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Jewel: Cosmic Girl

How the singer went from living in a van to ruling the pop charts

Jewel

Jewel, New York City, circa 1997

Victor Malafronte/Hulton Archive/Getty

I remember when I first met Jewel,” recalls Lee Greene, a friend from Jewel’s hometown of Homer, Alaska. “I saw her hitchhiking one day, which is common here in Homer — you’ll see young kids hitchhiking. But I didn’t come from hitchhiking people, so to me it was really strange. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this beautiful young girl! Somebody’s going to pick her up and … steal her.’ I mean, she was 15.” Concerned, Greene pulled over and offered her a lift. “I said, ‘What are you doing hitchhiking on the side of the road looking like that?’ And she pulled a knife out of her boot and said, ‘Would you fuck with me?'”

This is but one chapter from the strange adventure that is Jewel Kilcher’s life story. (It is also a scene from Showgirls. But we digress.) Greene sums it up the best. “Oh, Jewel knows how to take care of herself,” he says with a laugh. “She always has.”

“This song is kinda dumb,” Jewel says sweetly, “but they can’t all be good.” She is onstage at the Palace Events Center, in Denver, where she is about to launch into “Do You Wanna Catch a Cold With Me,” a playful little ditty she wrote a few years back. Jewel smiles shyly and tucks a lock of hair behind her ears. This was a teenage knife wielder?

“AC/DC!” someone in the audience hollers.

“Fuck you!” she snaps. Aha.

Jewel has been entertaining folks since she was six, and she is a pro, delivering a two-hour-plus bonanza that’s packed with jokes, stories, five new songs, an a cappella version of Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and a lovely Swedish lullaby. Of course, she also includes her Top 10 hits, “You Were Meant for Me” and “Who Will Save Your Soul,” which propelled her debut album, Pieces of You, to triple platinum and counting. The record only hints at the power of Jewel’s voice, a mighty, crystalline wonder. Each time it soars, the crowd goes apeshit; the majority are teenage girls, who scream and scream.

There are a fair amount of males, too. “She is so hot,” moans a young dude a few rows back.

“Shut up,” says his date.

Jewel unveils a new tune. “I never thought I’d be at a place with so many people,” she says and talks for a few minutes about following your life’s passion. “Our flesh becomes wasted on survival, instead of creating cures … and poems.”

Whoooo!” yells the crowd.

Jewel closes with a rollicking number, the yodeling cowboy waltz “Chime Bells,” and the audience stands as one. Then she heads backstage for a quick meet and greet. “Hi, sweetie, what’s your name?” she coos to a six-year-old girl, who stares mutely at Jewel’s shiny blue shirt. Outside the venue, about 20 die-hard fans are gathered. They silently line up in an orderly row, as if awaiting a school eye exam.

“My fans are very polite,” Jewel says, embellishing the last autograph with a little heart shape. “People come to my shows with signs that say, ‘Maintaining Our Innocence.’ Cheesy as shit, but hallelujah! Look, I’m not a fluffy, New Age … kookybaka. [Perhaps this is an Alaskan word?] I’m just a person who is honestly living my life and asking, ‘How do you be spiritual and live in the world without going to a monastery?'” She walks to the car — a beat-up Accord, parked behind the venue, that the lighting tech will drive. “I just want to tell kids, ‘Come on, man, get excited!'” she continues. “There have always been wars and pollution and poverty, but we’re at the most unique time in the history of humanity to do something about it. We’re worrying less about survival, and more and more about what is our spirit. Every kid is asking me about that right now.”

She gets in the Accord. Now what? “Well, I don’t drink,” she says. “I have problems with my kidneys, and it’s never interested me, anyway. I mean, after a show, I usually go back to the hotel and get in my pajamas.”

