“I wrote ‘Who Will Save Your Soul’ when I was sixteen because I wanted to hitchhike through Mexico for Spring Break.” And with that, legendary singer and poet Jewel created what would become the seminal track for one of the best-selling debut albums of all time: 1995’s fifteen-time platinum Pieces Of You.
Jewel’s back-story is a well-known part of her public perception and is one that includes a fair amount of heartbreak and, of course, triumph. “I got discovered when I was homeless in San Diego. I was living paycheck to paycheck. My boss took me aside and propositioned me… I realized he wanted to sleep with me, and when I didn’t, he didn’t give me my paycheck. So I couldn’t pay my rent… I thought I’d just live in my car, get a new job and save up, put a deposit down on a new place. I had bad kidneys at the time and couldn’t really get back on my feet. Then the car I was living in got stolen, and I almost died in the middle of a parking lot of a hospital because they wouldn’t see me. It was just a dark time, but I was writing at the time and excited to start trying to sing somewhere locally, the way I had when I was kid.”
Those days were punctuated with highs and lows, and were clearly fundamental in shaping her as the musician she would become. “I started singing with my parents when I was six. They did shows in hotels for tourists. My parents got divorced when I was eight, my mom lost us, and I took over her place in the family act. So my dad and I became a duo when I was eight… I was probably the only fourth-grader that went from elementary school right to the bar. We did five-hour sets in bars doing cover songs as well as my dad’s originals.”
All of her struggles, of course, paid off, as she would eventually become one of the most iconic female performers of the decade. “All of a sudden, limousines started showing up, and it was like Cinderella.” Indeed, Bob Dylan himself picked her out of the masses and took her under his wing. “I was going to start changing my style to try to get on the radio, but he really convinced me to stay with what I was doing. He mentored me after every show and gave me books to read… He just really believed in me. I decided to keep slogging it out, and after that it began to pick up more momentum… I went from selling 3,000 records in a year to selling half a million records every month. That carried on for quite a while.”
Despite her mellow reputation, Jewel certainly has a tough side, bred into her from years of struggling to gain respect as an artist. “I was famous for kicking people out of the audience if they weren’t listening to me, even though I was the opening act. I opened for Neil Young at Madison Square Garden and he was like, ‘You look nervous,’ and I was like, ‘I am.’ He goes, ‘Why?’ ”Cause you’re Neil Young, and you have Crazy Horse, and I’m solo acoustic. Nobody knows me, and I’m at Madison Square Garden.’ Then he looked at me, he got real serious, shoved his finger in my face and goes, ‘This is just another hash house on the road to success. You show them no respect!’”
The rest is history. Now, Jewel has come full circle and has released a long-time-coming Greatest Hits album, which her label had been pushing for since she was only twenty-four. It also features several new tracks. “My writing has evolved and changed… It’s gone through many twists and turns, but hopefully it’s alive and viable.” Her new work, which features duets with artists as varied as Kelly Clarkson and Pistol Annies, as well as re-recordings of “Foolish Games“, truly reflects her eclectic taste in music. “The best revenge is a life well lived,” says Jewel, currently on tour promoting the album. If this axiom is true, she has indeed fulfilled it.
Read the full-length, exclusive interview with Jewel for The Music Issue:
Indira Cesarine: Tell me about your start – how long have you been performing?
Jewel: I started singing with my parents when I was six. They did shows in hotels for tourists. My parents got divorced when I was eight, my mom lost us and I took over her place in the family act. So my dad and I became a duo when I was eight.
IC: Incredible. And you were performing with your father around various venues?
J: Yeah, I performed in various bars. I was probably the only fourth grader that went from elementary school right to the bar. We did five-hour sets in bars doing cover songs as well as my dad’s originals.
IC: You still have a good relationship with him now?
J: Yeah. I moved out when I was fifteen on my own. But we’ve gotten a better relationship, he’s been pretty good.
IC: Do you remember the first song that you ever wrote?
