Jewel Talks ‘Hiccups’ Along Road to Stardom
Before she conquered the pop and country worlds, Jewel was a master yodeler! And we have the video to prove it ... In this eighth in her series of exclusive blogs for The Boot, the singer/songwriter takes fans back to her childhood in Alaska, where she learned the ropes of entertaining. Jewel also shares photos from the road and an old video filmed during one of her many live performances with her dad, back when she was a little girl with a big voice and an even bigger future.
I started singing professionally at age 6. My parents had a dinner show in Anchorage, Alaska at The Captain Cook hotel. Ships of tourists would come in, and the hotel offered a real Alaska experience with a dinner show of real Alaskan pioneers.
A movie had been shot about my grandparents and how they settled the state, and it was part of the show. My dad wrote songs about the countryside he loved and my mother sang harmony. They also acted out little comedy skits where my dad was a gold miner and my mom wore a feather boa and played a cancan girl.
Around the end of the show, I got up and sang "Chime Bells" with my dad and I yodeled. I learned to yodel at quite a young age simply because my dad mentioned I was too young to yodel like him and I would have to wait until I got a little older. Proving you really are born Type A, I commenced an assault attack on yodeling and had it fairly well figured out by 6 - but not without a price. Learning to yodel sounds like a seal somewhere nearby is being clubbed. The erratic warbling gave off an agitating cry, and the family dog would repeatedly come to my door to see if I needed rescuing. He was really concerned I was dying.
I practiced as I walked down the hallway to kindergarten. I practiced in a hushed whisper during nap time in class. Small yelps would get me shushed, so I would simply practice the tongue twister aspect and not the actual crack. Yodel-a-e a-e-tee yodel-oh-ew-oh-ew-tee, yodel-a-e-a-tee-o-lo-ew-tee ....
By the time I hit the stage at 6, I was very confident in my yodel. I knew the double-whammy and I could do the extremely fast quadruple-whammy, all of which were lost on my fellow classmates. But on stage it was another matter. The tourists seemed to really think I was something. I was very shy and I remember the first time I ever took the stage. My dad made me an outfit to wear. It was between a Swiss get up (my family heritage) and a traditional Alaskan/Russian garb, with hand-embroidered collars and bib and a ruffled white shirt. It was a slice of heaven as far as I was concerned.
I was excited until I walked out on stage. When I saw the lights and the sea of people, well, I had instant buyer's remorse. I was not a ham. I did not eat up the attention. But I had worked really, really hard on my yodel and I wanted to do it. So I steeled myself and looked at the ground shyly as I took my place next to my dad. I came up to the bottom of his guitar. I looked up at him and he handed me a mic to hold. I felt a funny spasm I'm my stomach as my dad launched into the verse. That spasm grew into a hiccup of all things. Great. My dad gave me my cue and so I opened my mouth to unleash my fine fury of Bavarian skill and a hiccup rolled right out along with it. The crowd began to giggle but I don't think it's because they knew I had the hiccups. The just sort of blended in with the yodeling I felt. Yodel-a-e-a-a-HICCUP-tee. It hurt my feelings they were politely laughing and I remember scowling and looking down as I got through the number. I curtsied and walked off stage, proud I had gone through with it.
I had the bug. For some reason I loved practicing. I could practice for hours. I looked forward to getting on stage and doing better than the show before. I was serious about the thing. Deadly serious. The tourists viewed me as something of a novelty and this irked me mildly, for I felt they weren't taking me seriously. They would "ooooh" and "awwww" when I got on stage as if I was nothing more talented than a kitten or a puppy. Puppies don't practice. Kittens don't have skills - they get awwwed over for being furry and cute. I really wanted them to appreciate my artistry. In fact, I suspected one old lady of being quite mean once. She was near the front of the stage, and seemed like a swell gal - sweet and the picture of a perfect grandma - but I heard her plain as day. She leaned over and I thought she said, "Look at her cute pimples." I did not have pimples!
I complained to my dad after the show, and he said, "Surely she did not say that, Jewel." I swore I thought she did. "Tell me exactly what she said."
"Well, she had an accent, and she said dimples."
My dad laughed and said dimples were not pimples, even with an accent. They were the little dints in my cheeks when I smiled. This appeased me somewhat.