Jewel peeps around the hotel door. “Are you wearing pajamas?” she asks me. “Good. Come on in.” Although she has occupied the room for mere hours, it looks like she’s lived here for weeks. There’s debris everywhere: tapes, clogs, teary notes from fans, jars of vitamins. She has changed from her black pants and shiny shirt to a pair of red plaid pj’s, and she pads around the room barefoot, singing, “It’s delightful, it’s delicious.” She has no makeup on, no jewelry, no styling products. In videos and what have you, Jewel is cute, but up close, she is a luminous beauty: sloping cheekbones, clear green eyes, glowing skin, crooked teeth, crooked nose.

She turns off the lights, fires up a candle, grabs her guitar and plops down on a chair. Strumming away at our makeshift slumber party, she begins to tell the story of her 22 years.

It goes a little somethin’ like this:

Jewel’s granddad was one Yule Kilcher, who emigrated from Switzerland to Alaska before it was a state (he later helped draft the state charter). He came down the Yukon on a river raft he made himself using a raincoat. Old Yule is still kicking and still resides in Homer. “He rides his horse and buggy into town every once in a while when his Subaru won’t run,” says Homer resident Willy Nye. “It scares the women and children sometimes.” Jewel says that Homer is “very cosmopolitan and artistic. And just a funny little town. There’s this guy, Stinky, that you can visit. He lives in a junkyard. There’s a refrigerator, which is on its back, and you yell, ‘Stinky!’ The refrigerator opens, and up walks Stinky out of the earth.”

Young Jewel was raised in a log cabin on 800 acres, where the Kilcher family — dad Atz, mom Nedra and Jewel’s two brothers — forged their existence out of the land. “It was not a hippie thing,” Jewel says. “It was like pioneers, when people moved West.” The Kilchers had no TV, no heat except for a coal stove and no running water. “We had a hose, and you hooked it up to the stream,” she says. “But if there were worms because the stream flooded, there were worms in your faucet.” Bathing was a “weekly thing.” Sometimes, Jewel says, neighbors would travel to the homestead from 20 miles around for a potluck dinner and a sauna, then the whole clan would jump into a homemade pool. “It was an education, too, to see red pubic hair for the first time,” Jewel recalls. “It was like, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know it could be like that.'”

The family ate what it raised, catching salmon in the summer, raising cows for slaughter, making Eskimo ice cream out of blueberries, milk and snow. “Look, it was a lot of work,” says Jewel. “We’d be canning salmon after school while other kids would be watching He-Man.” She stops strumming her guitar for a second and gets a little misty eyed. “But I was also very proud of it, and it shaped me into a certain kind of person. You’d get up at five in the morning, and there would be frost on your eyelashes. I shared a room with my brothers. I’d cook breakfast, milk the cow, walk three miles to the road, hitchhike to school. It was a very romantic and poetic existence.” Jewel spent many hours riding her horse, writing in her journal and singing in the pure mountain air.

Her parents sang, too, as a folk duo (for collectors, there are two LPs by Atz and Nedra Kilcher: 1977’s Early Morning Gold and 1978’s Born and Raised on Alaska Land), and when Jewel was six, she and her brothers joined them as they performed, a la the von Trapp family, at dinner shows in local hotels. “The Kilchers have always been a colorful kind of family with an interesting history and a sort of mystique,” says Jon Faulkner, owner of Land’s End Resort, where the Kilchers often sang. “I used to hire Atz, and he would cart Jewel along. She was always the showstopper. Their yodeling always brought the house down.”

The family would present a film about its history and play various instruments. “They had a homestead horn,” adds Nye, “made out of a hose and a funnel that her brothers blew into — made some noise! They had to make do with what they had.”

Jewel immediately took to performing. “She just really had a knack for it,” Atz recalls. “She was always a quick learner, very hard-working and tenacious. Anything I’d tell her to do with her voice, she could do. One time when she was about six, she was yodeling with us at a hotel show, and this lady came up and said she was a professor of music. She told us it was supposed to be impossible for a child that young to be able to yodel — a child’s vocal cords aren’t developed yet.”

