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By Phil Bonyata
Top photo by Lynda Churilla
Other photo - publicity
June 2, 2010
Jewel (Jewel Kilcher) has seen both ends of the social and economic spectrums. From her hard early days in Homer, Alaska (Jewel's home had no indoor plumbing - only an outhouse and performing with her father, Artz Kilcher they supplanted their income by playing together in bars and taverns in Alaska) to selling 27 million records and achieving international wealth and fame. In the early '90s Jewel was homeless and living out of her car while gaining notoriety by playing such San Diego coffeehouses as The Innerchange Coffeehouse and Java Joe's. Getting her break with Atlantic Records she released her monster album Pieces of You in 1995. Spawning such singles as "Who Will Save Your Soul," "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games," Jewel had created her masterpiece.
Now married to World Champion bull-riding star, Ty Murray and settling into a 2,300 acre ranch that features a cow-calf operation in Texas. Making the transition to country music with Perfectly Clear in 1997 and Sweet and Wild (to be released on June 8th), Jewel feels happy and comfortable where she is in life.
Livewire's Phil Bonyata got the chance to talk to Jewel about her image, The Vatican and her transition into country music.
Livewire: Your tour kicks off in Fargo tonight - do you still get butterflies before going on stage?
Jewel: No, not at my own shows. I might get butterflies when I'm doing something out of the norm though.
Livewire: Do you feel that your recent transition into country music was a natural progression or were there other factors involved?
Jewel: For me it was natural. You know I've never seen music as having boundaries and as a writer and a singer I think musically that it's natural. I think that the difference is in the machine of the business, which are separate entities. Like for me, I was always trying to get "You Were Meant for Me" and "Hands" on Country radio and our label didn't have any relationship with Country. That's when I realized that they were such separate industries and they really didn't have relationships with each other. I'm certainly not the first person who feels that singing, songwriting and storytelling are sort of a blended, hand-in-hand thing. Linda Ronstadt obviously did it, Gram Parsons had a real beat country style, Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton - I mean I could name artist after artist. On a business side they've gotten so separate that it's hard, but musically it's the stuff I've been writing my whole career. It wasn't like I woke up one day and decided to start writing country, this is just something that I've been doing since I was 16.
Livewire: Do you see noticeable differences between your two country records Sweet and Wild and Perfectly Clear?
Jewel: Yeah, there's a difference. I haven't really listened to them back to back, so my experience might be different then somebody else's. I think Sweet and Wild might be more thoughtfully put together. I didn't mean to make Perfectly Clear - I was just goofing around in the studio for a couple of days, so it kind of came together really quick before I had a label. Sweet and Wild was more thoughtful. I had about 60 songs and went about it in a different way. I've never enjoyed being in the studio, I've always liked being live more. So, I approached this album as a live album before I had a co-producer. By myself I went to my home studio and started cutting songs, arranged them, picked the tempo and cut them live and that's what I built the tracks around and went to Nashville, me and Nathan. So, the band actually played around my acoustic live recordings. I think that gave the album a different feel. I think it allowed me to sing better. I've learned that I sing better in the studio without people watching.
Livewire: Is there any musical genre that you say to yourself - YUCK?
Jewel: There's good and bad in every genre of music. I like everything, especially when it's good and it moves me. I think that Bob Dylan kind of invented beatnik poetry and laid the groundwork for rap.
Livewire: Does a hard upbringing make for better lyrics?
Jewel: (giggles) I think that it can go either way. It kind of makes you more bitter or more passionate. I really gravitated to other writers during extreme political upheaval. I was really drawn to the Russian writers during political unrest because it was a nice way to channel a lot of angst and a lot of unrest. They got into an impassioned "we will fight for what's right" type of spirit. So, it didn't make you feel better, instead it made you feel more useful and I think those things are important in overcoming a difficult childhood so, that you don't become useless and drawn into despair and cynicism.
Livewire: Do you feel that "sex" is an important part of your image?
Jewel (laughs) How so?
Livewire: Because, I saw you in the late '90s (at the height of your popularity) and you were wearing kind of a folkie outfit with a bandana, but some recent photos show more cleavage and tight short shorts...
Jewel: Well, I think everything changes and grows, but it's really nothing I put a lot of thought into. In the beginning I was freaked out by hair and makeup. I didn't even know that makeup existed and it made me feel embarrassed and awkward. You know that photo shoots used to make me feel embarrassed and awkward. But, the longer you're in the business, I think that you get more comfortable with clothing and playing with your image. You know that I'm in my 15th year and if I just wore jeans every single time it would get really redundant. You want to create looks that are interesting and exciting. For me as a girl it's fun to play dress up.
