At first glance, it might seem like a stretch to compare Jewel to Patti Smith. Jewel Kilcher, after all, is a blonde-haired Alaskan in her 40s, best known by many people for ballads like “Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant for Me” and “Hands.” Smith, by contrast, is a septuagenarian who grew up mainly in New Jersey and who is a rocker at heart. Where Jewel’s work can sometimes verge on Hallmark-style sentiments, Smith is not averse to using “fuck” or even the N-word in her lyrics.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the two have more in common than you might think. For starters, both Jewel and Smith are singer-songwriters at their core and both were influenced by some of the same people (Neil Young, to name one). Both are not just singer-songwriters, however; they are true artists who are as likely to release a book of poetry or to immerse themselves in visual art as they are to make an album. Both have taken extended breathers from the grind that is the music business to raise children — and they are as serious about motherhood as they are about music.
But perhaps the way that Jewel and Smith are most similar is that they are two of the most resilient people — male or female — in popular music. Both have weathered significant, if very different, losses. It’s well known that Smith has lost a lot of her loved ones (including her husband and her brother in the stretch of a month). Jewel has gone through her own share of loss, even though she is a generation younger. Prior to being discovered, of course, she spent some time living out of her car on the West coast. More recently, she was divorced from Ty Murray, a rodeo superstar and the father of her son Kase. And while Jewel’s mother — who is also her former manager — is still alive, the two have not spoken in years. In her memoir, Never Broken, Jewel discusses these and other events (ranging from the loneliness of being the perpetual new kid when she was growing up to dealing with sexism in the music industry and beyond) in excruciatingly honest terms. If you only know Jewel from her hits, you may be surprised to discover how diverse her catalog is and also how inspiring her resilience is on a purely human level.
After taking some time to focus on transition to life as a single Mom and other things (she’s also a philanthropist), Jewel returned to music recently in a big way. Hot on the heels of her victory on The Masked Singer a few months back, she has unveiled her first album in a record seven years. Freewheelin’ Woman, released on April 15th, was produced by Butch Walker and includes a dozen new songs plus two bonus tracks. It is her ninth studio effort, not including children’s albums and holiday discs. Much of the material on Freewheelin’ Woman leans toward R&B. This may surprise some people, but longtime fans know that Jewel A) has always loved that genre and B) never makes the same album twice. The R&B influence is in full effect on “Long Way Round,” “No More Tears” (a duet with Darius Rucker) and “Grateful,” which is her homage to the late Bill Withers. But those who prefer Jewel’s ballads and pop-dance songs won’t be disappointed, as “When You Loved Me” and “Alibis” make clear respectively. Her voice sounds better than it ever has — which, she says, is a result of writing for her register for the first time.
I recently had the pleasure of talking with Jewel for BUST. We covered everything from her new album to her musical influences to the The Masked Singer.
BUST: This is your first album in seven years which, for you, is a long time. Tell me a little about why now and a little about making it.
JEWEL: Yeah! I guess, like any writer, I wanna create a broader context.
When I got discovered, I made a promise to myself that my number one job would be to learn how to be happy. ‘Cause I knew I wasn’t. And I had so much emotional baggage that if you make somebody like me famous, it could end up [damaging]. I almost didn’t sign my record deal because of that fear. So I made myself this promise that I would learn how to be happy and my number two job would be to learn to be an artist or a musician — and that I would choose art over fame. So every decision I’ve made in my career has been set to that matrix. I have those North stars that govern me.
But Pieces of You, first of all, got way bigger than anybody thought — me especially! (laughs) And then I went right into [the song] “Hands,” which thankfully was successful. But I think around that time, it was just so psychologically overwhelming that I quit for two years before I made that third album, This Way. And in that two years, I was just rethinking that promise to myself — that I would pay attention to my mental health above everything else. The words “mental health” didn’t even exist! That wasn’t even a term or a phrase at that point. But that’s what I was doing. I realized that I did better [when I was] less famous. You know, not great for your career but much better for my mental health.
Artistically, I knew I wanted to take risks and keep being outside of my comfort zone. That’s why I kept making different types of records and pushing myself as a writer. That kind of leads you to where I am today. You know, the seven year window. It wasn’t supposed to be seven years; I think I started [with a] three [or] four year break. I had a young boy and was a single Mom. And my commitment to parenthood was really serious. Nobody talks [about] what it’s like to be a female musician and a Mom. So learning how to tour and create nap schedules — you get up even though you’ve had three hours of sleep — this was really hard for me to figure out! And taking my son to school, obviously. So the commitment to that [involved] a really long break.
And I wanted this to be the first album that I wrote from the ground up. It’s weird but in my 25-year career, this is the first album that I wrote from scratch. I’ve always had thousands of songs in my back catalog. I’m always writing country songs and pop songs and folk songs. So for any genre album, I could just pull 10 together and write maybe one or two [new ones] per project. [But] for this album, I wanted every single song to be representative of who I am and where I am now. And that took awhile. I wrote 200 songs to get the [ones] I like for this album! So that was a long process.