Jewel’s early childhood was, by all accounts, idyllic. “Until I was eight, my upbringing was very normal,” says Jewel. She has begun to strum her guitar a tiny bit faster.

Spend even a short amount of time with Jewel and you will find that she is prone to frequent discourses. These range from the philosophical to the quasi-religious to the confessional. When this happens, the listener may go through four stages. Stage 1: Squirming Disbelief. Ask her, for example, to relate her earliest memory, and she says, “Well, I was in a basement — I don’t know how I got down there — and there were all these colors in my head, shimmering and dancing, as colors might.” (“Colors in my head”?) Stage 2: Cynicism. “My mom goes, ‘Jewel? Are you down there?’ And there are these colors, and I was like, ‘I’m Jewel.’ I remember consciously taking my name. And what was Jewel were these colors and brightness in my head.” (Oh, puh-leeze. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man!) Stage 3: Self-Doubt Coupled With Shame. “It made me so happy. And to tell you the truth, that’s what has always led me through life.” (Well, she is sincere. Who am I to judge?) Stage 4: Acceptance. “I always knew there would be a chord that would match up to the colors. A lot of my life was spent without it being matched, but I feel like now I’ve struck the chord.” (Live and let live, goddamn it! Different strokes for a large variety of wonderfully different folks!)

Jewel says out loud the kinds of things that most people might write in their journals but would never, ever say in conversation. At first it is disconcerting. Then you kind of get used to it.

Let’s continue: When Jewel was eight, her parents got a divorce. “I went to live with my father,” she says. “It was very unreal. I lost all equilibrium. Leaving your mom on a street corner while you drive away in the back of a car is just … brutal. And my dad at that time was out to lunch, bless his heart. And mean.” She stares at the candle, unblinking. “So you’re going to do anything you can to get on the good side of him.” When she is talking about something painful, Jewel switches the tense from first person to second person. She switches back to the first person: “We really had singing in common, so I sang my little brains out. Plus, I loved singing. He’d scream and curse, and I’d be crying, and I’d still sit there and practice.”

For the next several years, Jewel sang in barrooms with Atz. As she grew older, many of the bar patrons took bleary-eyed notice, trying out a variety of witty lines on her: “They would put a dime in my hand and say, ‘Call me when you’re 16.'” Then there was the old straightforward approach: “They’d say, ‘You’re going to be so good to fuck when you’re older.'” Jewel shrugs. “I never felt damaged by it. And I learned exactly how not to lead them on.”

One day a man approached Atz at a local store and asked to photograph Jewel. “My dad was flattered,” she says. “He’s flattered that I am cute, which is sweet, but …” She trails off for a moment. “So I went there to the man’s trailer, and he puts me in a dress and combs my hair out. I was so uncomfortable, and I told my dad I didn’t like the man. It turns out that later, the man was in the paper as a child pornographer and molester. My dad came to me, crying, and said, ‘I will never doubt your instincts again.'”

When puberty hit, Jewel went through it quietly, almost furtively. “I lived with all guys,” she says. “I didn’t tell anybody. You just kind of shave your legs in the dark by yourself, embarrassed. And I didn’t have any privacy, either. We had outhouses, you know?” She laughs. “It wasn’t a great place to become a woman.” Jewel always found solace outdoors. “No matter how hard my life was with my family, it just gave me such tremendous spirituality and comfort,” she says, getting that misty look again. “You knew there was a God. You knew there was some good force in the world, and you were a part of it, safely.”

During that time, a restlessness took hold inside Jewel. Thus began an Exploratory Period. She went through a ’40s phase, attending school in ’40s dresses and pillbox hats with netting. She was adopted, briefly, by an American Indian family. Apparently this does not involve a lot of paperwork. “I went to a powwow and was adopted,” she says easily. “I had these two uncles who were huge, huge Ottawa Indians. One said I was going to bring heart to the people.” In ninth grade, Jewel joined a rap group called — as only a ninth-grade rap group can be called — La Creme. “My boyfriend at the time, Damien, was in the group,” she recalls. “They called me Swiss Miss.”

