The otherwise musically-mononymous Jewel Kilcher’s story could be a lesson in real-life fairy tales: the rural Alaskan native who yodeled with her cowboy-musician dad, slept enchantedly under star-filled skies with her ranch animals, and was so free-spirited she once lived out of her car, taking photos to prove it, smiling, guitar in hand. By the time she was 20, she had signed a deal with Atlantic Records and in 1995, she released her multi-platinum debut Pieces of You. From there she rode off into a Grammy-nominated, stardom-laced sunset.
But that’s hardly the whole story.
“The big misconception, I think, in my career was that I was living in my car for my dream,” Jewel tells me. “That was not the case, I was living in my car because a boss wanted to have sex with me and when I wouldn’t, he wouldn’t give me my paycheck. It was gritty and nothing about dreams. It was just about the pride of saying, ‘I will not have sex with you and if I have to live in my car, so be it.’”
She’d started writing songs to try and make money and build a career, but struggled with her mental health. “I was having panic attacks, I was agoraphobic, but I started figuring out my mental health during that year. When I got discovered, I knew that there was a real risk of somebody like me and my emotional baggage and my background, God forbid, I get famous, that every movie you’ve seen about every musician becoming drug-addicted and miserable.”
Not only did she get famous, but she was young and beautiful, her raw talent and realness making her an instant standout on the mid-‘90s pop charts. Suddenly, she became our newly crowned pop-folk hero.
But from the beginning, she prioritized her mental health over all else. “I made myself a promise that my number one job was to learn how to be a happy, whole human and not a human full of holes,” she says. “My number two job was to learn to be a musician. As a musician, I wanted to be a great singer/songwriter more than I wanted to be famous. I wanted to try and go for being one of the greats and that’s a really ambitious goal. It’s a goal that’s a 60-year arc, not a five-year arc.”
Freewheelin’ Woman, her first new album in seven years, is an unmistakable decree: Jewel is back. The first track “Long Way ‘Round” signals exactly what we’re in for: irresistible melodies and a voice that’s never been more flawless–or more powerful. “It’s just the first album of my entire career that I’ve written from scratch,” she says. “Even by the time I did my first album, I think I had several hundred songs written.”
“We cut this album live, so we pushed record and the way the song came out is how it was. I’d only maybe do some harmonies over it. We were in there and somebody was goofing around on…I don’t know…maybe a baseline or something and then I started humming a melody and then the drums came in in a weird spot. The song formed around us. I think I improvised the first two verses, completely just wrote them on the fly and it had that chorus. The song just came about right while I was singing it and so I love that as the opening track.”
The album was finished by the time the pandemic hit, but she and her team decided to hold its release. During the wait, Jewel kept writing and adding to her database of songs, its number into the thousands.
“Even when I switched genres, by the time I made my country albums, I had hundreds of country songs in the catalog. I could have done that for this album. I still have lots of songs that I’d love to use, but I really wanted this album to represent who I am now and so I wanted to write it from scratch. It was difficult.
“I really agree with Bowie when he said, ‘You should be pushing yourself to where you’re really uncomfortable,’ and this was a really uncomfortable record to make, wanting to find a fresh new sound, a new way of singing, showing a different aspect of my talent, writing in a different way without it sounding contrived or reactionary. To get a really authentic newness out of myself is hard.”
Jewel wrote 200 songs for the new album before narrowing it down to the perfect 12. “I learned so much about myself in the process,” she says. “Other artists did a lot of drugs to do this phase of their career. That would have been easier,” she continues. “When you’re sober as a single mom it’s harder, I promise you.” Her son Kase is 10.
“I really wanted this record to reflect a sense of empowerment while being a woman. I’m 47, I’m a mom, and I love where I’m at. I feel really empowered. I’ve been able to make my own choices as a woman in this crazy world. I’ve made a living off my mind and my thoughts and my heart and my feelings, and I’m really proud. I wanted that sense of empowerment of battles fought, wars fought and coming through the other side for the better, more loving, more kind, to be the dominant gestalt of the album.”
Throughout her evolution, she’s devoted time and attention to important issues the world needs now, including fighting for water rights. “I just think that our relationship with nature is really important,” she says. “I was lucky to have been raised that way. I continue to strive for water rights and those types of things, a lot through indigeneity and supporting and being a good ally to our indigenous relatives. I do a ton of work on the Nez Navajo Reservations and with different indigenous groups.”
Today, her main charity focus is mental health. Jewel Never Broken is a mental health curriculum that, according to its site, “gives you the tools you need to create change in your life,” including “mindfulness exercises to help…heal and find resilience.”
She advises young musicians to think about their bottom line and the price of happiness. “I think you can decide…what are your goals? Does happiness matter to you? And if it does, are you willing to be accountable? If you’re not happy, are you willing to change your life? Nobody owes you anything. You owe yourself a lot, so what are you willing to do for your happiness? Are you willing to say no to hard things?”
