Jewel Comes Riding Back Into Pop Arena

If you saw Jewel sing in the past two years, odds are you're a fan of professional bull riding.

For most of the time since finishing promotional duties for her 1998 album "Spirit" and the 1999 Christmas collection "Joy," her only public performances were renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the bull-riding circuit--where her boyfriend, Ty Murray, is seven-time Professional Rodeo Cowboy Assn. champ.

She was close to making that her only performance venue, period. After a whirlwind stretch of five years in which she sold more than 11 million albums in the U.S., wrote two books, became a fashion icon and co-starred in a movie ("Ride With the Devil"), she was done in.

"I got real tired," says Jewel, 26. "It got real hard for me to keep up with everything. I ended up having to take a lot of time off and wasn't sure I'd want to come back to the business or not. There's a lot about it I love, but a lot that doesn't suit my nature."

Jewel reconnected with her nature while living in the wide-open spaces of Murray's Texas ranch and in the rodeo world. But she also reconnected with her music and is ready to return to the pop life--although she's making sure her nature is reflected in both her upcoming album, due Nov. 13, and her image.

On the latter, she says to expect down-home rather than designer.

"It's every girl's fantasy to get dressed up," she says. "But now I want to be more of what I am in everyday life--blue jeans and messy hair."

The music too will be less glossy this time around. She's traded in the pop sheen of "Spirit," which was produced by frequent Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, and the Christmas sessions, produced by veteran Arif Mardin, for an earthier approach closer to the folk-rock base of her debut, "Pieces of You."

The new material was co-produced by Jewel with Dan Huff (Faith Hill, SheDaisy) in Nashville, and ranges from the expected first single "Standing Still" (which actually could go next to a Faith Hill song on radio) to the gritty "Love Me Just Leave Me Alone" (which would be compatible alongside Melissa Etheridge rockers).

The singer-songwriter even recorded an invitation-only live show set in a Nashville coffeehouse recently, with some of those tracks likely to make it onto the album.

"On the first record it was easy to keep it raw and undone," she says. "Then suddenly people are thinking they have to make hits for radio. I was really protective of the songs this time."

Not that Atlantic executives--and Jewel--aren't looking for hits now. But they agree that it all got a bit out of control before.

"She's become incredibly mature and directed with a really fine sense of herself," Atlantic general manager Ron Shapiro says. "Marketing her now is about letting it be known that where we left her is not really what Jewel is.

"She's not the cover [of fashion magazines]....We're not going to be too precious, not going to take advantage of every opportunity this time, but choose things that are going to let the truth be known about who she's become over the last two years."

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MATCHLESS FRIENDS: The success of Matchbox Twenty has spurred a lot of acts that sound like the Florida-based band. But one with an upcoming release has a greater claim to the sound than the others. An album by Tabitha's Secret, due Oct. 9, sports a lineup that includes Matchbox singer Rob Thomas, drummer Paul Doucette and bassist Brian Yale.

The group, which also featured guitarists Jay Stanley and John Goff, was Matchbox Twenty's precursor but broke up in 1994, with Thomas, Doucette and Yale reconvening as the core of the new band shortly thereafter. However, as Matchbox's success grew, Stanley and Goff negotiated rights to release demo recordings the first band had made.

The rough sessions were originally sold via the Internet, but recently the jilted guitarists used ProTools computer technology to polish the tracks and a deal was made with EMI-distributed Pyramid Records to release an album, coyly titled "Don't Play With Matches." Included is an early acoustic version of "3AM," which later became a Matchbox hit. A single, "And Around," is being sent to rock and adult alternative radio stations.

Stanley and Goff say they've lived up to the release agreement's terms--which means no advertising or cover art mentions of Matchbox or emphasis of the presence of the Matchbox members, and no group publicity photo will be available. But that doesn't make the Matchbox camp happy about the album.

"We and the band know nothing about this," says Matchbox manager Michael Lippman. "They can do anything they want."

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ABOUT THIS BOY: Damon Gough, who under his performing name Badly Drawn Boy won the 2000 Mercury Music Prize for the U.K.'s top album for "The Hour of Bewilderbeast," has been commissioned to write and record the score and soundtrack for "About a Boy," a film based on the novel of the same name by "High Fidelity" author Nick Hornby.

The movie is being directed by Chris and Paul Weitz brothers (who did the "American Pies") and stars Hugh Grant. The release is planned for April. English independent XL Recordings, which releases Badly Drawn Boy's records, has the album rights for the music and is starting talks with major labels about a partnership for the soundtrack album.

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SMALL FACES: Nate Dogg, working on his first album for Elektra Records, has just recorded a track with Dr. Dre producing. Tracks in the can include one with guest Eminem and another produced by Jermaine Dupri. Singer-rapper Nate Dogg received three years' probation last week on a misdemeanor firearms charge....

Following German-language stage productions in Hamburg and Amsterdam, Lou Reed is making an English recording of "POE-try," his collaboration with theater director Robert Wilson based on Edgar Allen Poe works. Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Ashley and Steve Buscemi will be among the voices on the album, with David Bowie, Ornette Coleman and the Blind Boys of Alabama having musical roles. Plans are also in the works for a production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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