Part One: She Likes Dessert
The first thing Jewel and I talk about is cannibalism. It is a good icebreaker. Then she orders the sweetbreads and steak.
We’re at the restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan, and already I am relieved. The reality of Jewel is putting the stereotype of Jewel to shame. As beautiful and uplifting as Jewel’s new record, Spirit, is, lyrics like “What’s simple is true,” “Set down your chains until only faith remains” and “If I could tell the world just one thing, it would be, ‘We’re all OK'” have too much of the air of chicken soup for the soul or Christian proselytizing. Then there’s her best-selling book of poetry, full of adolescent confusion about sprouting breasts and first love.
“I’m starting to get over myself,” she says now, at twenty-four. “All that poetry was written from fifteen to twenty-two or something. It’s very self-absorbed: ‘What is love? What isn’t love?’ I’m noticing that poetry doesn’t seem to interest me anymore.”
Jewel — wearing blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt unzipped one-quarter of the way to reveal a white T-shirt that may or may not have been slept in — is quick to display the depth and self-awareness that others have accused her of lacking. First of all, she has a sense of humor — which only those who have seen her concerts when she is in a chatty mood know. Second, she orders sweetbreads just to try them, which means that she is more adventurous and experimental than her music and poetry would lead one to believe. And third, she is a red-meat eater. I had suggested a health-food restaurant downtown, but she was adamant about having her steak. Maybe it was to prove that she isn’t a vegetarian hippie, as might be assumed from the Jewel myth — raised in a log cabin in Homer, Alaska, by a family of artists and musicians who would later urge her to live out of her van in San Diego while she chased her muse.
“Sometimes I want to take that Volkswagen van and affix it to a burning cross,” Jewel, tired of the myth, blurts at one point, shattering stereotype Number Four. She may sing on her new single, “Hands,” that “only kindness matters,” but she’s got a sarcastic streak, and she’s far from naive and dippy.
“I kept trying to figure out why people in the press thought I was so stupid,” she says. “I kept getting typified as this Pollyanna neohippie. I think it’s because I have a different definition of optimism. I’ve noticed a belief that somehow optimism lacks intelligence and that optimism stems from a lack of experience and naiveté. I don’t believe that. I believe optimism is a choice. Cynicism isn’t smarter, it’s just safer.” Talking with Jewel sometimes feels like sitting in a college dorm room with a very cool stoner girl, She doesn’t take things for granted; she questions how they got that way. When she says she’s over herself, it doesn’t mean that she’s sick of herself — it means that she feels she is moving beyond hedonism, ambition and self-obsession and into the sphere of community and her duty to it. At the same time, in the middle of a discussion of quantum physics and relativity, she’ll start talking about Jelly Bellys. “I’ve been on a jelly-bean binge,” she says. “I guess it should be its own food group — all those flavors and colors. Then you start combining them — cream soda with a cherry on top, or a juicy pear with a strawberry. . . .”
She smiles with the guilt of a woman talking guiltlessly about eating candy, exposing the twisted tooth in the upper right corner of her mouth. The tooth. Her father always told her to get it fixed or to get braces; she never did. She thinks she did the right thing — sometimes people don’t even recognize her until she grins. But, still, she gets self-conscious when photographers ask her to smile. On Spirit — the slicker, more self-composed follow-up to Pieces of You (which was recorded more than four years ago, when she was nineteen) — she sings about a stupid but attractive man, “You say, ‘He’s got straight teeth, and it’s good sex,'” as if straight teeth were one of the most desirable physical attributes in a partner.
Jewel finishes her steak — every last bit — and calls her boyfriend, former One Life to Live heartthrob Christopher Douglas, who is waiting upstairs in her hotel room, to see whether she can tempt him downstairs for dessert. She can’t. Nevertheless, four desserts arrive at the table for the two of us, and every one is attacked with enthusiasm. We talk until the restaurant empties. We debate the meaning of religion, drugs, beauty, success, benevolence, life, death and chocolate. She describes her father slaughtering cows, argues that the world is experiencing a revival of spirituality, imagines the consequences of all time existing at once (relativity again) and wonders whether human beings have evolved beyond the idea of monogamy. She laughs, wrinkles her nose and tugs at the zipper of her sweatshirt. She confesses to having meditated before the interview, hoping that I would be someone she got along with. She is so perfect that I need to start looking for faults: the bridge of her nose has a little crook; there are blackheads in the indentation between her lower lip and chin. But those imperfections — and the fact that, like the tooth, she has done nothing to remedy them — just make her more perfect.
