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Plain and Simple Suits Her

Marc Weingarten is a regular contributor to Calendar

Although Jewel certainly ranks high among pop music’s nouveau riche, the sprawling mock-Tudor home she shares with her mother in a tranquil area of northern San Diego County is hardly a monument to showy opulence.

Cozy, offhandedly casual and overstuffed with family mementos and “shabby chic” touches, the house bears only the most subtle signs of its owner’s celebrity status, such as Jewel’s 1997 American Music Award for best new artist, which is sandwiched on a shelf beside books on art and Eastern religion.

Yet here she is, just returning home from a vigorous ride on her quarter horse, and looking like a bedraggled ranch hand in her Wrangler jeans and straw cowboy hat.

“Sorry I’m late,” Jewel tells a photographer who’s been cooling his heels for half an hour. “I’ll just be a minute.”

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First, though, Jewel’s mother and manager, Nedra Carroll, gives her daughter a hug and an update on the marathon strategy meeting she’s been having with executives from Jewel’s label, Atlantic Records, regarding “Spirit,” the singer-songwriter’s second album, which will be released Tuesday.

Some hushed confidences are shared, Jewel lets out a few guileless giggles, and then it’s off to the bedroom for a quick make-over--without the aid of a makeup artist or hair stylist, thank you very much.

Fifteen minutes later, a newly spit-polished Jewel emerges wearing hip-hugging black pants and a black silk blouse. “OK, where do you want me?” she resignedly asks the photographer.

Four years after releasing her 10-million-selling “Pieces of You"--one of the dozen most successful recording debut albums in pop music history--Jewel Kilcher is grinding the promotional gears again, this time for an album that may determine whether the Alaska native’s first record was a mandate for long-term success or just a brief shining moment. (See accompanying review.)

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“Spirit” is her second attempt at a follow-up to “Pieces of You.” So concerned was Jewel about making a strong impression the second time around that she spent nearly a month in 1996 recording tracks for a new album. She brought in lots of studio players in an attempt give her sound an edge, only to discover that it didn’t sound like her at all. So she abandoned the nearly completed album altogether.

“The biggest factor was that she was working on it right when ‘Pieces of You’ took off,” says Carroll, “and we found ourselves catapulted out there, and she could never get back to finish it. When the time finally came to make another record two years later, those songs didn’t feel right to her. She didn’t feel comfortable working with a band, and she could hear that in those tracks. Musically and technically, she wasn’t pleased.”

“It was really a growth thing for me,” Jewel says of the aborted second album. “I did it for all the wrong reasons. I was trying to put a record out that was a response to all the criticism I was getting, but it wasn’t sincere to who I was. That’s when I started getting comfortable with the fact that you can only do what you do. It was a good process, though, ‘cause by the time I got to this new record, I was feeling pretty good about myself.”

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Jewel’s rise from struggling folk singer and part-time waitress living out of her car to incipient pop cultural icon has been unusually swift, but even she will tell you it was hardly capricious. After “Pieces of You” slipped under the media’s radar upon its initial release in 1995, this veteran of a thousand bar gigs hit the road for almost three years, and didn’t stop until she got the message across to audiences and radio programmers alike.

“I think Jewel has one of the most extraordinary voices in the world,” says Atlantic executive vice president and general manager Ron Shapiro, whose quest to make “Pieces of You” a bestseller consumed him for three years. “When I first heard her sing her songs, I thought the world needed to stop feeling angry and that there are people in love, and that those were things that were being repressed in music. I felt that she was an anointed messenger of the heart.”

Shapiro and Jewel’s dogged determination yielded astonishing returns, especially considering that “Pieces of You” is primarily a quiet album of introverted acoustic folk-pop. And MTV certainly gave Jewel a leg up by making the videos for such singles as “You Were Meant for Me” and “Foolish Games” playlist fixtures for two years.

“I’ve exceeded every goal I’ve ever had,” says Jewel, who’s finished her photo shoot and is now munching a zucchini-and-turkey lunch in her backyard, which looks out over an immaculate swimming pool and a large grove of orange trees.

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“The initial goal for ‘Pieces of You’ was to sell 30,000 copies, then we were like, ‘Oh, maybe it’ll sell 100,000,’ and then when it sold a million, we were like, ‘Whoa!’ There were a lot of people that wanted to make it a radio record, but it wouldn’t have been me.

“I have to be honest about what I do, and I wanted ‘Spirit’ to show my growth.”

“Pieces of You” may have sold more than any single album by her idols Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but it remains the work of an artist still struggling to find her true writing voice. All of the songs were written when Jewel was a teenager, and are marred by awkward metaphors and the occasional bohemian affectation.

As a result, the collection’s open-hearted if somewhat mannered musings brought on a critical backlash that cast Jewel as the poster girl for the mewling, too-precious flank of the singer-songwriter movement.

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“That was to be expected, especially on a record like that,” she says with typical clear-eyed equanimity. “I could’ve covered my bases so [the critics] would have less to criticize, but that wouldn’t have been me. When you’re 19 and 20, you’re gonna look silly at times. That’s just the way life is. I look at that record like a piece of student art. . . . It wasn’t meant to be evaluated on that kind of level.

“I decided to make this record very representative of what I’ve dealt with emotionally over the past four years, which is: How do you stay balanced and not lose yourself?” says Jewel. “It’s always been in the forefront of my thinking. It’s not me dealing with fame, but with some of the demons that haunt me.”

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Such songs as “Hands” and “Innocence Maintained” track desperate protagonists in search of an emotional connection who wind up clinging to love as a form of hope and, in some cases, transcendence. That’s how Jewel was brought up to regard love--as the spiritual glue that holds a person together, even when self-doubt threatens to consume one.

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“I see so many kids struggling so much with accepting themselves, and it makes me think about: How do you stay kind to yourself when you disappoint yourself?” she says. “A lot of the songs have to do with trying not to despair and have a more positive influence on your own life.”

Although Jewel’s acoustic guitar is “Spirit’s” musical focal point, there is conspicuously more instrumentation on the album, which was produced by Madonna’s chief songwriting partner, Patrick Leonard. But Jewel’s young loyalists shouldn’t fret. It’s all as tasteful and pretty as a Laura Ashley slipcover.

“I knew Patrick wasn’t going to be concerned with what is the coolest, hippest new thing,” she says while polishing off her makeshift meal. “If I was concerned with that, the album would be like a dog wearing a tutu. It just wouldn’t work.”

“Spirit” is being regarded, for obvious reasons, as one of the key albums of the holiday retail season, and it’s certainly an important release for Atlantic, which hopes to make it one of its big albums of 1999. For Jewel, however, it’s just one aspect of what is rapidly becoming a multifaceted career.

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Her first book of poetry, “A Night Without Armor,” sold more than 500,000 copies, and she hopes to deliver a book of prose to its publisher, HarperCollins, by next summer. Her movie debut, co-starring with Skeet Ulrich and Tobey Maguire in director Ang Lee’s Civil War-era film “Ride With the Devil,” will be released next spring.

Still, music remains her primary focus. While Jewel would love to have a long and prosperous movie career, she regards both disciplines as different ways of nurturing the same muse.

“With my first album, I felt like the homecoming queen, but you’re not always gonna be the homecoming queen,” she says. “I’m not a force in music yet. I’m still wet behind the ears. Neil Young is a force in music. If I’m doing this in 20 years, and I’m still doing a good job, then I’ll have something to talk about, but there’s no guarantee. I’m still learning the ropes, ya know what I mean?”


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