A country girl at heart, Jewel goes to Nashville

Times Staff Writer

BACK when she was living in her van, when playing a San Diego coffeehouse was a big gig, Jewel Kilcher had an inspiring vision of fame. She’d read about intellectuals who gathered to find common ground in disparate pursuits, each bringing his or her own ingredient -- a little Klimt, a little Henry Miller and Monet -- to create a magical stew of ideas.

That, she figured, had to be what it was like for the famous and the fabulous in the modern pop music world -- lying about, perhaps, as if they were students in Plato’s academy, swapping songwriting tricks and unusual chord progressions.

“Wrong,” she said.

That would have come as a surprise only to a kid who grew up largely in the wilds of Alaska, playing lumberjack bars with a knife on her belt, prohibited from cutting her hair until it was the same length as Crystal Gayle’s. It turned out, of course, that the pop music world was a petty place, laced with narcissism and insecurity; collaboration can be difficult when one artist’s success is seen as correlated to another’s failure.


So, Jewel set off on her own path, and she’s done pretty well for herself. Since the 1995 release of her debut, “Pieces of You,” she has sold roughly 27 million albums -- about one every 15 seconds, 24 hours a day, for 13 years. All along, she said, she was driven largely by a quest to find authenticity in the music business.

In the last year, she realized it was here all along, in Nashville, where she’d recorded all but one of her records, where the neon signs on Broadway are in the shapes of guitars, where Dolly Parton sang of Music Row: “If you want to be a star, that’s where you’ve got to go.”

For her seventh and latest album, “Perfectly Clear,” Jewel has gone country. Largely self-produced, the album will be released on June 3; its first single, “Stronger Woman,” has been making a robust showing on country radio and the country charts for weeks.

There are subtle suggestions that Jewel, who turned 34 on Friday, has entered a new and strange world. She released two versions of “Stronger Women,” for instance -- one using the word “horny” and another using “frisky” -- to ensure that she wouldn’t ruffle any of Nashville’s conservative feathers. Still, she said, this feels like home. And those who will see her transition as some sort of career overhaul or reinvention -- and she’s been accused of all of that before -- haven’t been paying attention, she said.

“I’ve always loved this town,” she said. “You can throw a rock and hit somebody in the head who is more talented than you.”

Before and after

Today’s Jewel is different, to a degree, from the breathy, mesmerizing ingenue of her teens. She is well-coiffed, businesslike and made-up immaculately. Her appointments are kept for her on a tight schedule, including this one, an interview at Nashville’s century-old Hermitage Hotel, a palace of Italian marble and stained glass.


But at times she is still clearly torn between her old life and her new, still a little stunned, after all this time, at what has befallen her. When the waitress picked up Jewel’s linen napkin from the table, unfurled it and tried to place it on her lap -- they do that for everyone at the Hermitage -- she blushed over the attention.

“Oh, I can do that,” she said with a quiet smile.

If she were discovered today, Jewel said, she would be pegged as a country artist from the start, because the alternative-radio programming that was the foundation of her early career has largely disappeared. “That was a magical window,” she said. “I mean, they would play my songs between Nirvana and Soundgarden.”

Partly as a result, many of today’s songwriters Jewel sees as professional kin -- fellow storytellers like Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley -- rose through the country charts.

“It’s a cool thing that’s happened. And it demands authenticity,” she said. “You either rise or fall based on talent and merit. They don’t really trade on much else.”

That contention will raise a few eyebrows in the music industry. Jewel’s own sense of authenticity has been called into question in the past. And Nashville can be as commercial as it comes, and as a result is enormously divisive in the industry; country-punk renegade Hank Williams III lamented on a 2006 album that country music had been overrun by “these kids from a manufactured town.”

The unvarnished truth, however, according to Jewel, is that she doesn’t particularly need to care if critics or even some fans see her as straying from her roots -- even if she has never come close to replicating the commercial success she found with “Pieces of You.”


“I went from being homeless to selling 11 million copies of that record,” she said with a shrug. “I’m not a real decadent person. I didn’t spend it on cars and houses. Every other record after that, I had nothing to lose. It kind of set me up. It bought me freedom.”

She comes by it naturally

In SPIRIT, if not in genre, Jewel has always been a little country. It comes with the territory when you grow up picking your own heating coal from the hillsides, using an outhouse, curing your own salmon and learning yodeling techniques that your father gleaned from Jimmie Rodgers records.

Country music was the logical soundtrack.