Part Two: She Likes Nabokov
The next day we head up-town to Tom’s diner, near Columbia University, because she craves oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins. They don’t have brown sugar or raisins, or even honey. So, over oatmeal and Domino sugar, we talk about death, specifically one that inspired a song on Spirit, “Fat Boy,” a sequel of sorts to her anti-prejudice lullaby “Pieces of You.” “Fat Boy” concerns a cute, pudgy neighbor she grew up with named Edward, who used to hang out in her family’s backyard sauna and frolic naked on their swing. After going through puberty and getting teased about his weight by other children, Edward became depressed and insecure. After his eighteenth birthday, on Jewel’s family’s property, he shot himself in the face.
“There was a note that said some thing along the lines of, ‘Nobody will love me,'” she says. “And to know that you’re not sexually attractive in our society at age thirteen or to feel that you won’t ever be loved at age eighteen is just devastating.”
The self-awareness that follows the onset of puberty has always been a major theme in Jewel’s music and poetry. With Jewel, for example, that self-awareness was compounded by watching the effect she had on others. According to friends from Homer, older women in town used to tell her she was like a dog — well-behaved when she was around them but humping everything in sight when their backs were turned (which she wasn’t) — while local fishermen used to take bets on who would be the first to fuck her.
“When you reach puberty is the first time you start realizing you’re separate from your parents, and you start feeling your own power and sexuality in a whole new way,” she says after two brace-faced kids ask for her autograph. “I think that’s your first real impression of yourself. And if you’re not comfortable with your body, which is usually true at that age, then that’s your image of you forever. I still think of myself as an awkward tomboy. It’s something I’ll never get over, no matter how many magazines I’m in.”
Jewel generously pays the eight-dollar bill, and we walk to a nearby bookstore and spend an hour combing the shelves. She recommends The Holographic Universe, by Michael Talbot, and The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov for me. I suggest another Russian book, The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, for her. (When I see her again two weeks later, she has finished the Bulgakov book and jumps into a lengthy discussion, bringing up themes I hadn’t noticed.)
Later that afternoon, we return to her hotel room. She is about to see the video for her new single, “Hands,” for the first time. It’s a very optimistic song except for one cryptically defiant line: “My hands are small, I know/But they’re not yours, they are my own.”
“I think a lot about my hands,” Jewel explains. “For me it’s an image that’s very specific. We used to cut the hay-fields. There was a lot of hay, and we’d be on the tractor for weeks in a row every day, running around in circles. And I would just stare at my hands. I used to write a lot of poetry about hands. Since I was pretty young, I wondered, ‘What will my hands be doing? Will they hold kids?” I had no idea they’d play guitar. I started to believe that if I watch what my hands do, I’d have a better idea of what I was thinking, consciously or subconsciously.”
She has been waiting impatiently for this new album, for the day when people could hear music she recorded in her post-teen years. Because for the last several years, she has been relentlessly touring and promoting a record she doesn’t even like, opening up for every-one from goth rocker Peter Murphy and one-hit wonders Deep Blue Something to Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
“Pieces of You is not a good record,” Jewel insists, pointing out missed chords and substandard singing. “It’s an embarrassing record, ultimately. It’s like having your dirty laundry aired out. I didn’t think people would hear it. But it made me realize that all people want is to be touched. They don’t care if it’s Celine Dion or Meat Loaf or me.”
Two years ago, Jewel went into the studio and recorded half a dozen songs for a new album with producer Peter Collins but scrapped the project when “You Were Meant for Me” became a hit and promotional duties called. Earlier this year, she thought of doing a record of original Christmas songs, but instead decided to make Spirit with Madonna producer Patrick Leonard, who added a very subtle, lush undercurrent of percussion and keyboards to nudge Jewel’s folk musings further into the pop arena.