In the off season my mom and dad would take the show on the road and travel to remote villages in the arctic tundra and I got to go with them. We would be flown in a bush plane with skis attached and land in an ice field. A dog sled would be waiting for us. I would be given a fur blanket, and in the darkness those dogs would mush so fast, the ice felt like we were flying over it from where I sat in the front of the sled. We would stay at a host's house. A log cabin. I remember eating barbecued moose legs. Whole leg parts - we ate them like ribs! And they were better than ribs. There was fresh cut salted bacon, and other exotic foods. After a night's sleep in a thick goose down comforter, we would be taken to a village school where we would perform. The villages were mostly made of plywood buildings. The natives wore parkas with the fur on the inside where it was warmest and just a simple cloth on the outside.
I remember random things about the villages. I remember learning to join in on my first round. It's a song that is circular in its melody and so each singer can enter a full phrase after the person before them and it still work beautifully. My mom and dad taught me to a song called "Rose Red."
Villages were all dry, we were told - no alcohols permitted. In some villages entire generations of kids had been lost to alcohol, drugs and suicide. There was no one between the age of 15 and 21.
Some of the villages had never seen blonde hair before. I would go into the public bathroom of the school we were performing in to change into my show outfit. Suddenly I felt my hair being pet. I spun around to see other girls my age shrink back and giggle. They were fascinated with my long strawberry hair. It sort of frightened me to be sneak-pet like this, but they were just being friendly, and frankly, I was kind of proud of my hair. I was growing it long, just like Crystal Gayle. And it was coming along nicely, I felt. The locals seemed to agree. As I would walk through the hallways, some grown woman even approached me to touch my hair. We were in a very remote part of the Arctic Circle and televisions did not make it this far north. They had never even seen blonde hair before.
My favorite part of touring in these remote villages was how welcoming they were. After we did our show for them, they felt bound to do a show for us. They would gather in the hall and sit us down, and they would dance and sing. The dances told stories about men going seal hunting, the polar bear stalking the seal and the birds returning in the spring.
They had handmade drums, hand fans and costumes and they smiled while they sang. They also would give me gifts and food, both of which I was quite fond of. In one village I was asked if I'd like Eskimo Ice Cream. Talk about a redundant question. Hell-to the-Yeah! I was sorely disappointed when a bowl of seal oil, frozen berries, sugar and snow were all mixed together and placed in front of me. It really did not taste good. The hostess told me that this was the good stuff - the other version is made with Crisco instead of seal oil - just a lump of shortening with sugar and berries mixed in. Clearly this ancient group of people that dated back to pre-ice age had learned much about survival, but the finer points of baking were certainly left to be desired.
I began touring more after my parents' divorce when I was 8. My dad and I became the act and I began 5-hour set s in bars and restaurants in Homer. We would also travel to Fairbanks for the fair, or to Seldovia, Soldatna, Eagle River, Anchorage and many places in between to play bars. Mostly it was him and I. Sometimes Dad would put bands together if it was a place that wanted folks to dance. Sometime rooms would be given to us and other times we would just pitch a tent on a nearby beach and the whole band would camp out together.
I was always around adults - and often drunk adults, which caused me to go the opposite route. I wanted my wits about me the whole time. I felt honored to get to watch people the way I could. The bar patrons and the owners and the musicians and everyone were just so raw. It was raw life unfolding. It was dramatic and red-faced and teary-eyed, full of hope and despair at the same time. It was people drinking away their problems or newlyweds swaying slowly to the fast songs and it was waitresses flirting for tips and it was bartenders who short-changed the extremely drunk or sometimes slipped a down-and-outer a freebie. It was fundraisers for a coffin for a man who killed himself and who no family or money to bury him. It was other local musicians fighting for the title of the best entertainer. It was long, dark winters spent in sweaty juke joints where the fisherman waited for the thaw and for things to start running again. It was communities eating burgers and attending bank openings. We sang at everything you could imagine. The opening of ERA airlines in Homer. We sang in front of the trailer that would serve as the makeshift terminal for years.
It was sweaty drunks pressing dimes into my hands and telling me to call them when I was sixteen while they winked at me and their cheeks swallowed their eyes as they smiled toothless - gums touching gums I imagined. It was war vets staring at half full pitchers and school kids all trying to live it up with fake IDs. It was Japanese tourists who were reserved sober and wild as heck with a few drinks in them.
My dad never did set lists and taught me to read the crowds. I loved that part. Every crowd has a different feel every night, and if you stay in tune with that you can lead them like a dance partner. You can feel for the crowd and guide it and control it instead of it controlling you, or instead of you just leaving the crowd behind, determined to stick with a set list that interests no one.
