Portrait of a Young Artist
by Jay S. Jacobs
POPENTERTAINMENT.COM ARCHIVES-June 1996
We spoke with superstar Jewel Kilcher in June 1996, just as her first album Pieces of You was starting to explode.
It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia. Employees are rushing around setting up for this evening’s show. This is the first Philadelphia headlining performance for 21-year-old Alaskan folk singer Jewel Kilcher – or just plain Jewel, as her friends, family and fans call her. Through the closed doors of the theatre waft the sounds Jewel’s band practicing. In the bar area are a group of local rock journalists. That’s a scary sight at any time, made particularly daunting by the fact that they are catching an artist on the cusp of the wave of her career.
Jewel walks into the bar smiling, looking comfortable in a pair of jeans and a white top. Looking much blonder than you would expect from someone from the tundra state (due to Swiss descent), she smiles and greets the throngs of press. Obviously, even at her young age, she’s getting used to all the attention. As you talk to her, Jewel radiates a true happiness and trust of human nature – the type that could get annoying if not for the obvious strength and passion Jewel puts in these beliefs.
Born to musical parents – Jewel’s dad was a well-known local pub singer and mom a music teacher – she took up music early. Playing with her dad and band as a young child, Jewel grew up on stage. As a teenager, Jewel decided to move to the mainland, ending up in San Diego. There she waitressed, wrote poetry and songs, surfed, played local coffeehouses and lived in the back of her ’79 V.W. Van.
Word got out about Jewel and soon she was working on Pieces of You, her debut album, produced by legendary boardsman Ben Keith (Neil Young, Patsy Cline.) Released in late 1994, the album began a steady, long climb into the public consciousness. Despite critical acclaim, it sold slowly at first. But her record label, Atlantic, stuck with it – much longer than most labels will go with an untested artist. Jewel steadily seeped into the news, playing Dorothy in a rock & roll version of The Wizard of Oz with Roger Daltrey, Debra Winger and Jackson Browne. She had a rumored relationship with tough guy actor Sean Penn. Then she made an appearance on VH-1 in concert with Melissa Etheridge, Joan Osborne and Sophie B. Hawkins. A year and a half after the album was released, the label re-issued Jewel’s first single, “Who Will Save Your Soul?” and it has become a smash.
It still surprises Jewel. She never thought about music as making her famous. She was just looking for something to eat. Now she’s in the midst of a mind-boggling tour. It’s been tough, but she can’t help but smile.
“I’ve just done forty (shows) in thirty days – had five days off the entire year. So, it’s getting grinding. It won’t always be this hard. But I love doing it. It beats waitressing. It’s a kick. I thought I was going to steal toilet paper the rest of my life. I had no idea I would show up in Philadelphia and have a sell-out show… I’m not too cool to be excited, I guess. I’m a really excitable person, I’m not really a jaded rock & roll musician. This is all a kick for me. I’m really happy to have the opportunity.”
Jewel is an artist first and foremost. Beyond her singing and songwriting, she has a strong love of poetry (several of her poems are printed as bonuses in the liner notes to Pieces of You) and acting. In fact, Jewel admits she liked marble carving more than singing, when she first received her record contract. But she was better at singing. From a young age, Jewel realized it was either art or die young.
“Music is one of the last arts that is going to affect and touch people,” Jewel explains. “We have to move each other. It’s not a choice. We have the ability to make people’s lives worth living. We do. We’re not as separate as we believe. We’re not as independent as a lot of us believe. Our happiness and our futures and our wellbeing is dependent on one another. From money to food to just generosity of spirit.
“You are really aware of that when you live in a car and are pleading for five bucks to eat. Also, just to see that when you make fun of people, the little cruelties, how much it really affects people. People kill themselves. They kill their lives. That’s sad. That’s not right. Music is one of the last things that kids will love with their hearts without over-intellectualizing. I think cleverness is kind of a disease. It’s not smart, it’s just safe.
“I think we really have to urge ourselves to be more hopeful and more thoughtful. Enhance manifest thought. We should really live consciously and see what we bring into the world. I see that as a gift. We can create ourselves. We should spend a lot of time in silence, hearing who we are and what we want to do and be encouraged for that. I really took music on very consciously, because, I guess, at that time of my life, I didn’t want to live anymore unless I was doing something to fill me with passion and purpose. I know that passion breeds passion.”
That passion didn’t necessarily seem like something that would translate her art to the world. She was writing for her own peace of mind. It’s just a happy coincidence that people actually liked what she had to say.
“In the beginning,” Jewel admits, “I never thought my writing was very good. It’s hard to value your own thought process. So, [when] I wrote ‘Who Will Save Your Soul’ – It’s the third song I ever wrote, and I had no idea. I didn’t write it thinking anybody would hear it. I have to write. I just don’t have a choice. I don’t exist unless I write it. So, when I fall in love or experience the traumatic, it just doesn’t happen until I see it on the paper. Then I understand it better. I understand more about myself and the person involved.”
Jewel’s songs are often heartfelt looks at such topics as hate and racism (“Pieces of You”) or human suffering (“Adrian”). But, Jewel says, unlike her poetry, which all comes from her experience, much of her songwriting is… well… made up.
“My songwriting is very rarely about me. That’s just because I don’t really see myself as having very much experience, you know. I think I’m capable of cheating on husbands, but I don’t have a husband. I’m also capable of being cheated on, knowing what that feels like, every miserable and glorious thing. When I write, it’s not that I feel separate from it, it’s more of a [fictitious] journal, so it’s kind of exhausting.”
This storytelling opens Jewel a lot of misunderstandings, she admits. She tells a story of meeting a fan who explained that he never cried, but after hearing “Adrian” he bawled uncontrollably. Then he asked what happened to Adrian. When Jewel explained that it was made up, the fan behaved almost like she had betrayed him. While she was sad the fan was disappointed, it is okay, Jewel feels. She can’t make everyone understand her work and she’d go crazy trying.
“Some people think ‘Pieces of You’ is a racist song,” Jewel says. “How am I going to clear that up? That’s them. What am I going to tell them? No, it’s not, I was speaking against racism and fear. If they can’t hear it, I don’t know what to do. I don’t think it could be more obvious in that song. People are going to think whatever they think of me. I don’t mind being contradictory. I’m not an extremely consistent person, because I don’t think that’s real. No one is consistent.
“I was studying a lot of philosophy and thought inconsistency was the root of all evil. I believed in Socrates; he was my hero. I believed in Plato and calls for pure reason. There is no such thing. Pure reason knows nothing of your heart; it knows nothing of the world. So, pure truth deducted from pure reason is just an abstract idea; it’s separate of your body. We live in the world, you know, so we can be naive and wise at the same time, flirtatious and innocent at the same time. All of these things, that is very human. We live in a world of polar opposites. We live in north and south. We live in light and dark. That’s not bad. We shouldn’t try to take the mystery out of things through science. That’s what’s magical about people. About writing. About being human.”
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