It’s hard to believe that seven years have passed since Jewel hit the radio with “Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant for Me,” mostly since it’s hard, frankly, to think of any other Jewel songs. Since those hits, from 1995’s Pieces of You, the singer-songwriter has really earned more press — good and bad — for her dead-serious folkiness and best-selling books of poetry than for her music or arresting voice.
Her latest album, This Way, is changing that. Its best songs are rough and fun in a way that Pieces of You and its follow-up — 1998’s Spirit — didn’t even hint at. Now, as she prepares to tour behind the album this spring and summer, Jewel talks about growing up musically and sticking up for her music.
Besides working on This Way, what have you been doing since the last album?
I wrote a book called Chasing Down the Dawn, a book of short stories about being on the road, and about growing up in Alaska — from the bearded belly-dancer woman who lived next door to singing in Germany. I wrote a lot, just enjoyed myself, got back to being outdoors. I write best when I’m alone, and my schedule since I’ve been eighteen has been touring, and not being able to rejuvenate by writing the last couple years got real hard. It gets to where you have to make a choice: Do you want to keep in the cycle of trying to get hits and not leaving the public eye, or do you say that songwriting’s more important and you have to get out for awhile? And I chose the latter. I just concentrated on writing and falling in love with music just for music’s sake, and not for radio and all the stuff the ends up filling your head when you have a record out.
And now you do have a record out.
I do. This Way is the first record I co-produced. I’ve never been able to sing well in the studio. I was raised performing live, and became really dependent on audience reaction to perform. So when I’m in a studio, in a little booth where it’s very scientific and sterile and contrived, I never felt that inspired. So it was a goal of mine this record to figure out what I needed in the studio to make it more like a live show. So I ended up doing all the vocals live, all the band live, and did kind of a set list from my live shows. I did songs that I’d been playing live for a long time, rock & roll stuff that had just never made it on a record. So it’s a much more eclectic record. I actually like this record the best. It’s the only one that, if I hear it passing by a radio station or something, I don’t kind of cringe.
Why is that?
I’ll probably get to the point where I cringe on this one. It’s kind of like looking back on your eighth grade photos, where you thought you looked really rad that day, and you look back and you’re like, “Ew, the feathered hair and acid washed jeans.” I think it’s just natural.
It sounds to me like you’re having more fun, like this album is looser.
It was nice not to be precious about it at all. I think one of the problems I had in the studio was that everything’s quite precious, and you have to be careful, and everything has to be perfect, and I’m not good at it. I’ve always been off the seat of my pants, and improvising, so having the environment be like that in the studio is easier. Plus, just understanding the technology well enough to know what kinds of sounds I wanted. And we did it fast — two months, no weekends. It was a fast record. And that suits me. I like not thinking about it. First take, done. Get it over with.
Did recording this album change your perspective on your music or music in general?
For me, having more control did wonders. Part of it was just an education: I had to learn the knobs, know what long delay on a voice will do versus a short delay, so when you hear something in your head you know how to ask for it. And the other part, just growing up you get more comfortable with your job, more comfortable with my position. And just realizing that I work better faster, my work comes out better and it sounds less contrived. It sounds more fresh and vibrant, and you can hear that on the record. I think it translates well.
Where and when did you do the writing, and what do you hope the songs convey?
The writing on this record really crosses a broad span of time. A song called “Be That Way” — a live bonus track — I wrote when I was seventeen, and have been performing it forever. A song like “Love Me Just Leave Me Alone” I wrote when I was twenty or twenty-one, and “Break Me” I wrote real recently. “The New Wild West” I wrote real recently. So it really is a broad spectrum. I had three goals in making the record: I wanted it to be produced rather raw, I wanted to focus on arranging the songs well, not having too many instruments but having an interesting arrangement. So there’s not too much information, too much glossy noise happening. I wanted the lyrics and the songs to be provocative. And I wanted the songs to be eclectic. I have probably 500 songs in my catalog, and I just went through pulling out songs that were either like “Jesus Loves You” or like “Break Me” and putting “Break Me” back to back with “Love Me Just Leave Me Alone,” really putting in contrasts. There was no theme or anything like that, except those three goals. I wanted it to be raw, I wanted it to be provocative, and I wanted it to be eclectic, which is much more how my live shows are. So, I guess if there was a larger theme, it would be modeling it after a live show.
Talk about the first single, “Standing Still.”
I wrote it about the supposed irony of how much I move and travel and how I’m in constant motion and how that constant motion can make your love life stand still, and also really your emotional life. I think you see a lot of people in my job where their fame outgrows their emotional ability to cope with fame. It also can outpace your creative ability to keep up with fame. A lot of people lose their artistry, and it’s really very difficult not to. The song is about not standing still within your life, making sure you continue to grow and mature as an artist and a person.
You wrote songs on this album not only for [boyfriend] Ty [Murray] but also with him. What was that collaborative process like?
Ty and I were camping, and we had a cabin and there was no electricity and it was New Year’s Eve, so we were just looking for a way to pass time, and I thought it would be fun to write a song with him. Because unless you go through the process, you really don’t know what’s involved with trying to get a thought into a sentence that sounds pleasing to the air as well as fits with the time signature of the song. So we wrote about something he was familiar with, which was rodeoing. So [“Till We Run Out of Road”] is actually written from his perspective, about being on the rodeo trail and about just giving everything you have to something because you love it. And he wanted to make it universal enough so it didn’t sounds like a cheesy, hokey rodeo “let’s go to Cheyenne” rodeo song. And if you hear it I think it sounds like me being on the road, or about anyone who’s doing something that they love.
It’s funny you say that you want this album to sound like one of your live shows, because the live bonus tracks sound nothing like the rest of the album. What will your live shows in support sound like?
The live bonus tracks are me and guitar, so they obviously don’t sound like a band. But I think it’s going to be a fun live show. It’s going to be a really good time. It will sound a lot like the record, but there are loops on the record, and I don’t tend to like to use loops on the road, or get things too computer driven. I won’t have ProTools, or the other bells and whistles that are on the record, so it will be slightly stripped down.
You said not long ago that after your last album and everything that came along with it, you were just burnt out and needed to get away. What are you doing this time to take care of yourself?
I’m trying to do things in two-to four-week sprints. It used to be that I just never stopped touring ever for six years. This time, I’m only going to tour two to four weeks and then I get a ten-day break where I can . . . sleep. You do not sleep on the road. I do interviews from six in the morning until show time, and then you travel. So sleep, and then catch up on writing, and then go back out and do two to four weeks again. Just pacing it better that way, because as a songwriter I just need to get out and away from things to be able to keep writing.
Whose career, at this point in your own, do you admire and want to emulate?
I’ve looked at people like Neil Young, people who have stayed aware of the social theme to writing. It’s writing to people and not just selling a trend. It’s hard to pull off. Basing a career on trend and being fashionable, musically, is a little more common. People who do it based on songwriting and watching the social climate over a long period of time, that’s really difficult. Not many people pull it off. Bob Dylan’s stayed pretty relevant, Paul Simon, I think Elton John’s done a good job. Those are the careers I tend to look up to most. I toured with Neil Young, back when I was just breaking, and there was a song I was recording that I wrote but I hated it. It was going to be a hit but I hated it — it was just really cheesy. I had this real dilemma because the label wanted it, and I asked him about it, and he said, “Just don’t do it. Don’t do anything you’re not proud of.” I opened up for Neil Young at the Garden, and I was nervous about playing the Garden as solo acoustic, and he said, “This is just another hash house on the road to success. Show ’em no respect.” And that kind of advice is the best advice you can give. Because you can’t cater. You constantly have to be sticking up for music.