The “Hands” video shows Jewel moving through a disaster scene, an angel of compassion rescuing children from the flames. (Calling people “fragile flames” is a recurrent theme on the album.) “I hate how I look,” she says. “That doesn’t look like me at all. That’s not my nose.” When the video ends, the television flips back to MTV. I stand up to switch it off. “Wait,” she screams. “Don’t turn it off. I want to see that Alanis Morissette video.”
Part Three: She Likes Her Mother
With Jewel, family history shouldn’t be summarized. It should be a college seminar. But here it is anyway, in four tidy paragraphs.
Grandpa Yule and Grandma Ruth Kilcher moved from Switzerland to Alaska for free land in the last state where the Homestead Act was still in effect. Grandma, who had studied opera in Europe, became one of the first female journalists in Alaska, writing a column about homesteading for an Anchorage daily. Grandpa was a scholar who spoke twelve languages, helped write Alaska’s state charter, invented his own musical instruments and documented the homesteading experience on 16 mm film. Grandma home-schooled their eight kids, including Jewel’s dad, Atz, focusing on poetry and writing. Grandpa disciplined them harshly when they fell out of line.
On Jewel’s mother’s side, grandparents Jay and Arva Carroll settled in the interior of Alaska in the Thirties and then moved to an island called Wrangell, living in a one-room cabin with a dirt floor. Grandpa was a trapper with a dog sled; Grandma was a pioneer wife who had four children, including Jewel’s mother, Nedra. They moved to Seward, and Grandpa worked designing power stations. In his spare time, he built from scratch an airplane, a snowmobile and a mechanical device for hauling in fishing nets. He soon became so fanatic about his airplane that he developed a business flying visitors to hunting areas.
Eventually they moved to Homer, where Nedra — a poet, painter, performance artist, musician and jack-of-all-artistic-trades — met Atz, a social worker and musician. They made two albums and three children — Atz Jr., Jewel and Shane, who were raised in a log cabin without electricity, running water or T1 lines. Jewel was born in Utah, where Atz was studying at Brigham Young University (both he and Nedra were raised as Mormons). When Nedra was in labor, mother and daughter almost died after a nurse put an oxygen mask on Nedra but forgot to turn on the air. It was Atz who noticed she wasn’t breathing — it made him think of a child they had already lost to crib death. As soon as the doctors turned the air on, her mother took a large gulp and, in the process, pushed out Jewel.
From age six, Jewel sang during the summers with her family — touring hotels, bars and restaurants; showing a movie culled from her grandfather’s homesteading footage (funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Smithsonian); and learning how to deal with drunk assholes. Two years later, when she was eight, Jewel’s parents divorced. She stayed with her dad, who had inherited his father’s mean streak, and practiced music five hours a day under his stern tutelage. At fifteen she moved to Anchorage to live with her mother. After putting herself through school at the Interlochen arts school, in Michigan, as a sculpture-class model, Jewel rejoined her mother, who was then in San Diego. It was after Nedra had to quit her job because of a temporary heart ailment that she suggested that Jewel cut down on living expenses and “make herself available to her dream” by moving into a van. Nedra moved into a van as well, for solidarity. Mom lasted six months, Jewel a year.
“I feel like a comic book,” Jewel says about the whole story.
All interviews are a seduction process, on both sides, but this one is really working. It is when I meet Jewel’s friend, manager and mother, Nedra, in San Diego, two weeks after my time with Jewel in New York, that I begin to understand Jewel better. With long. neat, sandy- blond hair, a soft but strong face with a slight bump in her nose and an ample chest, she is the spitting image of Jewel. And not just physically — she brings up the same poets, like Pablo Neruda, and many of her thoughts on spiritual, existential and humanist topics I’ve already heard almost verbatim from her daughter. Plus, she orders multiple desserts like Jewel did.
Nedra speaks slowly and clearly, every word weighted with common sense, deep thought and compassion. And I am nervous, as if meeting a girlfriend’s parents for the first time. As I talk with Nedra, Jewel no longer seems like the success story of her family, a star suspended in time. Suddenly she fits into a long lineage of artists — of Kilchers and Carrolls — who came before her and will come after her.