Early in her career, she put this methodology into practice, taking two years off after her second album, Spirit — shortly after its single “Hands,” hit the Billboard Top 10 — a move most would have considered risky at best. “I couldn’t psychologically adjust to the amount of fame that I got to,” she explains. “By the time I was on the cover of Time, it didn’t work for me. It was really psychologically crushing and so giving myself two years to contemplate, ‘How do I do this? Can I do this? Does this make me happy?’ and developing a career and a strategy that upheld my number one goal, which was to make sure my mental health was the priority. Then my number two goal was I want to make the records I want, how I want, in the genre I want, that’s going to be how it is. It’s going to be an adventure.
“The choices I made in my career, especially in the ’90s, were considered suicidal–career suicide. Taking two years off at the height of my fame was a huge no-no. Switching genres was a huge no-no, but it’s what I needed to do to keep myself psychologically healthy and creatively healthy. I had to deal with a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, she’s washed-up. She doesn’t know what to do for her third album.’ Completely misunderstood and to make sure that didn’t bother me and that’s your decision. It has to be water off a duck’s back. You persevere because you believe you made the right decision.
“Even with my pop album [2003’s 0304], that was so controversial at the time, which is so funny to think of now because it wouldn’t be controversial today. Back then it was crazy for a credible female singer/songwriter to go from that into pop. Everybody thought it was because I was selling out, which is, like, if you wanted to sell out, to me, you would just never grow. That is a sell-out. To explore my sexuality, that was just, ‘Oh, no, you’re not allowed to be smart and sexy.’ I think David Geffen took me aside and told me, ‘Nobody wants this generation’s Joni Mitchell to wear a miniskirt, so knock it the fuck off,” she says with a laugh.
“It’s just what I was living through. I was living through radio deejays saying, ‘How do you give a blow job with your fucked-up teeth?’ On live air. I’d go, ‘Fuck you,’ and I’d walk out of the radio station and they wouldn’t play my records. That’s what I dealt with. It’s fun now, it’s a different time. Those things still happen to some degree, but to be able to walk through my career knowing I had integrity, I made the choices for better, for worse, but they were my choices. Again, it’s what I wanted to ring true in this album. Also, for anybody going into this career, male or female, you do not compromise the things that are important to you. The rest you work your ass off for. Discerning those two is really important.
“Most people get it backwards. They become really precious about the wrong things and overly compromising about the wrong things. Know those five things that you’re unwilling to bend on and the rest you should bend. You should work your butt off, you should compromise.”
She talks about taking time off, but it’s tough to decipher what “time off” means to her. Her books, her poetry, studio/live/compilation albums, all the music we may never hear, and the causes she supports and champions. “I really wanted to build something outside of music that would be a sustainable income that wouldn’t require me to travel, that wouldn’t force my music to become successful as my sole income,” she says. “In the last seven years, I’ve been building a mental health company that scales mental health tools for different age groups. That was really fun to build. It was a really creative process, to learn to take what I’ve learned over the years and create and scale them.”
“I think it’s just looking at, again, that thing you always hear about, what do I love doing and then how can you make a living at it? Then that gives you a lot of freedom. I love writing books, I like working on multiple projects at one time. I’ve been writing another book, while I made this album, just going back and forth between songwriting, book writing, songwriting to recording. It takes me years to get it all going, but…” she chuckles. “It’s a lot of fun.”
(Credit: Dana Trippe)
We circle back to Freewheelin’ Woman and what that title means at this time in her life. “I really feel so proud that I am an autonomous female,” she says. “I get to go where I want, when I want. I get to have my own money and make my own money. It’s not that I don’t love partnership or compromise, it’s just I fought really hard to be where I’m at in my life. I fought to have the freedom I have creatively, I fought hard to keep my publishing catalog, I fought hard to earn my masters, I fought hard to heal my heart. It’s not an accident, where I am. It’s nice to feel like, ‘Yes, I get to move about my life free.’ I fought for liberty and that’s a nice feeling.”
I asked what makes her happiest now, at this stage of her life and career. “It’s the simple things,” she says. “I think we don’t give enough credit to the things that actually make us happy. For me, creativity, the act of creation makes me incredibly happy. Parenting, being a mother, makes me very happy. Free, quiet time makes me very happy. Just be quiet because that’s the precursor to creation. Being in nature makes me very happy. I live a really simple life because it’s really simple things that make me happy.”
She says that, in the end, she wants to feel confident she’s made honest choices with integrity. “I’ve made all my decisions as if I’m on my death bed,” she explains. “It’s silly, but I literally lay down. I imagine I’m on my death bed, I look back at my life and I go, ‘Did this decision matter? Did I make a decision that stood for love, that stood for family, that stood for creativity, that stood for, hopefully, pursuing that bar of excellence that’s in my mind, that is always driving every artist to try and push themselves to keep creating?’ That’s not a digital photo, that’s something that you don’t see how that develops, I think, to your last breath.
“I really want my life…I want myself to be my best work of art. I don’t want to get on my death bed and look back and go, ‘I wrote great songs,’ or, ‘I sold an extra million albums,’ or, ‘I hope my whole life looks like art.’ That means I have to pay attention to my parenting and I have to pay attention to my relationships and I have to myself as a human and my character and how I’m developing. I want to approach each of those things thoughtfully as I do my writing.”