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Hailed by American Songwriter as “one of America’s most intriguing, creative, and idiosyncratic voices,” Eilen Jewell rises from the ashes on her captivating new album, Get Behind The Wheel, picking up the pieces of her shattered world and finding new purpose and meaning after watching her marriage, her band, and what felt like her entire career fall apart in a series of spectacular, heartbreaking implosions. Co-produced by multi-instrumental wizard Will Kimbrough (Todd Snider, Hayes Carll), the collection pushes the acclaimed singer and songwriter’s trademark blend of vintage roots-noir into more psychedelic territory, with spacious, cinematic arrangements complementing her revelatory explorations of grief, loss, resilience, and redemption.

An Idaho native, Jewell built her career the old fashioned way, touring relentlessly with the kind of undeniable live show that converts the uninitiated into instant acolytes. Over the course of nine albums, she’s crisscrossed the globe countless times and shared bills with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Loretta Lynn, Mavis Staples, Wanda Jackson, George Jones, and Emmylou Harris. Rolling Stone lauded Jewell’s “clever writing,” while NPR declared that she has a “sweet and clear voice with a killer instinct lurking beneath the shiny surface,” and The Washington Post mused that “if Neko Case, Madeleine Peyroux and Billie Holiday had a baby girl who grew up to front a rockabilly band, she’d probably sound a lot like Eilen Jewell.”

Nick Dleffs

Nick Delffs

Nick Delffs is not a protest singer. He’s not a gospel singer. Still, subversiveness and spirituality permeate Transitional Phase, his long-awaited second solo album. The product of five years of musical and personal growth that coincided with widespread social upheaval and a global pandemic – just as Delffs navigated first-time fatherhood, losing friends, and approaching his 40s; all weaved these songs.

Now Boise-based, Nick Delffs has been a beloved staple of Pacific Northwest music since emerging with his Portland-based band The Shaky Hands in the mid-2000s. It was clear then, as it is now, that he possessed an authentic—maybe ancient—voice. Transitional Phase is some of his finest and most vulnerable work. As the title suggests, it’s an album about opening oneself up to change, refusing the calcification that comes with age, and opting for wholesale transformation instead.

Incidentally, “Transformation” is the title of the album’s opening track. It’s a looping, percussive opener, a dub-inflected signal that Transitional Phase’s themes of change and transfiguration will not be limited to its lyrics. Like much of the new album, it was recorded in early 2020 at co-producer/collaborator Eli Moore’s spacious and strange stripmall studio on Whidbey Island, just outside of Seattle. However, when the sessions were interrupted by the onset of the pandemic, Delffs was forced to continue work back in Boise. He wrote constantly in the early days of the lockdown and entered a secluded vocal booth in his friend Z.V. House’s Boise studio. Delffs would send the resulting tracks to Moore, who often took songs in unexpected new directions. “Eli added a lot,” Delffs says. “He really put himself in it. I’m not sure I’d felt that level of deep collaboration and trust since the Shaky Hands days.” This process continued until Delffs had about three albums worth of material to sort through.

When writing, Delffs spends as much time as possible not listening to music. “That’s really helpful for me,” he says, “because then it becomes this thing where I need music, I need songs—so I have to make them.” Delffs spent as much time thinking about cows—yes, cows, like the John Gnorski-illustrated one on the album’s cover—in the recording process as he did about any particular musical inspirations. Delffs’ recent trip to India, his second, was filled with cow admiration, and he picked up some cow fun-facts along the way. “They just eat grass and somehow milk is created,” he marvels. “Their poo and pee is antiseptic and medicinal!”

Still, the memory of music sneaks into the process, as Delffs found himself thinking about Tom Petty and Talking Heads, two artists he loved in childhood. One can hear echoes of David Byrne on the angular “Power and Position”, which also serves as a spotlight for the unmistakable accompanying vocals from LAKE’s Ashley Eriksson, whose voice has been heard by millions in Cartoon Networks ‘Adventure Time’ credit music. Delffs enlisted more old friends to help flesh out Transitional Phase, including drums from Joe Plummer (The Shins, Modest Mouse, Cold War Kids), Dan Galucki (Wooden Indian Burial Ground) and Graeme Gibson (Michael Nau, Fruit Bats); keys from Luke Wyland (Au, Methods Body); strings and arrangements from composer Peter Broederick (Sharon Van Etten, M. Ward); and bass by Mayhaw Hoons, his old bandmate in The Shaky Hands.

The lush “Brave New World” looks outward, juxtaposing a smooth groove from Galucki and Hoons with heavy themes of social upheaval. The titular phrase, often used ironically, is presented here with utter earnestness, underscored by Broderick’s beautiful string arrangement. It’s one of three songs on Transitional Phase—along with back-to-back closers “A Perfect Storm” and “Egomaniacs”—that slowly transforms into a prayer. The chanted and sung lines might feel like nods to some of Nick’s favorite artists (including Alice Coltrane, George Harrison, Yamuna Devi), but they arrive on the album naturally. Delffs has long been fascinated with Hinduism, and was deeply inspired by his India trip. “Meditating and chanting are such constant parts of my life these days,” Delffs shares. “They came into this album like any other naturally flowing thought.”

 “Transitional Phase”, the towering title track at the album’s center, is a perfect marriage of two aesthetics. Delffs brings his vulnerable, misty-eyed self-examination to the collaboration; while Moore and Eriksson bring LAKE’s exacting, literate DIY Yacht funk. The result is transcendently, sonically free, like those particularly melodic moments spent with Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush. “In-between words and dreams, there’s only a line,” Delffs sings in seeming self-interrogation, “And you’ve crossed over it so many times.”

The songs on Transitional Phase don’t just cross that line, they dance on it. If the distance between waking life and dreams was narrow on Delffs’ 2017 solo debut Redesign, it is almost imperceptible here. He sings (and speaks, and occasionally chants) about the changing tides of our shared troubled world and all the mysterious worlds within. He yearns and searches and remembers, and occasionally wishes he could forget. He finds faith and loses it. And when he can’t find that faith again, he admits on “Absence of Love Song” that he’ll wait “on and on and on and on for another chance.” Maybe that’s foolish. Or, as Delffs sings, “Maybe it’s today.”

Nick Delffs’ Transitional Phase is due out July 26th on Mama Bird Recording Co.