Then COVID hit and that was another two years. And here we are! That’s my larger context! How was that?
B: It’s interesting that you say mental health wasn’t talked about [back then] and that people don’t talk about what it’s like to be a single Mom. [When] I talked to Dar Williams, she told me that when she became a Mom, she worried that she was gonna wake up one day and not have anything to write about anymore. Is that a feeling or thought you’ve had?
J: Mmm-hmmm. (laughs) I mentor a lot of young musician Moms now. Just to help them. Because there’s so much guilt and it’s such a draining job. And not many women have our job. You know, there’s very few women in our industry and very few women that make it through the transition. Women just disappear — especially singer-songwriters. There’s people that have figured it out; it’s not common but it has been done. Joni Mitchell just kind of disappeared. Rickie Lee Jones just kind of disappeared. You’re supposed to stay young and sex-kittenish, I guess. Hide that you have children and come back and try and be hot. None of that is my deal.
This is the best time of my life. I’m at the height of my prowess! I’m a better writer and a better singer. I think I’m much more powerful intellectually and emotionally. And even doing the TV shows I’ve been doing — like The Masked Singer and The American Song Contest — are just because it’s like, “I am a single Mom.” I do not have time to promote an album for two years. So I’m looking for broad things that I can do in two weeks and then go home.
B: I guess she [Rickie Lee Jones] was in her mid-20s when the first album came out. At the time, she was young and she was a great writer but she was also sexy and she was on the cover of Rolling Stone. She’s in her 60s now and she said she walks into grocery stores sometimes and people ignore her because she’s a middle-aged woman. And she said she feels invisible — which I thought was also really interesting.
J: She’s wildly under-appreciated and was always such a badass, you know? Like when she would get compared to Joni Mitchell, she’d say, “Why? ‘Cause I’m blonde and I’m a female? I have more in common with” — and she’d name male artists. She’s just always a badass!
B: She is. It’s funny [but] one of the things that she does — and I was gonna ask you about this — I’ve noticed that every album or two, you switch it up. You started out very much as a singer-songwriter. But you’ve also done a couple of kids’ albums, you’ve done a couple of holiday albums, you did a sort of dance-pop record, you did a country album. Is that by design or is it just [that] you go wherever your muse takes you?
J: You know, I was mentored by Dylan and by Neil Young. They definitely impressed upon me that being a singer-songwriter is different. [For] any artist, making a living is already difficult. But a part of the singer-songwriter is shaped by wanting to constantly write about culture. You know, not just trying to write a hit [but also writing] a love letter to humanity. So I feel like that has shaped every album.
So a song like “Intuition,” that was a pop song — [that] was about following your heart. It was not about a relationship. Writing a pop song that isn’t about a relationship is really hard! And so to me, that singer-songwriter lens has been what remains consistent in my work. Whether it has an accordion on it or a banjo on it or a cello on it or — I don’t know, an electric guitar. To me, it’s [like] if I get out of bed that day and I wanna wear yoga pants or I wanna wear a cocktail dress or I feel like wearing slacks. That’s just clothing. Nobody thinks I’m inconsistent because I wear sweatpants one day and a gown the next day. I always find it really funny that there’s an emphasis on genre — especially when the consistency of message is here.
[That’s] a long way of saying my heroes really inspired me to be courageous. To remain uncomfortable. What’s that David Bowie quote? “I think it’s terrible for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations.” You know, if I had made “You Were Meant for Me [part] Two or Three,” that would have been selling out. Making “Intuition” was not selling out! That was risky. That was me saying, “I wanna keep being uncomfortable [and] pushing myself.” And whether it’s successful or not is always beyond your control. You have to just continually make courageous decisions for authentic reasons.
B: Your voice sounds great on this album. On a couple of songs, there’s a definite R&B touch. I [read] that some of your influences were people like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. Can you tell me a little more about that?
J: I really cut my teeth on jazz and blues and the American Standards songbook. Ella Fitzgerald — she’s how I learned to sing [and] got my vocal control. Learning to do all of her color changes, her tone changes, the vocal agility — learning that type of control from her was remarkable. I [also] loved her playfulness.
Sarah Vaughn had a gravitas. Her breath control is very [underrated] in my opinion. To me, singing is about the regulation of breath. How many tones and colors you can fit into one breath. How many times you can carry over the phrase into the next phrase, changing your tone. You know — full lower register, all in a single breath, marks greatness in my opinion. And Sarah Vaughn is that. I would listen to her live version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and it’s just — I get chills just talking about it. You know, it’s transcendent.
B: I wanna ask you about “No More Tears,” your duet with Darius Rucker. What was creating this song with him like?
J: It was fun. This was the first song I wrote for the new project, the one that started it off and set the tone. To me, it was a really high bar; I really like that song! (laughs) And I felt like every song kinda had to live up to that one.
Deciding to do it as a duet came later. I was just thinking that it would nice to have somebody else’s voice on the record. I heard Darius do some Gospel stuff and I was really impressed and decided to give it a go.
B: Tell us a bit about your foundation, Inspiring Children.
