Jewel Awakens Fans with ‘Lullaby’
She's one of the most eclectic artists working today, yet somehow it's always a surprise to learn what Jewel is going to do next. Country fans, for instance, were somewhat taken aback in 2008, when the prolific singer-songwriter released 'Perfectly Clear,' a mainstream country album produced by John Rich, with whom she worked as a judge on 'Nashville Star.' That led to a spot on the Brad Paisley Party tour and exposure to even more country fans.
But no matter what genre she embraces, Alaskan-born Jewel Kilcher is first and foremost a storyteller. And although the stories she's telling on her latest album, 'Lullaby,' may seem tailored for children, a closer listen will reveal that this isn't kid's stuff. Sure, it might help to get the young ones to sleep at night, but more to the point, the familiar and unfamiliar among the 15 songs (10 of which she wrote), are really just part of what the artist calls a "mood" record. "It's all just mellow music to come home to, and to relax to," says Jewel, who, as she celebrates her 35th birthday this month, finds herself in one of the most mellow, relaxed phases of what has been, by all accounts, an extraordinary life.
Jewel's creative process was encouraged at an early age by parents who were both musicians. By the age of five, Jewel, along with her brothers, would participate in weekly poetry workshops put on by her mother at home. Not long after that, she was sharing the stage with her parents and performing music in public. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and by the time she was in her teens and attending an arts school in Michigan, Jewel was writing deeply introspective songs on a regular basis. After a series of seemingly dead-end jobs, Jewel -- along with her mother -- entered what has become one of the most talked-about periods of her life. Homeless and living in a van, she began singing in coffee houses and was quickly developing a fan base that remains loyal to this day, no matter what genre of music she's creating.
Along the way, country music fans first got to know the singer (who also does a mean yodel) through 'Nashville Star,' and more recently as a short-lived contestant on 'Dancing with the Stars,' competing against her husband, rodeo star Ty Murray. While, as of this writing, Ty is still dancing among the stars, fractured tibia in both of her knees forced Jewel to quit the show. But the injury has also allowed her to refocus her efforts on music. Much of her time has been spent at home in Stephenville, Texas, recording 'Lullaby,' which includes her versions of classics such as 'Over the Rainbow' and 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.'
In this exclusive interview with The Boot, Jewel talks about the creative process, what she'll do next, and why cowboys don't cry -- in public.
First of all, how are your knees doing? And now Ty has his own 'Dancing With the Stars' injury, with a recent black-eye!
I actually got off my cane last night. Ty's black eye – it was nothing for him. He also had a rib head pop out, but if I hadn't told anybody, no one would ever know, because he won't talk about it. He's a tough cowboy. If it happened to any of the other contestants, it would have been real painful, but he's dealt with a lot of injury and pain his whole career. For the cowboys, it's embarrassing to act hurt. That's why, even after a broken leg, they'll get up and get out of the arena. When Ty watches football or any other sport and he sees people lying on the field too long, it makes him mad. He's like, 'Get off the freakin' field! Don't act like a baby, go handle it in the locker room!' He doesn't like showboating or acting more hurt than you are. He's very stoic about being hurt, and he's very tough. That's how I was raised, too. When you have work to do, you get the work done. I've broken some ribs and had to keep going on with branding [cattle] and things like that.
Has writing always been like therapy for you?
I've had a stressful life – a lot of anxiety. I moved out when I was 15. I've been on my own a long time. I've always had to find ways to soothe myself without drugs. I never did drugs and I never drank, so for me, writing was a tool that I would use to soothe myself. A lot of these songs have just been my own medication, my own way of getting myself through a lot.
One of the unique things about 'Lullaby' is that you included all the verses of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' Like the whole album, that song comes across as much more than just a simple children's song. Is that how you see it?
[That's] a song I'd never really played until I put it on the record. I'd never heard [those other] verses. I just fell in love with the amazing lyrics. It was very songwriter-ly. I thought it really fit on the record. That was fun for me with 'Over the Rainbow,' too, which I've been singing a long time. Finding that intro to 'Over the Rainbow' was great. I'd never heard it before.
Will you do another country album?
The next project's going to be a country album, but I think I'm going to try to do it the way I approached this record. I'll do eight or nine tracks at my home studio, just me and acoustic guitar, and lightly fill it out with just a little bit of mandolin, violin or fiddle -- really organic sounding. And it won't be radio country; it'll just be my songwriting style. And then maybe I'll do just two or three tracks that have a band on them, where I would go for radio. I hope to have a single out in the fall.
Any plans to do another 'Lullaby'-type album?
All of the songs [on this album] I tried to keep not very dark lyrically. Although it's an adult record, I tried to keep it away from dark themes. There is another collection of songs that I'll do as an independent release that'll be pretty stripped down again ... very acoustic driven and very songwriter driven. They cover a wide variety of topics including some real dark ones that my fans will know. They've been famous underground, although they've never made it to a record. There is a song called 'Carnivore' and a song called 'Violet Eyes.' They just don't fit in any category. I don't know what to call them. They're not quite country, they're not quite folk. I don't know. I've never known what to call myself and I guess nobody ever has either.
What's your approach to writing songs? Are you writing all the time for the next record?
One of the great things about being prolific my whole life is I do have a deep catalog. If I didn't write another song, I could put out another country album tomorrow. But I'm always enthralled with seeing what else I can do. It's like mining for gold. Sometimes you come across a real gem. I've been setting up writing appointments where I co-write, because I want to start a writing career for other people, so that other people cover my songs. But you're always looking for a hit for yourself, so one or two of those things will hopefully come out of a session.
What do you think about the state of the music industry these days?
I'm excited by where the music business is on a purely artistic level. I don't think anybody knows where their next paycheck is going to come from. But I love that I'm going to have the freedom to stop thinking about commerciality and just think about music.
Project Clean Water, which you founded with your brothers in 1997, is quite a personal cause for you. What inspired you to start it?
When I was homeless, I had sick kidneys and needed to drink about two gallons of clean, filtered water a day, and I couldn't afford it. I thought if we're having a hard time drinking our tap water in America and bottled water is this expensive, I wonder what it's like in the rest of the world. I vowed if I ever got into a position to help, I would. And amazingly, my life did turn around and I did get in a position to help. One of the first things I did was set up Project Clean Water. We solve water problems for villages. We've put about 35 wells in 15 different countries.
Have you visited any of the locations where the project has helped build wells?
I've never been off work or off tour that long. My brothers go to all of them, and they take video. They have movie night with me when they come back. This last year is really the first time I've taken month breaks. I've pretty much lived on the road since I was 18 years old.
There's been some talk that you're developing a reality show. Anything you can tell us at this point?
People have come to Ty and me and want to do something about our relationship, which we're not that into. But I really like people who love helping people, so I'm trying to see if there's some kind of concept that we can come up with that also would be flexible enough, and not too demanding on my schedule. I don't want have a full-time job in television. As I start to make these more independent records that aren't big and aren't commercial, where I don't have to do a two-year tour to support them, I have a lot of time to do these other projects that are fun and creative and show a different dimension to my personality that maybe this music can't.