When I struck out on my own and began to do my own shows, I loved taking the crowd by the hand and taking us on an adventure. We would laugh, cry, and everything in between.
All this experience gave me a great head start when I got signed to a label. I was able to open for Bauhaus or the Ramones, and hold my own with the Goth kids or the punk crowd. I was confident and comfortable that I could win any crowd over if I just kept at it. I refused to let people talk through my shows. I made them listen one way or another, even if it was just by shocking them with a warp speed yodel. I didn't always have the show I wanted, but I never quit trying to.
I was confident until one day in NYC. I was opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse, his hard rocking band. We were playing MSG that night and I must have looked green, because Neil stopped me as I walked by a common area: "You look nervous," he said.
"No s---?!" I thought.
"Why are you nervous?"
I said, "Because you're Neil Young and you have a stack of electric amps that reach into heaven and I'm solo acoustic and we are playing The Garden!"
I was terrified the hard rocking male crowd would eat me alive in this historic venue. I thought this would make him laugh and that he'd tell me to shake it off, but instead he got very serious. He turned to face me full on and he put his finger in my face and said, "This is just another hash house on the road to success, you show them no respect." Boy, did I feel empowered then! I felt like I could chew through metal. Yeah! I'd get out there and take control of that crowd! But how? I puzzled as I walked out to the dark stage. It came to me as the spotlight struck me. Silence. Silence was the only thing I could beat them with. Everyone was so loud and as I stood there and did nothing they began to wonder what was going on. I stared and smiled into the eyes of those I could see, and kept quiet until the entire room settled slowly, waiting for something to happen. People began to shush each other until finally the stadium fell silent. Armed with just my guitar, I started with the quietest song I had, "Angel Standing By." I began the harmonics and they chimed faintly, filling the darkness. And then I started singing in just a whisper, so people almost had to hold their breath to hear. I had them!
Through relentless touring, endless efforts from my label, and a break on Conan, my career took off, and I began to tour the world. I racked up a million miles in my mid 20s and became part of the elite group of high mileage travelers that Up In The Air spoke of. But again, the part I loved, the perk for me, was seeing all that raw life taking place in front of me. My circle had grown from Alaska to the world, and I was able to peek behind the curtains of so many socio-economic groups and cultures. I was able to see working class Brits with their thick accents talk proudly of a certain car they had, or their kid that was gonna be a boxer, or the snooty and insecure socialite who looked at her reflection disparagingly when she thought no one could see, or the confident businessman in Bangkok who would deflate like a balloon the second his clients left the room. Or the prostitutes of Ping Pong Alley that danced for the tourists, waiting to catch one of their eyes. Life was taking place in front of me in the most elemental ways. Cabbies talking of the beheading and political unrest in Kualalampur. The tender embrace of a teenage couple, holding hands on the train in Japan. The wealthy couple in first class giving me dirty looks because I had bare feet and unbrushed hair as we took off out of Zurich. They made the stewardess give me socks so my bare feet wouldn't show. Putting my sandals on would not do for them. They thought I was beneath them and should not be in first class. I loved it. I loved it all. But mostly I loved walking on stage each night, feeling the warmth of that spotlight on me, like it was the sun finding me through the stained glass window of a church. I would open my mouth and pray my simple words, and was able to feel the crowd join me in revealing their deepest hopes and fears, like a confessional, we left it all to hang in the air before us, to become new again.
That's why I still tour solo acoustic. It's best to be alone on stage for this type of thing. There is nothing between me and the crowd, and by the end it feels like one heart beat. My tour starts in June, and I do a crazy run - 22 shows in 27 days. I like to sing every night with no nights off so I can tour shorter periods of time. That way I can have my cake and eat it too. I can tour in concise bursts which allows me to spend time at home without spending 2 years away at a time.
I love my job. I love everything about it. I can't believe I get paid to do something I love so much.
This tour I partnered with Country Financial and they are offering some very cool things to make the experience even better for my fans. They reserved seats in the front of the house so fans can upgrade their seats by texting in a chance to win them right then and there. They are also giving fans a chance to win a trip to see me play my own songs with a full orchestra in Nashville this November. If you want more info on where I'm touring click here. For info on how to win the cool prizes and perks from Country Financial, click here.
Hopefully I will see you on the road!