We eat at a restaurant near Jewel and Nedra’s home in Rancho Santa Fe, a well-to-do horse-racing town just north of San Diego. The following day, Nedra is being honored by the March of Dimes as one of six mothers of the year.
From an early age, Nedra says, she knew that Jewel was meant to be doing something important. Perhaps all mothers say that. But Nedra happens to have been right: “She would come to me and say, ‘Would you help me do a demo tape so that somebody could hear me, or maybe I could sing on tour boats?’ And I’d say to her, ‘When you really know what you want, I’ll help you.'”
When Jewel finally decided on music, her mother made her write a list of all the reasons behind her decision. And then, when Jewel had presented the reasons, Nedra made her go back to her room, examine what motivations lay behind the reasons she chose and prioritize them. “I asked her to really go into each of these reasons she wrote down. If it was money, why money? how much money? what does money mean? what do you want with money? And that proved to be a really interesting exercise,” Nedra continues, “because she came back and said, ‘There’s really only one reason, but this is where my heart is: I want to make a difference. I want to sing so that people feel more hopeful, so that they understand themselves better, so that they feel connected to each other.’ And it was at that point that I knew that I could be involved with her.”
Now Jewel’s career is, as Nedra puts it, one of the million family businesses in the country. Next year, Jewel and Nedra will to try to realize Jewel’s goal of making a difference by pumping a significant portion of Jewel’s $2 million book deal and the money she has made from touring into an umbrella group of charities called Higher Ground for Humanity.
The dinner ends when Jewel calls; she has just gotten home and is half out of her mind from two weeks of nonstop promoting in Europe, half-joking about making a list of names and buying a shotgun, and is upset that a decorator has festooned the entire house with flowers, pictures of Jesus and a mirror from the set of Titanic. Jewel has always been a workhorse: During her first days on the set of Ang Lee’s upcoming film, Ride With the Devil, in which Jewel stars as a Civil War widow, she was editing her poetry book at the same time. Now she has to promote the movie, promote her record, tour Europe, tour America, tour both places again in larger venues and write a book of short stories due in July.
“I didn’t have a day off for years,” Jewel had told me in New York. “I never want to do that again. It really hurt. It was way too long, and I was so unhappy. I don’t want to tour the rest of my life.”
That night, I call Ron Shapiro, the executive vice president and general manager of Atlantic Records and one of Jewel’s most consistent and passionate supporters. “Whenever she gets overwhelmed and tired,” he says, “as soon as you give her time off, in about three days she’s bored out of her mind.” Nevertheless, the next day Shapiro will fly to San Diego to attend the March of Dimes ceremony and to meet with Jewel the following morning. “I told Nedra I wish I didn’t have to fly down there, watch Jewel get through the night frazzled, have her wake up in the morning exhausted and then tell her that she has to work harder. She has to do the six months of promotion that Alanis did for her record in four weeks.”
Part Four: She Likes Me
In the morning, I call Nedra and tell her that I am going to wait an extra hour before coming to the house to give Jewel time to sleep. When I get there, Jewel is disappointed: She would rather have been using that extra hour productively.
“There are a bunch of things I’ve been wanting to ask you,” she says and then proceeds to seek advice on dealing with hostile European journalists and structuring a book of short stories about characters in Homer.
She giggles at every other word, tells me how good I look and loops her arm around mine when we walk together. Something has changed since we last saw each other. She seems to trust me now. Were the European writers that bad?
“I was really nervous having dinner with your mom,” I tell her, explaining how it felt like meeting a girlfriend’s parents.
“That is so cute, Neil,” she giggles. “I didn’t know you cared. I got so nervous, too. I thought, you’re a really nice guy, but what if I am being fooled? I got so scared, I actually called Patti [her publicist] and asked her, ‘Do you think he’s just kidding?’ ‘Cause I really like you. I really consider you a friend.”
Though in my heart I believe her, in my head I wonder whether I am being buttered up. Since we’re being honest, I also ask her whether by turning our past conversations so often to her childhood — a subject you have to press most people to talk about — she is deflecting attention away from the present.