J: I wrote “Who Will Save Your Soul” when I was sixteen ’cause I wanted to hitchhike through Mexico for Spring Break, like all parents hope their children do one day.
IC: What do you feel was your breakthrough moment? Your first album was a huge success, one of the highest-selling debut albums of all time. You were very young.
J: I was. I got discovered when I was homeless in San Diego. I was paying rent on an apartment, just sort of living paycheck to paycheck. My boss took me aside and propositioned me… I realized he wanted to sleep with me, and when I didn’t, he didn’t give me my paycheck. So I couldn’t pay my rent. I got kicked out of where I was living. Without that paycheck, I didn’t have enough for a deposit on a new place. So I thought I’d just live in my car, get a new job and save up, put a deposit down on a new place. I had bad kidneys at the time and couldn’t really get back on my feet. Then the car I was living in got stolen, and I almost died in the middle of a parking lot of a hospital because they wouldn’t see me – I didn’t have an insurance card – and I almost died of blood poisoning. It was just a dark time, but I was writing at the time, and excited to start trying to sing somewhere locally, the way I had when I was kid. Maybe I could make a little money. I found someplace I could sing one night a week, just to try and get by and hopefully get off the streets. I built up kind of a nice little following, and a local DJ had heard about me. He took a live bootleg of mine and put it on the radio. It ended up getting requested a lot, and record labels heard about some girl that was getting played on the [radio]. It was a very big station. All of a sudden, limousines started showing up and it was like Cinderella.
IC: One extreme to the other.
J: Well, not quite. It took a long time. It was an amazing thing, but at the same time, grunge music was huge and I was a folk musician. I thought the odds of me making it were probably pretty slim. So the first year, it looked like that was probably the case. My first year, my record sales were a grand total of 3,000 albums. It looked like it was probably gonna be a failure, and then Bob Dylan took me out on the road and just sort of mentored me. I was gonna start changing my style to try to get on the radio, but he really convinced me to stay with what I was doing. He mentored me after every show and gave me books to read… He just really believed in me. I decided to keep slogging it out and after that it began to pick up more momentum. My first single started to do good, “Who Will Save Your Soul”, and then “You Were Meant For Me” picked up. I went from selling 3,000 records in a year to selling half a million records every month. That carried on for quite a while.
IC: Tell me about how your Greatest Hits project came about.
J: My label had been wanting me to do one since I was about twenty-four, but I wanted to wait until I had a body of work. I knew I always wanted to get a lot of different musical styles out and that would probably take some time. So I felt now was a good time. I had a body of work that I was proud of and wanted to get out, I also have a lot of unreleased and rare single versions of the song there that people can’t just get on iTunes prior to this, as well as the new songs, ’cause I want it to be a sort of time capsule of where my life’s been, up to this point. So I just went chronologically, from the first song I wrote, “Who Will Save Your Soul” when I was sixteen to the most current song I wrote, which is “Two Hearts Breaking”.
IC: You’ve crossed over quite a few different genres, from dance, electro, country, folk, even children’s music. Is there a particular genre of music that you feel most comfortable with?
J: It all seems the same to me. It’s just how you dress them that’s different. For me, it’s just storytelling, fundamentally, focusing on lyric and a good melody. It’s funny, I relate music a lot to clothing. People don’t decide, “I’m gonna wear sweatpants the rest of my life because they’re the best clothing,” or, “I’m gonna wear dresses the rest of my life ’cause it’s the best piece of clothing.” They tend to have a lot of different styles of wardrobe in their closet. Music’s that way for me, it’s an expression of who I am. Sometimes I’m in more of a folk-y mood and sometimes I just want to dance and have something carefree. Other times I’m really emotional, I guess that’s why my music’s come out as eclectically as it has. But I feel like it’s normal. It’s a normal range of human… I’m an actual human. It’s a full spectrum on the prism of emotions. I never really found the need to have to pick a team, as you will, and say, “This is me forever.”