Indeed, Jewel wrote several tracks on the new album when she was a teenager. They include “Perfectly Clear,” a breakup song she wrote at 18 after she became fascinated with picking a moment in time and writing about it from every angle, and “Loved by You (Cowboy Waltz),” which she wrote at 17, inspired by the open range of Alaska.

“She’s always written country-flavored material,” said Alan Bershaw, her Connecticut-based archivist. Jewel requires his services in part because she is a remarkably prolific writer; she has written approximately 400 songs that have never been recorded on an album. It is likely that no one -- including Jewel herself, she points out -- knows more about her catalog.

“I look at this album as going back to her roots,” Bershaw said, “but just giving it a new soundscape. This does have overtly country flavorings. But every album she has done, if you look at them one at a time, they all have an individual sound.”

In the first years of her career, Jewel wanted to talk about those roots, about the evolution of music. She wanted to talk about how her pioneering ancestry -- her grandfather tried to establish an Alaskan commune of craftsmen who could survive the end of the industrialized world -- had informed her songs.


But all everyone else wanted to talk about was the van -- the one she lived in for a spell in her teens. Being homeless was not pleasant, of course, but back then it was painted as almost glamorous, with an unspoken subtext that amounted to: And so pretty too! “It became really cartoonish,” she said.

Entranced, the pop world beckoned, and Jewel began to give in with some regularity, whether that meant singing with Beyonce in a very tiny dress or hawking hair products. But she says she never lost her way.

Exhibit A was her home. She lives primarily on a 2,500-acre ranch in Stephenville, Texas, owned by her boyfriend of 10 years, former rodeo superstar Ty Murray. It’s no “gentleman’s ranch,” she pointed out -- that’s a sissy ranch owned not by cowboys but people playing “cowboy.” It’s a working ranch with 250 “momma cows,” she said, and it has helped her to assiduously limit her contact with Hollywood.

“There are a lot of things about fame that are not conducive to being curious,” she said. “It’s been important for me to cloister myself off.”

Still, she was walking an awkward line between earthy troubadour and plastic diva, and not always with great success. Some fans accused her of selling out after the release of her 2003 album “0304,” on which she traded her acoustic guitar, at times, for a synthesizer and dance-club beats.

The song “Intuition,” the lead single on “0304,” was a wry flambe of crass commercialization. “Sell your sin,” the song said, “just cash in.” It was difficult to reconcile the message with the fact that the song was rolled out to promote razors that were called, and not coincidentally, Intuition. (Today, Jewel calls this a misstep and says the promotional contract was signed without her knowledge.)


On her own

Salvation from an uncertain path, oddly enough, may have come amid tumbling record sales. Jewel’s long and fruitful relationship with Atlantic Records came to a close after the release of “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland” in 2006. Jewel says she decided to move on; Atlantic says the decision was mutual. Regardless, she became a free agent for the first time.

Jewel had been nibbling at the fringe of the country music industry for a while; she has hosted the reality-TV show “Nashville Star,” and sang with country singer-songwriter Jason Michael Carroll on his debut album, “Waitin’ in the Country.”

Jewel had also played several times with a storied, Nashville-based country music co-op of sorts called Muzik Mafia -- and when she decided to jump whole-hog into country music, one of the Mafia founders, John Rich, signed on as co-producer.

Rich is half of the country-rock duo Big & Rich. Jewel said she is well aware that some critics point to Big & Rich -- their signature song is “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)” -- as evidence that country music is not the bastion of authenticity she is looking for. Big & Rich are enormously successful and have helped launch several other prominent artists’ careers, although some purists dismiss them as a commercial novelty act.

But Jewel and Rich soon learned to embrace their differences; he has suggested that they get matching T-shirts, hers reading “I smell flowers” and his reading “I mow them down.” More important, she said, she discovered that Rich was at least as steeped in the history of music as she was. He could draw a direct evolutionary line from Tin Pan Alley-era recordings and Gershwin songs to today’s country music.

“Outwardly, we are opposites,” she said. “But he is a true aficionado.”

“Perfectly Clear” is the debut release for a new independent label based in Nashville, the Valory Music Co. Producing the record herself, meanwhile, gave her enormous latitude over the recordings. She kept them simple, recording the bulk of the songs in two days and keeping them free of the overproduction and overdubs that plague so many of today’s recordings.


“I didn’t wake up one morning and become somebody new,” she said. “I tried to pick the best 11 songs and sing the heck out of them.”