J: In the last 18 [or] 19 years, I helped form a children’s non-profit around mental health. I wanted to [share] the tools I developed for myself when I was 15, to help me rewire anxiety disorders, panic attacks, [being] physically attacked [and] agoraphobia. You know, creating new neural pathways and new habits. A lot of this worked for other kids — kids that didn’t have access to traditional support systems like therapy or even family systems. So that’s what we’ve been refining and building for [almost] 20 years. We work with at-risk youth that have suicidal ideation, anxiety disorders, eating disorders. And we have developed a psychological tool kit that really works. We’ve never lost a kid. [We] have the number two tennis academy in the country. We have the highest graduation and college scholarship rate, I think, in the country. 99 percent of our kids earn their own college scholarships, 74 percent of the are Ivy League. So it works.
B: What women influenced you? They can be musical influences but they don’t have to be. Just women that you saw as mentors either growing up or even later.
J: My aunts really influenced me. All the homestead women that shoed their own horses [in Alaska] and sawed their own trees. [They were] wildly independent, capable, intelligent. I was never taught that my brain had a sex. I was never taught I was inferior because I was a female. I was expected to fix things. My grandmother, the one who raised those girls, was [also] a big influence. She was a poetess and a writer.
Flannery O’Connor. Incredible short story writer. Her character studies were a big influence on [me]. Like “Half Life” is a song on this album that’s like a character study. Very influenced by her. And then yeah, Rickie Lee. Sarah Vaughn. So many.
B: Is there anything else you’re planning for later in 2022?
J: I am going on tour. I’ll go out with Train and Blues Traveler this summer.
And — oh my God! How did I forget Mary Oliver or Alice Walker! (laughs) There’s so many great female poets that are suddenly [coming to mind].
B: Go for it!
J: Nina Simone. Odetta. Josephine Baker.
What were we saying? Tour this summer? I finished a book, too. I haven’t sold it yet. I’m still working on that. But Eckhart Tolle was my first editor, which is crazy!
J: Yeah, I know. It’s surreal.
B: You’ve mentioned Neil Young a couple of times. Obviously, Neil had a big public dispute [recently] with Joe Rogan. And I know you also appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast a few months back. Rogan and Neil have very different ideas about vaccination. I’m wondering what your thoughts on vaccines are and what the pandemic has been like for you.
J: Wow… I guess what I will say is that I supported them both publicly. And it was only reported that I commented on Joe’s post when he issued a video apology. I thought his apology was incredibly sincere. And I think that’s good, I think that’s the point of activism. Joe’s entitled to his freedom of speech. Neil is entitled to the right to protest, and he’s well within his rights.
I love our Constitution. I love the freedom that it affords us. So I find both of those people really heroic in their participation in life and society. They’re showing up. We need men like this, both of [them]. You don’t have to agree with everything either of them [is] doing. I think we do have to support that these are engaged, participation-oriented people. We need people like Neil or like Joe, that are willing to be wildly uncomfortable, right? Because they both did something that’s very uncomfortable. (laughs)
J: In a really black and white world, I saw the unity [between Young and Rogan]. It’s just the way they feel like expressing things is different. But if as Americans, we can’t see the similarity and support both of them — I was shocked I was the only person that supported both of them. And then I was shocked that it didn’t get reported! Somehow, [the media thought] I just commented on Joe’s post, which was funny. I also Tweeted about Neil. So yeah — that’s what I think about them.
B: On a lighter note, you won the last season of The Masked Singer. Why did you decide to go on a mainstream reality show?
J: It was really a fun show for me. Again, looking for opportunities as a Mom where I”m not gonna spend two years touring and promoting an album. I’m looking for things that let me work for short periods of time that hopefully get the word out there. The Masked Singer definitely fit that bill. And it let me do something I’ve never been able to focus on my entire career, which is my technical ability as a singer. You know, I mentioned earlier — I’m a much better singer than I tend to write for.
And it was actually really soulful! In my mental health foundation, we teach our kids that your self-worth should never be extrinsic. You can’t put your self-worth outside of you, in something that can be taken away — like your job title or if you’re a student or if you’re a Mom. You have to find a really intrinsic sense of who you are. In a weird way, the show does that. Because it takes your name away, it takes away where you’re born, it takes away whether you’re famous or not. For me, as the Queen Of Hearts, it really was just sharing my most essential self — which is my heart and my emotionality. So it ended up being an oddly soulful experience!
B: Interesting! Not necessarily what one would expect. What you just said about defining yourself — I think people do that with everything. Define themselves by their relationship, job title, even political party.
J: Yeah! And that’s why we’re so sensitive, you know? One of the problems with our climate right now, and our country, is we have such an eroded sense of our most essential self. You can only find that in quiet. You can only find that when you’re not distracted. You can only find it in the harder moments in your life. And when you don’t have that sense of yourself, you’re insecure — and you double down on the stuff that doesn’t really matter. Not that politics don’t matter. Not that these issues don’t matter. But it isn’t all that we are.
photos: Dana Trippe