IC: You started out very young. Have you felt that your music has progressed as you’ve gotten older, or changed with time?
J: It’s funny, when I was starting out – I care a lot about writing and the craft of it – I saw that my favorite novelists did their best work in their 50’s and 60’s, but songwriters usually wrote their best work in their 20’s and then quit writing. So I studied that at a really young age, and I really attribute it to lifestyle. I think that novelists tend to lead a more reclusive life. I think that, because of that, it keeps their egos a little more in check, and I think that plays a greater emphasis on continued education and learning. I think that staying in the celebrity of being a rock star or a pop star, the lifestyle, the decadence, the indulgence, the ego-blasts, I think all of that’s very counter-productive when it comes to being an actual artist. So I tried to take steps at quite a young age to hopefully circumnavigate some of that and continue learning and growing, and not stay in that public eye, taking breaks when I need it and keep continuing to push myself as a writer. It’s one of the reasons I’ve really taken the risks that I have musically and continued to push myself and take those risks. So my writing, I think, has evolved and changed. Who I am changes as a person and so my writing changes, certainly. It’s gone through many twists and turns, but hopefully it’s alive and viable, that’s my main goal.
IC: I can imagine the heartache of going through your experiences when you were younger inspired a lot of your songwriting.
J: I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the heartache. I’m a writer that can write quite well when I’m happy. For me, it was about using my writing as an instrument to help find hope or release pain or pressure. I think a lot of kids in my circumstances turn to drugs because they didn’t have a necessarily more positive outfit of understanding what they were feeling. Luckily, because I began writing at a young age, I have sort of a built-in instrument, or a built-in therapy. It helped me understand what I was thinking and what I was feeling and became a real tool for me. So my writing was really a process of my healing and of trying not to let bitterness or cynicism win over but trying to figure out how to find happiness in my life. So I don’t think it was because of hardships necessarily that I found a muse as much as any human is trying to figure out how to be happy and use whatever skills they have to try to move toward it.
IC: I understand you grew up in Alaska for a long time. Did you feel that that played a role in your music?
J: Yeah, I think Alaska made a certain kind of person of me, and I think it helped me a lot in my career because of that. The Alaskans are a hearty lot. They work hard, very grounded, down-to-earth. Women up there are just as capable as men. I didn’t realize that that was unique attitude until I moved down to the States, where I saw much more traditional roles. Alaskan women are sort of the pioneer women. They really build their own house and they fell their own trees. They’re very capable. I just grew up around my aunts that, if there was something they wanted to do, they’d do it. It never dawned on me that I couldn’t, in a way. I think again, reading, you know… I loved the female novelists as well as the men. I just never felt like my mind had a limit because of my sex. I think those attitudes really helped propel in my career.
IC: How was it with Bob Dylan being your mentor? At the time, you were so young… Were you aware of the significance of working with such a legendary artist?
J: Yeah, I was a huge fan. He was definitely something that I had studied. When he took me under his wing and encouraged me, it definitely meant a lot, especially because no one else believed in me. Then you’re like, “Well, if Bob Dylan’s the only one, then I think I’m OK with it.” (Laughs)
IC: It must have been confidence building.
J: It really was.
IC: Who would you consider the most inspirational person in the music industry?
J: Gosh, there’s so many, I wouldn’t even know where to start. I always thought Josephine Baker was really revolutionary; I thought Nina Simone was very revolutionary as well. Artists just breaking the mould and doing what they wanted, inventing the punk rock spirit, if you will. But there’s a million, you know. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan for the changes that he went through… gosh, I wouldn’t even know how to list.
IC: Do you have a particular favorite band or musician that you like to listen to?
J: Pretty eclectic. There’s a lot of music out right now that I like. A lot of music from the Grammys that I like; fun. and The Black Keys. I always get something out of everybody. I love Beyoncé. I’m a fan of music.
IC: Did you ever have a really difficult performance in your career, where you thought, “How am I ever gonna get through this?”
