When Jewel Kilcher quit the nine-to-five life in early 1994 and moved into the cramped comforts of a '79 Volkswagen van, all she wanted to do was play music, surf and stay fed. Since then, however, Jewel has racked up credentials that evoke the envy of seasoned music veterans. Her debut album, Pieces of You, has been embraced widely by critics and audiences alike, and the hit single "Who Will Save Your Soul" is now on the radio about as often as "JJ, the King of Beepers." Also, Jewel just came off the road with Bob Dylan. While all of this is more than the 21-year-old singer/songwriter bargained for, she isn't complaining.
Jewel's life story is a chapter from the Generation X Book of Fables. Raised on her grandfather's 800-acre homestead in Homer, Alaska, she had interests in singing, nature and spirituality that were encouraged by her parents, both touring musicians. Jewel read and wrote poetry, rode horses, learned to yodel and eventually started to perform with her parents. Joining their act was her first taste of the road, and her first glimpse of the varied lives she would later illuminate in her songs.
"I've received so many gifts just from watching others; reflecting on that human connection that ties everyone together," Jewel says on the phone from a buzzing New York office--a long way from the wide-open spaces of home.
Still, amid the record-company chaos, Jewel's voice is calm and self-assured; at once sweetly innocent and worldly wise. "Through writing about the lives of people I meet, even seemingly simple lives, I can give something back and feed the cycle, where everyone answers everyone's prayers every day."
Jewel attended Michigan's Interlochen Fine Arts Academy as a teenager, then moved to San Diego to be near her mother (and now manager), Nedra Carroll, now divorced from Jewel's father. After a few aborted attempts at holding down a "normal" job, Jewel began to feel gravely ill at ease with her lifestyle.
"At first, my life in San Diego just didn't fit me. I was living entirely without passion and that, to me, is death," she says. "I was a terrible waitress, I was a terrible retail salesperson. This [music] is what I was made to do, so I said to myself, 'Die or do it.' So I moved into my van, and I did it."
"It" was playing to tourists and the friendly regulars of the San Diego boardwalk, eating when she could and relying heavily on the "random kindness of so many strangers." Eventually, she landed a regular spot at the Inner Change Coffeehouse, where her audience expanded to include not only cappuccino junkies, but major-label bigwigs who'd heard the buzz about a cherub-faced girl with a voice, a guitar and plenty to say.
"When I started playing, I never ever expected any of this to happen," she says with a confident giggle. "I was a little bit afraid because you hear so many things about the music business being dark and complicated. I was content to just play, but I realized, if I signed, I could really live and be somewhat stable just doing what I loved."
Jewel signed with Atlantic Records in 1994 and immediately began work on Pieces of You. With Neil Young's producer Ben Keith at the helm, most of the album was recorded at Young's Redwood Digital studio in northern California. Young's longtime band, the Stray Gators, backed up Jewel's vocals and simplistic, folksy lead guitar.
After the initial phase of the album's release, fellow artists began to take notice of Jewel's pure soprano voice and stark, often insightful lyrics. She performed with Melissa Etheridge as part of VH1's Duets series, penned a song for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack and appeared as Dorothy in a New York revival of The Wizard of Oz, leading a supporting cast (which included Jackson Browne, Roger Daltrey and Natalie Cole) down the yellow-brick road. Not a bad start for a girl barely old enough to buy a celebratory bottle of champagne; a notion she laughs at, then considers carefully.
"A lot has been made about my age, and I was very fortunate to have been brought up around singing, to develop a talent at such a young age," she says. "But I have a dream I want to live out that isn't relevant to age.
"So many people live without ever having that, whether they're 40 or 60 or 80," she adds, a tinge of sadness creeping into her voice at the horror of so many poor, passionless souls roaming the Earth.
Jewel's been on tour for about a year now, with no end in sight. Traveling with a Tupperware container full of her favorite personal mementos (an eagle feather, a photo of her van, a pinch of dirt from the homestead) and a healthy collection of books (Dostoevski, Pablo Neruda and Proust are among her favorites), she draws inspiration for her next album from the faces and lives she encounters along the way.
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As for the complications Jewel feared in the dark world of the music biz, she credits self-discipline with keeping herself grounded.
"This business, touring especially, can be very draining," she says. "It was hard for me at first because, in Alaska, it was always so quiet; on the road, it's never quiet. In silence we hear who we are going to become, we have to learn to listen for it. I've had to teach myself to hear that silence inside myself, no matter where I am."
Jewel is scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 5, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Duncan Sheik. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).