’t changed in years and years.”
Once a month or so, Jewell will pack up his six-string and head out to one of them to play solo acoustic – something he’s done little of stateside – filling his sets with what he called “oddball little tunes” that he had put on the back burner.
“I didn’t feel they were as entertaining at a bar when everyone’s talking over a beer and I’m playing a song about a flower or a spider,” he said. “But when I got over here, the audience loved it. The French have this history of songwriters from like the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s – Edith Piaf, all these solo artists – singing these very simple, poetic songs. So when I went and played them here I could just get up with my guitar, and people really listened.”
He said they’re drawn to his folksiness (musically and otherwise) and his vocal stylings – even his American accent. No doubt, his irreverent demeanor onstage (and in real life) adds to the allure. His is smile-inducing music.
“They love the whole thing,” Jewell said, “so it’s actually kind of to my advantage over here.”
Songs about spiders and planes
Darren Schlappich, who started the band Frog Holler in 1996, remembers Jewell fondly from those Kutztown open-mic days.
“He was one of the first people I met back when it all started for me, too,” said Schlappich, who still lives in the borough. “He was a songwriter, too, so we just kind of entered together – the music and the scene that started up around here.”
Schlappich wrote a song called “Spiders and Planes” for Frog Holler’s 2001 “Idiots” CD that is dedicated to Jewell. It has a chorus that goes: “He read that verse about Joc and the paradox/Sang songs about spiders and planes/Well I know I met a jewel in the rough/And one in the name.”
“Joc and the Paradox” was a poem Jewell said he wrote with a friend while attending art school in Philadelphia.
“We had these write-offs, where one guy called the other guy, didn’t matter what time of the day it was, and we had to go down to Pete’s Diner and drink coffee and I would write two lines and he would write two lines,”
Jewell said. “We had stacks and stacks of writing. It was the first time I really got my writing chops.”
“Joc and the Paradox” he described as “really funny” and “really out there.”
“It’s one of the many things Darren thought was really weird and pretty cool about the stuff I did,” Jewell said. “He put it in one of his songs because it was just one of the strangest things he’d ever heard. He laughed his butt off when he heard it.”
“I just remember him being a different person than I’d ever met before, and being very interested in him,” Schlappich said. “He was a poet and an artist and just came from a different place than me, although what I found out was we came from the same place (Wilson High School).”
A way with wordsHaving grown up along the banks of the Cacoosing Creek, Jewell turned to it for inspiration early in his evolution as a writer. These days, it’s a much larger current of water, the Seine, that inspires him.
He’s working out a jug-band song about it that’s a commentary on the gloomy weather that sometimes takes its toll on him and his fellow Parisians. In true Jewell-ian style, he sings: “My friends back home say I’m a fool to complain/but half the year it’s cloudy and the other half it rains.”
Besides Paris, he said, his upcoming album will include songs about the Sept. 11 terror attacks, his grandmother and Berks County.
“It’s kind of like a lot of the misfits,” he said, “sort of like Santa’s misfit toys that never got to the kids yet.”
Schlappich wasn’t surprised to hear some of Jewell’s early gems like “Spider,” about the eight-legged friend Jewell shared an apartment with in Kutztown, and “Plane,” inspired by a passing jet in a starry South Carolina sky, were going over well in Paris.
“They’re really great songs, those old songs of his,” Schlappich said, recalling Jewell’s talent for spoken-word performance. “He’s an artist in that way. He’s got a way with words.”
Jewell said they’re simple storytelling songs, and as such, they’ve forced him to focus on his musicianship.
“For the first time, I’m actually going out and playing solo and feeling confident about it,” he said. “My friend says there’s no one else to blame for your mistakes when you’re playing solo. It’s kind of like baring it all. But I do enjoy it a lot.”
Jewell is recording in a Paris squat called “Les Frigos” – The Fridge – which was a cold-storage building at an abandoned railroad station that’s been converted into artists’ studios.
The producer, Steve Forward, who has worked with the likes of Ray Charles and Paul McCartney, saw Jewell performing one night in a Paris cafe and asked him if he was interested in making a record. They struck up a friendship, and Jewell now credits Forward with giving him the confidence to step out of his comfort zone.
So once again, this time in a far-off land, Jewell finds himself surrounded by creative people who support and encourage each other.
“I’ve been plodding along, and I’ve never hit the lottery as far as the music industry or anything like that,” he said, “but I’ve had a really fulfilling career. A lot of it has to do with other talented people appreciating what I do.
“When I was in art school, one of the first things they said in orientation was the definition of success is if you’re making your art. You might get rich, you might not get rich, but if you’re making your art, then you’re an artist – then you’re successful.”
James Jewell, it’s safe to say, is an artist.