J: Oh my Lord, I’ve had so many. I used to open for Bauhaus; Peter Murphy is the original Goth band. I was playing clubs for all these little vampire kids; I was folky with nothing but a guitar. There were some hard shows. (Laughs) The bar experience growing up as a kid is what really got me through all of it. I was famous for kicking people out of the audience if they weren’t listening to me, even though I was the opening act. Neil Young, I opened for him at Madison Square Garden and I was solo acoustic. He was like, “You look nervous,” and I was like, “I am.” He goes, “Why?” “‘Cause you’re Neil Young, and you have Crazy Horse – his amazing rock band – and I’m solo acoustic. Nobody knows me, and I’m at Madison Square Garden.” Then he looked at me, he got real serious, shoved his finger in my face and goes, “This is just another hash house on the road to success. You show them no respect.”
IC: I love that, sounds like it worked.
J: Yeah. I ended up going up there and singing the quietest song I had, a lullaby called “Angels Standing By”. I sang it at half volume until suddenly the whole room was like, “Why is that girl whispering? What is she saying?” I got the whole stadium to be quiet. It was pretty cool.
IC: Do you have words of wisdom that you live by?
J: There’s a couple. In my song “Hands”, I wrote one of mine, that “in the end, only kindness matters.” I kind of remember that. Another motto that I kind of live by is: “The best revenge is a life well-lived.”
IC: What is it about music in particular that you love?
J: I like that music finds its way to the people that need to hear it, and they get out of it what they need. I can write a song that has a sort of specific meaning for me, and that meaning morphs and changes according to the person’s needs who are listening to it. I always just find that fascinating.
IC: Do you find that living in Texas now, that it’s changed your outlook as a musician in any way compared to when you were in living in Alaska or on the road?
J: No… I mean, I have to work harder a little bit, because I live in a community with no musicians, but it hasn’t really changed my attitude toward music or anything.
IC: You were talking about gender roles. Do you find it difficult being a female musician?
J: I haven’t, no. In the ’90s, the big ‘female movement’ happened, if you will. I was a little embarrassed, because they acted like we were the first female movement to happen. There was Carol King and Ricki Lee Jones and Joni Mitchell before us, and then an amazing movement before that. I felt it was a little bit disrespectful to act like we suddenly were the invention of female music. But other than that, no. I’m aware that there’s all kinds of rules and radio stations saying they won’t play two women back-to-back, but they never say that about men. There are certainly things like that that happen in this business, but I’ve never let them stand in my way or feel like it keeps me from my success.
IC: Do you have a favorite song in particular that you’ve produced?
J: I guess I have a sentimental attachment to “Who Will Save Your Soul”, since it was the first.
IC: Can you tell me a little bit more about your current projects?
J: The Greatest Hits album came out earlier this year. I have Christmas record this year called Let It Snow: A Holiday Collection. I have another children’s book that will be coming out, called Sweet Dreams For You.
IC: What inspired you to do the children’s books and albums?
J: My son. I’ve always written for the audiences and the world, and for myself, but I never got to write for my son before. So it’s a son opportunity.
IC: What would you say to an up-and-coming struggling musician who’s trying to break it in the industry today?
J: You make about ten million decisions every day for your career. I think it’s important to know why you’re doing this job and what you’re goal is. You either want to be great at the craft or you want to be famous. It’s important to know which. I think both are perfectly fine goals, but knowing which one is important so that you can make sure the decisions you’re making are serving one of those things. I think if you want to be famous, it’s a very different strategy from if you want to be great creatively. Sometimes you have to turn things down to help protect your art that you might not turn down if you just want to be famous. If your goal is to be good at the craft, I’d say just practice and be great and then people will take notice. I really believe cream rises to the top. Communities are geared toward finding great talent. If you’re exceptional, people will notice. If your goal is to be famous, I would definitely be focused on networking and parties more. (Laughs)
Photography and interview by Indira Cesarine.