Livewire: Is there a different creative process in writing poetry versus music lyrics?
Jewel: Yeah, it's different. I suppose it depends on the style of poem. I feel a poem can get into more of evoking a mood without music. You know, you use music and melody almost as a crutch to help your vocal mood that you're not evoking in your lyrics. That's where music and lyrics compliment each other. What poetry does is instead of telling you where a fight took place, it tells you about why the fight took place. It's sort of the snakeskin of the human soul.
Livewire: Were you kidding when you said "Around 30, I kind of realized that alcohol really does solve all of your problems"?
Jewel: (laugh loudly) Obviously.
Livewire: Don't you drink?
Jewel: I don't really drink.
Livewire: Tell me the strangest moment that you've ever experienced.
Jewel: Gosh, I have a million of them. When I was living in my car, the record label was coming to see me and I really wanted to wash my hair, so there was a Denny's around the corner and I washed my hair in the Denny's sink and I was really excited because this label was coming. I was using hand soap for shampoo and my head didn't really fit under the faucet and of course, I was kind of annoying the customers because they couldn't wash their hands as I was hogging up the sink. There were some older women behind me waiting in line for the restrooms and I was humming and happy and I was drying my hair with the paper towels - I was so elated that the label was coming and I kind of noticed that these women were looking at me like I was a creepy homeless kid washing my hair in the sink. They were looking at me really pitifully and you know, condescendingly and they kind of brought my mood down and suddenly I realized that yeah I am a homeless kid washing my hair in the sink and one of the ladies said to the other "She looks like a pretty enough girl, I wonder how she ended up like that?"
Livewire: That was the transitional moment you went form homelessness to fame and fortune?
Jewel: Well then, you flash forward and I was at The Vatican singing for Pope John Paul with The Vatican Orchestra singing "Hands." The orchestra learned my song "Hands" that I wrote while I was homeless about stopping shoplifting saying no matter how poor you are or how broke you are what you do with your hands is up to you and suddenly to be there, flash forward at The Vatican and singing for The Pope in the Sistine Chapel was, you know, surreal.
Livewire: Do you gravitate towards acoustic performances or electric?
Jewel: I really like both, but I tend to gravitate towards solo shows. It's much harder to do a solo acoustic show because you don't have anything to hide behind, you don't have tempo and volume to seduce a crowd and keep them entertained by the changing of paces. Being up there alone with your acoustic guitar is the most rewarding if you can pull it off. It's what I've done the longest and it was how I was raised. My dad taught me not to do a setlist and to just read the crowd. When you really get to hear the songs in their purest form, you know it's funny... there's so much talk about genres and all that, but when you hear these without production and the songs not having to be told what they are - they're just songs and stories and that just strips that all away and you can play intuition next to "Who Will Save Your Soul" and it all makes sense. And what you can do with the audience is special and what it can do for me is really special. It's a really intimate relationship where you can really feel each other without pretense. You don't use artist propaganda to make yourself seem more perfect or better than you really are. It's real human experience that is both flawed and hopeful at the same time. It's honest and I really like that about it. I like that too because you can feel the audience and where those people are at and where they are in their lives. The mood of each city is really different and the mood of each crowd is really different.
Livewire: How is your relationship with your father?
Jewel: Yeah, my dad is making records and lives in Alaska and saw him and my brother there last August.
Livewire: He was a big influence on you early on.
Jewel: Yeah, I was singing with him since I was about six. My parents had shows in hotels and I would get up and yodel with the family act and my dad and I became an act when I was eight playing honky tonks and barrooms.
Livewire: Describe Jewel in a few words.
Jewel: I would have to go sweet and wild and singer songwriter. Part of my is really introspective and writes poetry and sits under a tree and the other part of me rides motorcycles and shoots guns and smokes a cigar when there is a good one around. My music reflects that, so like on this album, half of them are kind of wild like "Fading" and a song like "Satisfied" is introspective and poetic.
Livewire: My alphabet clock tells me that was more than a few words.
Jewel: (laughs) and yodels bye to all
Jewel is performing at The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on June 3rd www.pabsttheater.org and at The Vic Theatre in Chicago on June 4th www.victheatre.com.