It should be noted here that Jewel’s approach to dating has been refreshingly We Are the World. Her boyfriends — and there were many — have ranged from Thai to Sri Lankan to, well, Sean Penn. “When my father met Damien, the first black boyfriend I ever had, he was in tears,” Jewel says. When she asked her father what was the matter, he sobbed, “I’m so proud that I raised such an open-minded daughter.”

Jewel soon took off for Hawaii because, she says, “I was tired of the cold and my dad.” There, Jewel lived with relatives for a year. “I would almost get beaten up every day by the Hawaiian kids because I was white,” she says. “It was my first time dealing with prejudice. I was stuck there until I could earn enough money to go home.”

When she returned, Jewel decided to live with her mom in Anchorage.

For the first time in years, Jewel had structure. “My dad was always like, ‘Do whatever you want,’ but my mom would say, ‘Be home by nine.'” Jewel was indignant but secretly a bit relieved to be living with the woman she calls her best friend. More turmoil ensued, however, when Nedra, a glass artist, was investigated by the FBI for, according to Jewel, shady book dealings by Nedra’s business partner. “Investigators would come to my school, and there would be things on her in the paper,” says Jewel, sighing. “We ended up having to hock our stuff and move 200 miles away.”

They settled in a small Alaskan town called Seward. “I was facing my 16th year of life,” she says. “And I was really desperate. I kept thinking, ‘What am I going to do with myself? I had a sense that something needed to happen or else I would … suffocate.” A friend attended an arts school in Michigan called Interlochen, and Jewel became convinced that she must attend, too. She and her mom cooked up a benefit show in Homer, and the townsfolk, Little House on the Prairie-style, took up a collection. They gathered enough money — and Jewel won a partial scholarship — to send her off.

In Michigan, Jewel learned to play guitar. “Because of my history” — she’s dyslexic — “it’s hard for me to learn things, so I practiced 20 times as hard,” she says. When she finished school, she took a train to San Diego — where her mother had relocated — street-singing along the way to earn travel money.

When she arrived in Southern California, Jewel worked in a series of crappy jobs and lived out of her car. The desperate feeling returned. “When you’re so poor that you can’t find food,” she says, “and you’re scraping food off of people’s plates in restaurants to take home, it’s degrading.” She pauses for a moment, concentrating on the flickering candle. “And I would let bosses flirt with me, because they would take me out to dinner. I’d say, ‘I’m not interested in you.'” She switches tenses again: “But you still played the game.”

Money was a constant worry. “Once I let a kidney infection go too long,” says Jewel, “and we went to all these doctors’ offices, and they’d refuse me. Antibiotics are $60 to $100.” Which, needless to say, Jewel and her mother did not have. “I’m in the car, throwing up all over myself, and my mom would get refused by one clinic after another. And seeing my mom walk out of the clinics, it was damaging to my spirit. It just made you angry. Nobody gave a shit.” She gives a little shrug: “Nobody had to.”

After Jewel was fired from another job, she decided then and there to sing for a living: “I thought, ‘This is it. My life’s a mess. I have to do what I love or die.'” Borrowing money from a boyfriend, she upgraded her living space (a van!), moved in and began to sing in a coffeehouse.

“When I met her, in San Diego, she was, like, this social misfit,” says Steve Poltz, Jewel’s former boyfriend and lead vocalist for the Rugburns, her lively opening band. “Once I was with her, and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ I think, came on the radio, and she said, ‘Now, what’s this band called? Is this the Stones?’ And she was deadly serious. I said, ‘This is the Beatles.’ She was like, ‘Oh! I like it.'”

