Jewel Kilcher has the year's most unlikely alternative-rock radio hit: "Who Will Save Your Soul," a lilting folk tune that shares few of the aggressive or self-consciously hip elements normally prized on the format.
When the song comes on, say, KR0Q-FM, it's easy to think you've pushed the wrong button on the car radio.
There's no sly sexual innuendo peeking out from Jewel's questioning of religious institutions. No gut-wrenching, hair-tearing shrieks claw the song's bridge.
In sharp contrast to the many shock divas these days, Jewel (who uses just her first name) is reminiscent of the poetic grace of Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones.
Throughout her debut Atlantic Records album, "Pieces of You," she champions self-knowledge and kindness in a world that she sees as rife with hypocrisy and greed. And--get this--Jewel means every single word.
"I don't know radio very well, but I know that people are ready to start feeling hope again," Jewel, 21, says over pancakes and honey at a Venice Beach sidewalk cafe, where her sun-kissed, surfy beauty seems discordantly genuine against the restaurant's boho grit.
"I don't think there are any true cynics alive. They all killed themselves. And I don't think cynicism's necessarily smarter, it's just safer."
Maybe Jewel is right, but it took quite awhile for the pop world to catch on to her music and message.
A full 15 months after the release of her debut album, the collection has begun a dramatic move up the charts. It is in the Top 50 nationally on the latest Billboard sales survey, and in the Top 20 in Southern California.
But Jewel--who headlines tonight at the John Anson Ford Theatre--is accustomed to unusual twists. The young singer-songwriter's upbringing was anything but conventional.
Jewel's childhood home was an Alaskan homestead, where her folk-singing parents lived off the land. That sometimes meant Jewel went to school with cow-tongue sandwiches for lunch.
Her parents stoked a love of music, exposing Jewel to such artists as Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. (She says she only heard Joni Mitchell, whom critics invariably cite as an influence, after "Pieces of You"' was released.)
At 16, the youngster showed her ingenuity by raising enough money through singing to finance a two-year stay at a boarding school in Michigan, where she studied performing arts. At 18 she joined her now-divorced mother in San Diego, where the pair lived together and Jewel began forming her musical vision in clubs and coffeehouses.
She worked for a while as a waitress but quit, she says, after being sexually harassed by her boss. The experience soured her on the 9-to-5 life.
"My mom said, 'Let's just move into our cars and do what we like,' " she says.
That's where Jewel was living--in a van, surviving on carrots and peanut butter while surfing and writing songs--when her long-standing stint at San Diego's Innerchange coffeehouse fueled a buzz that reached record-label offices in Los Angeles. She signed with Atlantic in 1994, and her album came out in February 1995.
Because she released a folk-flavored album in the era of grunge and rap, Jewel knew she'd have to work hard to find an audience. She has performed as many as four sets a day wherever she could find a stage, including high schools and coffeehouses, as well as opening shows for such varied artists as Bob Dylan, Peter Murphy, Liz Phair and the Ramones. She even played Dorothy alongside Jackson Browne, Roger Daltrey and Natalie Cole in a concert version of "The Wizard of Oz" last fall at Lincoln Center in New York.
By accepting any gig she could snag, Jewel has helped turn "Pieces of You" into a hit, even if some of the gigs pushed her into alien territory for a folk-circuit wordsmith.
"I hosted MTV's 'Alternative Nation' and watched the show that night," she recalls. "All the other videos were the most angry, dark, depressing--and then along came my little song. I thought it was hilarious, this dorky little thing after [the group] Marilyn Manson."
Jewel wrote that "dorky little thing" four years ago, waiting for a bus next to a Catholic school.
About "Who Will Save Your Soul," she adds, "We can make each other's lives worth living . . . even miraculous . . . or we can make it just hellish and spread a lot of crap. That's what the song was kinda about for me."
Jewel pauses and reflects on all the changes in her life.
"Sometimes I have to keep pinching myself to think that from living in a van two years ago to now . . . it's just so surreal," she says. "I always thought I would steal toilet paper from fast-food restaurants and scrap food off people's plates from where I worked. . . . "
* Jewel plays tonight at the John Anson Ford Theatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, 8 p.m. Sold out. (213) 974-1343.