Jewel on Dolly, Divorce and New Album 'Picking Up the Pieces'

"My music has never been about making myself into a star or a celebrity," says the singer-songwriter

For her new album 'Picking Up the Pieces,' Jewel recorded songs she wrote when she was still in her late teens. Credit: Brook Christopher/WireImage

When Jewel suggested to Dolly Parton that the two of them get together for a glass of wine sometime, the response was pure Parton. "She said, 'No, honey…moonshine!'" recalls Jewel, beaming. The fellow songwriters were together in the studio to duet on the standout track "My Father's Daughter" on Jewel's new album, Picking Up the Pieces, a record that, like many of Parton's, was inspired by hardship, loss and a healthy dose of self-reflection.

"[Dolly] is such a pioneer, and who she was as a woman the time she came out was just revolutionary," Jewel continues. "I love how unapologetic and how willing she was to not use artist propaganda, and instead say, 'This is exactly who I am.'"

On Picking Up the Pieces, Jewel follows in those same footsteps. The record, her first since 2010's country effort Sweet and Wild, returns the Nineties' queen of introspection to her more folky roots, allowing her poetry-like lyrics to come to the fore. No emotion or feeling is masked, whether it's the awkward doubt of the cocktail-party exposé "Plain Jane" (in which she somehow manages to work "cynicism" into the chorus), the courage in the breakup story-song "His Pleasure Is My Pain" or the love-lost regret that imbues fan favorite "Carnivore." 

Many of the songs were written when the Alaska-raised Jewel, who famously lived in her car during a period of lean times, was still in her late teens and early twenties. "Some have been underground hits and have been requested at every show. Fans will ask for 'Carnivore' before they'll ask for 'You Were Meant for Me,'" she tells Rolling Stone Country, referencing her 1996 Number One hit. "I've been wanting to [record them], because I know there is an appetite in my fan base for them at least. But there just wasn't the right record. 'Carnivore' on my country record would have sounded weird, as well as on my rock record or my pop record. [These songs] weren't right for what I was interested in musically at the time."

Unlike other artists who gingerly wade into other genres, Jewel has never been shy about adapting her grand pipes to pop, rock or even dance music. It's the most malleable of voices, sounding at home on a hard-rock stage (she recently joined Foo Fighters in Phoenix to cover Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love") or in an intimate club — Jewel's pin-drop performance was a highlight of this year's Americana Music Festival in Nashville. It's in that genre, an amalgamation of country, rock, folk and other American sounds, where she admits she currently belongs.

"I think it's the best home for me. Country radio has changed. Everything does. That's what is great about music — it's not a bad thing. But it is fascinating when you look at the history of what rock & roll used to be and what rock & roll is now," Jewel says. "Everything has changed and altered. And I've changed and altered. . . I feel like I'm in the right home for myself right now. I'd love to hear these songs on the radio, but I really doubt that I will."

Part of that stems from Jewel's own personal life. Since divorcing from her rodeo-star husband Ty Murray in 2014, she's balanced taking care of their 4-year-old son Kase with her career. And the 41-year-old makes no bones about which one comes first.

"As much as I'd love this record to do really well, am I willing to do what it takes to do in today's market at 41 as a mom? Probably not," she says candidly. "I don't know if I'd forgive myself."

In many ways then, Picking Up the Pieces is an album made for her already devoted and built-in fan base. She shares stories of how that community — a "family" she calls them — supports one another and champions her music, going all the way back to her 1995 debut Pieces of You. (The new album's title is a clear nod to that record.)

"It took me two years — two years — to get 'You Were Meant for Me' on the radio. God dang, it was a lot. I came [out] at the height of grunge. But every record has been like that for me. It's been about slinging it out and using the Internet and having fans do guerilla warfare to create an appetite, where radio stations have to say, 'Well, I guess, let's play it,'" she says. "It was nothing but grit and time to get it going. And I don't have that now. I believe in the music, but I have to be fairly realistic about what I am willing to do."

Above all else, however, Picking Up the Pieces was recorded for Jewel herself. The album, as well as its companion book, Never Broken, also out now, helped her rediscover who she is as an artist and a person. Often, she looked back to her adolescence and what she was feeling then when she wrote some of the new album's songs. ("My Father's Daughter," the most autobiographical track, however, was written just five year ago. Watch a performance of it below.)

"It was almost like my 18-year-old self was able to tap myself on the shoulder and say, 'You need to be brave in this way again; you need to be courageous in this way again; this is where you got dull and covered up, and domesticated.' And I'm not talking about marriage. I'm talking about your soul, your passion, your fire," she says. "I got tamed as an artist. Not that I meant to. It was a very gradual slow sleep in various areas of my life, and I think that's common for many people.

"But this [album] was also my 40-year-old self talking to my 18-year-old self and saying, 'These are the things we're going to keep.' It was very healing. Almost like time travel in a way," she continues. "Some [songs] I wrote ahead of my experience. I was writing about women going through divorce when I was 18. Now I lived through one."

To promote Picking Up the Pieces and Never Broken, Jewel has been on the road hosting book signings and intimate performances. But in talking to her, the end game seems to be more about helping that fan "family" she so appreciates than persuading them to buy something. It's rare to hear an artist admit that he or she isn't overly concerned with popular success. But as Jewel has often pointed out, she strives to be more poet than public figure. 

"My music has never been about making myself into a star or a celebrity, it's been an authentic exploration of, 'How the heck do I do this' and 'What is this thing called life?'" she muses, summing up this latest creative arc in her career. "I'm just making something that is purely unadulterated me and what my poet's heart wants to say."