“That is so good,” she squeals. “I did the same thing with you. I thought, ‘Maybe he is just acting nice to trick me into saying something.’ No, it is pretty sincere, what I say. It’s possible that you’re right and maybe I talk too much about it. But it’s hard, because it’s something I think about all the time.”
Jewel picks up her guitar, which she hasn’t touched for weeks, and plays me a medley of songs she wants to record for her next album. She wants it to be a country record — full of Western swing, bluegrass and new country — though she’s concerned enough about scaring away her fans to consider releasing it under a pseudonym, simultaneously with a more typical album. Unlike her pop and folk songs, this music doesn’t require restraint. She revels in the melodrama, both vocally and lyrically, singing of angels and heartbreak in a beautiful voice that comes easy. Her voice gets louder and more dynamic as she gets more confident, quieter and cerebral when she gets shy. When I laugh during a song about Los Angeles and carrot juice and Power Bars, she laughs, too. During a high-lonesome dirge, her dad’s favorite, my eyes well up with tears.
Jewel and Nedra’s house is a large country affair redolent of baked apples and flowers, full of wood paneling and beds piled high with pillows, stuffed with statues of horses and picture books about Alaska, capped on one end by a large white-carpeted office and on the other by a sumptuous pool and Jacuzzi. It is hard to tell where Jewel and Nedra’s taste stops and the interior decorator’s starts. The living room, for example, consists of a potted plant elevated three feet off the ground on an altar of sorts and surrounded by a ritualistic-looking circle of large leaves and branches. Jewel and her mother sit there in facing chairs later that afternoon, getting their hair and makeup done for the March of Dimes dinner. They look like a scene from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Nedra is an aged Jewel, with innocence replaced by experience, confusion ceded to self-confidence and beauty mutated into strength. As she gets made up, Jewel exuberantly sings out loud and playacts different characters. Her mother is silent.
When I mention all this to Jewel, she leads me to her room and pulls out a locket with a picture of her and Nedra some twenty years ago. Her mother looks older than she does now, a frumpy housewife with short black hair and several chins. “It’s like she gave up then,” Jewel says. “Even now, I notice she’s becoming more and more refined — more graceful with time. And my dad, too — he’s become much more himself; he is not ruled now by fear or anger.”
That night, at the March of Dimes benefit at the Sheraton Hotel in San Diego, Jewel and her mother sit through interviews in adjoining chairs (Jewel’s hand always reaching for her mother’s, never vice versa), talking about their relationship in a way that makes every one in the room sigh, “Why wasn’t I raised like that?”
At the ceremony, Jewel points out her extended family, sitting at three tables around us — photographers, record executives, social workers, spiritualists, dietitians, makeup artists, all with fascinating backgrounds that Jewel knows inside out. Her oldest brother, Shane, underdressed in a Spirit T-shirt and a blazer, amiably walks to the table with his wife. “Do you only wear my clothes when you’re around me?” Jewel asks.
“I just got this shirt yesterday,” he says sweetly. “Half of the clothes in my closet are yours.”
“What’s that in your pocket?” Jewel asks, pointing to a red feather.
“A feather,” he replies. “Remember? It fell on the ground at the MTV Video Music Awards.”
As she listens to the other daughters — actress Annette Bening and Olympic track gold medalist Gail Devers, plus a doctor, a banker and a golfer — speak about their mothers, Jewel begins to panic. “I can’t tell anecdotes,” she frets. “I guess I could tell about the time I was little and my mom yelled at me, ‘Life isn’t fair,’ but I don’t think I can explain it right. I guess I should think of a joke. But I don’t know any.”
I feed her a line — “My mother always did so much more for me than other moms. Not only did she help me get my driver’s license, she helped me move into my car” — and it’s the first thing she says onstage. After the laughs, she gets serious. She doesn’t call her mother “Mom” most of the time. She calls her Nedra, she says, because she wants everyone to know that she is so much more than a mom.
In the limousine on the way back, Jewel, Nedra and I talk about Joseph Campbell, Pascal and symbolism. “You should spend the night at the house,” Jewel suggests. She had mentioned the idea in passing before, but I was waiting for a more direct invitation. This was it.
