Jewel: Constant Companion – American Songwriter

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Grammy-winning artist Jewel Kilcher, best known simply by her first name, rose to stardom in the ’90s from her 1995 LP, pieces of you. At the time, bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam had a grip on the consciousness of the music-loving public. But Jewel also made her way to fame. While many saw the Alaskan blonde as the antithesis of long-haired, flannel-clad rockers, more accurately, she was complementary to the grunge spirit.

Today, Jewel says she loves grunge. It was a revolution. When glam and synth-pop ruled the airwaves, grunge came with an honesty that said we’re not all okay, we’re not all happy. At the time, Jewel says, she was also experiencing deep sadness. She enjoyed the grunge message. And his added to the proposed grunge ideas. You can only suffer so long before you end it or get away with it, says Jewel. Luckily for her fans, Jewel didn’t find her end then. Instead, she flourished and continues today with the release of her 2022 LP, freewheeling woman.

“Music critics hated me,” Jewel says of her break into popular culture. “They would call me Pollyanna. They didn’t know what to do with me.

The music she composed then acknowledged pain and depression, but also posed the question: what’s next? It said: I hurt then and now? And it was that message, she says, that resonated with her fans and positioned her as one of the most successful artists of the 90s and perhaps even the second half of the 20th century. But for Jewel, it all really started with family and living in remote areas with little to do but read and sing. Growing up, Jewel’s parents were musicians. Her grandmother was a poet and opera singer who moved to Alaska from Europe to escape World War II. She taught all of her children to sing, and this tradition was later passed on to Jewel. She learned to yodel around the age of 5.

“I didn’t have many friends in kindergarten,” she says with a chuckle.

Jewel fell in love with singing and singers. She liked to emulate her heroes like Ella Fitzgerald and Joni Mitchell. (She later used this talent as an actress.) Jewel learned breath control and pitch. As a teenager she was told she was ringing too like her heroes but, she says, she dismissed that criticism. In fact, rejecting unnecessary criticism and criticism has become one of her superpowers. Even at 18, she knew she was still finding her way, so there was no need to dismiss any creative impulse out of hand. What did they know? Famous, Jewel grew up poor. She lived in her car for part of her life. She lived in the middle of nowhere in Alaska. But all this time gave him space and hours to improve and study.

“Alaska really shaped me,” she says. “The scale, the calm, the isolation made me a specific type of writer.”

She read Flannery O’Connor and Anton Chekhov. She absorbed a sense of “beginning, middle and end” and brought it to her songs, including hits like “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “Hands.” She was impressed and empowered by women in Alaska who were regarded no less than when it came to their male counterparts. She played in bars with her father and later solo, learning to deal with rowdies, creeps and loud talkers. She caught their attention. The work, of course, has since paid off, most recently with his 13th album. But for Jewel, it’s all part of her long vision of her career path.

“One of my goals when I started my career,” she says, “was that I wanted to try to do this for 60 years. Having a 60 year career as a singer/songwriter as a woman is not common.

To figure out the metaphorical puzzle for realizing this ambition, Jewel turned to the likes of Madonna and Cher. She knew she was behind the proverbial 8-ball, especially if she wanted to have kids, switch genres mid-career, and release whatever music she wanted. But, despite everything, she knew she could do it – one way or another. She made sure to leave time between record releases to make sure her head was straight before each project. She left time to raise her son. She fought to be who she was in her professional life. And she built on the knowledge that women before her had accomplished a lot, starting with those Alaskan pioneers like her grandmother. And for FreewheelJewel wanted to start all over again.

“I have thousands of songs in my catalog,” says Jewel. “But for that, I didn’t want to go into my back catalog. I wanted this to be who I am now.

Standouts from the new LP include the soulful opener “Long Way’ Round” and the acoustically-focused “Half Life.” They mark a real feat for Jewel, who also made headlines in 2021 for winning the popular singing competition The Masked Singer. Jewel, who says she grew up in an abusive home, also works diligently for her charity, which helps less fortunate children get back on their feet. She cares about nature over education. She is the product of hard work and abnormal beginnings. But this is where the art can really flourish.

“For me,” says Jewel, “writing has just been a really good friend. It’s been a constant companion in my life through tremendous loneliness, grief, and joy.

Photo by Dana Trippe

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