Happily isolated from pop culture, Jewel thrived in her new digs. “I was drunk on life,” she exults. “I surfed, I wrote a lot [‘Who Will Save Your Soul’ was one of her first songs], and all I owned was a backpack, a surfboard and a mattress.” She and her mom, who lived in an adjoining van, got by on a diet of carrots and peanut butter, fruit from orchards, free happy-hour victuals from bars and the occasional kindnesses of others. “I learned to pray, and I learned to manifest things,” Jewel says. Manifest things? “People would help out. If I said, ‘Angels, or whoever, I really need a place to take a shower,’ I’d meet a guy in a coffee shop who was really nice. He’d give me the key to his apartment and would let me take showers before shows.”

When it is suggested that perhaps the organ that motivated the fellow’s generosity was not his heart but his peepee, Jewel stops. “Well, he kind of had a prostitute service that he ran out of his house,” she admits. “And, yeah, he would have loved to get in my pants. But you’re clear that you’re not available.”

So sometimes the angels send a pervert.

Jewel drew a following at the now-defunct Innerchange Coffeehouse, in San Diego, and within five months, at the age of 19, she had snagged a deal with Atlantic Records. In February 1995, Jewel released Pieces of You. Nobody cared.

“She was an unknown artist, and everybody at that time was saying that this was some little folk record from a little girl in Alaska,” says Ron Shapiro, senior vice president and general manager at Atlantic. “She was the hardest artist to break and took the longest to break in this company’s history.” Fourteen months, to be exact. “The first year,” Shapiro says, “they spat on us. And in the most vitriolic way. It was basically, ‘She’s a woman, she’s a folk artist — are you kidding?’ And critics were saying the record had no merit.”

Well, it ain’t Court and Spark. Hell, it isn’t even Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. Instead, Pieces of You is a folky collection of 14 spare, unpolished songs — some, in fact, were recorded live at the Innerchange. Because Jewel wrote the songs between the ages of 17 and 19, the album has a hopeful, tentative feel to it. “It’s really a time capsule,” says Jewel. “When I recorded it, I thought, ‘No one’s gonna hear it. I’m just going to be honest and put it down on tape.’ I didn’t really clean up all the edges.” Jewel will tell you herself that some of the songs are “dorky” and that she sometimes cries when she listens to them. Part of her appeal, however, is that she is a kind of Everygirl.

The downside of this is that many of Jewel’s lyrics sound like … well, like the journal scribblings of a teenage girl. Consider “Amen”: “Pieces of us die every day/As though our flesh were hell/Such injustice, as children we are told/That from God we fell.” Jewel also has a penchant for melodrama: “Adrian” tells the tale of his “unfortunate accident in a canoe,” and the six and a half minute “Painters” is a woeful account of doomed lovers (“She went running/Through the orchard, screaming/No, God, don’t take him from me!”). Her best tunes are the simplest: the bumbling-around-the-house-after-a-breakup tune “You Were Meant for Me” or the quiet, lovely “Morning Song.”

Jewel is best enjoyed live, when she can let her voice loose and allow it to run around. When Shapiro made it his life’s mission to promote Jewel, which he and the company did with demonic zeal, he knew what he had to do. “The key to marketing her was to have her out there relentlessly,” he says. “Even if you don’t get the record, even if you don’t think it’s critically perfect, you can’t deny what she does onstage. She has one of the most God-given voices I have ever heard an artist be given.”

Thus began a grueling, never-ending tour on which 40 dates in 30 days was the norm. “She worked seven days a week and never let us down,” declares Shapiro. “Never, ever, never, never. She will work as hard as a human being can physically work.”

“I’d do a high school show in the morning,” Jewel says evenly. “Then I’d open for a gothic band” — that would be former Bauhaus ghoul Peter Murphy, at whose shows she was sometimes booed off the stage — “then a midnight show, drive three hours, sleep three hours.” She shrugs. “I was raised with hard work.”

For the first time in hours, there is silence. The candle has long since gone out, and Jewel’s guitar is propped up against a wall. It’s almost three in the morning, and she is talked out. How about the Denver Zoo tomorrow? She agrees, although later she will say she hates zoos. (Think about the caged spirits of wild things and you get the idea.)