Part Five: She Likes Intimacy
At the house, I strip the guest bed of its myriad pillows and leave Jewel alone to talk with her mother in the kitchen. As I lie under the covers flipping, through a glossy color picture book of Alaska, Jewel walks in wearing a green zipper sweatshirt and either sweat pants or cotton pants, I can’t remember which, and gets under the covers with me. She lies on her left side, I on my right. Between our heads is a large pillow, which blocks part of her face. We keep pushing the pillow down as we talk so we can see each other completely and feel more intimate. But we know the pillow can never be removed completely: That would be too intimate.
“As a kid, I had a Mormon pamphlet, and it said you had to keep an arm’s length away from a woman in bed,” she says, “and a husband couldn’t spoon his wife for more than twenty minutes.”
She is not hitting on me; nor am I thinking of hitting on her. But I remember a line from one of her poems: “I am told/I am adored by millions/But no one calls.”
We talk about insecurity and what motivates it. She thinks it’s the idea that everybody wants to feel special. “Everybody feels they have a light in them, and they want it to be known,” she explains. “And a lot of people do that at the cost of snuffing out other people, because they feel that will make their light look a bit brighter. A lot of it comes down to that kind of basic idea: that we all want to feel acknowledged and loved for what we honestly feel, in our deepest parts, we are.
“Like with me: People compliment me on all the wrong things. I get compliments on obvious things. I want to be complimented for what my mom would know me for, what my boyfriend would know me for and my personal struggles I face every night. More than my voice. To me, that’s my real growth — things like, ‘I did it, I didn’t get depressed today.’ What I feel most proud of is the strengthening of my spirit. I think that’s what spirit is: your vitality.”
She goes on to talk about her idea that negative thoughts can affect both your psyche and your physical appearance. “I wake up feeling like I don’t belong,” she confesses. “I feel mutilated or manipulated. Thoughts are very powerful. I don’t give them enough weight and I want to be more conscious about it.”
I don’t understand her dark side, I tell her. Her angry side — the tough, resilient Jewel who kept the drunken lechers at bay after performances in Alaskan bars — where is that?
“It is interesting to watch myself evolve,” she answers dreamily. “Do you feel that way ever?”
“The honest truth is that I don’t,” I tell her. “Sometimes I think I’m changing, but when I return to an older environment, I revert to who I was then.”
“Yeah, I understand,” she says in a soft, reassuring whisper that lets me know she empathizes but doesn’t necessarily agree. “Ultimately, I feel like I’m becoming more myself. I’m feeling truer and truer to myself. And all the things that were too harsh or brassy, that never felt like me . . . a lot of those tensions are starting to fall away. And it feels good. It feels freer.”
Nedra walks into the room to tuck Jewel in. “Is this an example of sleeping your way to the top?” she asks and then proceeds to tickle Jewel on her side and under her arms.
In the morning, Jewel is gone.
She has left to spend time with her horse, Chance — her love, her drug, her inspiration. She returns glowing. “I dreamed about you all night,” she says.
“The interview went on for hours in my sleep. I was trying to explain how I became softer.”
“So how did you become softer?”
“I can’t remember,” she answers. “A couple of people I used to hang around with died, one had to have her leg amputated and another girl was sent to jail. When you’re living in the street and on welfare, you have to be tough. I guess I don’t have to anymore.”
She describes our time together as a friendship that, because it is really an interview, has been accelerated. “You know more about my life than I usually would let a friend know in this time,” she says. But she doesn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment. She means to say that it is unnatural.
Part Six: She Likes Everybody
The best perspective is often from a distance, and as I leave Jewel’s house, I begin to wonder why she spent so much time talking about me, asking me questions and even encouraging me to write songs. With other people, she was no less friendly, complimenting them on any facet of their appearance or personality that deserved praise.
In that context, her theory about the inner light of human beings suddenly made more sense. She defines herself as someone whose purpose is to help people’s lights shine brighter. In other words, Jewel likes to make people feel good about themselves — that’s the source of her popularity and of her derision — whether it’s always reminding them of how good they look or telling them in her songs that “we’re all OK,” that they are all “fragile flames.” Those are the lyrics I made fun of at the beginning of this story. I’m not laughing at them anymore.