“Good night,” she says, as she closes the door. “Have good dreams.”

As she makes her way to the Primate Panorama, it is quite apparent that Jewel’s hard work has paid off. She is a bona fide pop star. Kids’ heads, one by one, pop up from the crowd as if from a gopher den. Then they converge to commence the Autograph Ritual: stand close together in a little gang approximately 10 yards away; talk and laugh with elaborate casualness; wait about 20 seconds; then push the gang’s boldest member toward the quarry to demand to know whether you are, in fact, Jewel. When this is confirmed, descend upon quarry.

Here comes the bold member, a slip of a girl with braces. “Hi! Um! Are you Jewel?” she squeaks. Affirmative. The others rush in.

“You look like my little brother,” says Jewel to one boy. “You’re cute.” This is too much for the poor lad, who turns purple and dissolves into a babbling mess.

A few events have heightened Jewel’s profile. One is her performances this year at President Clinton’s inaugural balls. Another is her association with Sean Penn, who promptly dialed her up after she played on The Late Show With Conan O’Brien in May 1995 and whisked her off to the Venice Film Festival, where the two were dogged by paparazzi. Penn directed the original video for “You Were Meant for Me,” which Jewel re-filmed after the couple’s breakup. (The new version features Steve Poltz.)

Jewel and Penn split up more than a year ago, before the actor went back to actress Robin Wright, the mother of his kids, and married her. Jewel, who says she has never gotten into a fight with a boyfriend, wishes him well. Besides, for the last year, Jewel has had a steady relationship with Michel Francoeur, a French-Canadian model. “He’s a nice guy,” says Jewel. “And when he got involved with me, I wasn’t famous, so it’s been a big adjustment for him, too. It’s strange for him. He’s worried for me.”

Then there were the opening gigs for such high-profile acts as Bob Dylan and Neil Young (longtime Young associate Ben Keith produced Jewel’s album). “I was so nervous about playing Madison Square Garden with [Young],” says Jewel. “I told him I didn’t know what to do. He said, ‘Jewel, it’s just another hash house on the road to success. Show it no respect.'”

Lastly, there is the Dress. You know, the sheer one she wore to the Grammys. She may not have won the two awards she was nominated for, but she certainly left an impression with that dress. “I didn’t know it was see-through,” she says. “I tried it on in a hotel room. I haven’t seen the pictures. I’m probably scared to.”

Jewel stops to look at a herd of deer. They lie listlessly on the ground, and they all look in the same direction, as if they’re watching TV. It is her last day off for a long while, and she is dragging a little. Jewel will soon embark on a tour of Europe, where she will work as doggedly as she has in the States. She is also in the process of deciding what tracks will end up on her new album (out next year) and is working on it with producer Peter Collins (Nanci Griffith, Queensrÿche).

Jewel may put a country tune on the album and says that the new songs have “a lot more layering, a lot more texturing. My hands have caught up to my head now.” She has been previewing some promising material on her tour, including a bouncy number called “Cleveland,” an old tune that she revived and a fine song to drive to; “Thought I Saw You Last Night,” a song with gentle harmonies that’s oddly reminiscent of “Moonglow”; and a work in progress called “Down,” a dark, urgent number utterly devoid of girlish yearning.

The next few years are pretty much mapped out for Jewel, but she doesn’t mind. She even put down roots and bought a house outside San Diego — although it pained her to do so, having been used to hanging on to every cent. “I can’t tell you how weird it is for me to go from living in a car to recording an album,” she says as she makes her way to Bird World. “I always thought I’d be borrowing $5 for gas.” Jewel still worries about “how I can survive in the world and be sensitive and a real person and intact,” but she says that for the first time in her life, she’s “coming into a neat period, kind of stable.” She smiles. “I feel at peace. I’m not tortured anymore.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Jewel

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