If there were a formula to create a successful music artist, growing up in Alaska probably wouldn't be a part of it. Releasing the first song the artist had ever written at 16 years old to lead off a debut album probably wouldn't come into the equation, either. Those aren't typical career beginningsâ€”but Jewel isn't a typical artist. With her recently released Greatest Hits album and total album sales topping 27 million units, four-time Grammy nominee Jewel has taken her unconventional artistry to the top of more than one Billboard chart, while receiving acclaim as a well-respected songwriter in the process.
Signed to a record deal in 1995, during the height of grunge, the folk-inspired pop of Jewel seemed an unlikely fit. "I was very shocked when I got discovered," she says. "I remember thinking, 'This guy's probably going to get fired for wanting to sign me,' and I was very, very surprised that that label wanted me. I heard what was on the radio. I knew I wasn't that kind of artist."
Jewel's continued success, now with hits on country charts as well as pop, has at its core the strength of her writing as much as her talent as a singer. "Writing's always been a part of my heart. It's like breathing to me. It started with poetry and short stories, but morphed into songs." That foundation in writing, along with her appreciation for the artists who inspired her, blended into a style uniquely her own, as she explains. "I never minded sounding like my heroes. In fact, I remember a producer a long time ago saying, 'Right here you sound too much like Rickie Lee Jones' and it never bothered me. If I did have my own sound, I feel like it was because I developed a viewpoint. It's your own thumbprint. I think that's the most important thing you can stand up for is to value that your thoughts are unique and that you have something to say. I never dreamed the whole world would care [she laughs], but I used writing to help myself feel better. It was my tool. It was my therapy. It was me struggling with my own emotions and trying to overcome hardships, so it was a deeply personal thing. All that just came out in my writing."
The deeply personal touch that Jewel put into her work continued as she spent time in Nashville. Releasing the hit albums Perfectly Clear and Sweet and Wild, she escaped the notoriously unsuccessful fate of many pop stars who were looking to crossover into country music. "It wasn't a gimmick for me. I grew up listening to Loretta Lynn as much as I did Joni Mitchell. I love Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash as much as I love Bob Dylan. So, hopefully my success was just from people knowing. Audiences are very smart. They're savvy and they can tell when something's real or not. I think the country environment wants people that are sincere."
As well crafted as her songs are, she doesn't always know which may connect with people right away, as she explains how she felt about "You Were Meant for Me" at the time she wrote it. "I remember thinking it was a really dumb song. It was very simple, maybe a little saccharine. I remember being a little bit embarrassed because I was wanting to write quirkier, more complicated folk stuff. Then you spend the rest of your life trying to write one that dumb again."
Her writing process has evolved a bit over the years as she went from an unsigned artist to a hit singer/songwriter. "Before you become a professional songwriter, you create in a very organic environment. There's no such thing as a hit. There's no such thing as radio. There's just pure exploration. When you become a professional, the chore now is to try and do something organic in an inorganic environment. Suddenly, now you have a deadline. Or you have to have another radio hit on the record. You have very different, very inorganic deadlines to try and create something very organic and effortless sounding, and that's the trick with being a professional."
A talented guitarist with her own unique style, Jewel has amassed a collection of instruments over the years. Her choice when playing live is often a Taylor 914ce, augmented by other Taylor guitars such as her 616ce, 714ce and 814s, as well as her limited-edition signature JKSM model. She has used Taylor instruments from the nearly the beginning, after an unfortunate event left her looking for a new guitar. "When I was homeless, there was a time I was living in a car for part of it. My car got broken into and they stole my guitar. I was kind of getting by with singing in this coffee shop one night a week and I didn't have a guitar. Somebody loaned me one and when Poltz heard about itâ€”my friend Steve Poltzâ€”he was friends with the guys at Taylor and took me in there. That first started my relationship with them. I still have that guitar. It's my favorite, favorite little guitar."
Lately, she has been back to playing that very first Taylor cutaway. "I used to use my open tunings on that guitar, mostly. It just had a really deep, throaty, warm sound, but now that it's gotten broken in after all these years, it honestly sounds great in standard tuning, either fingerpicking or strumming." Describing some of the other guitars she uses live, she says, "With me it's really about tunings. Right now, I'm on tour and I have four guitars up there. It's just easier for me to, instead of going and retuning my guitar every couple of songs, I'll just pick up a different guitar. Then I have one electric out there, a Gibson."
Jewel has a few preferences for how her vocals are handled as well, preferring a Shure KSM32 for her live performances. "In the studio I have a really beautiful Neumann U60. I think it's one of 18 in the world. I stumbled across it and just fell in love with it. It's an astounding sounding mic. I go through some old preamps. They're like tattooed on my heart. I love these preamps," she says, speaking of her recording setup. She owns one of her favorites. "It's really oldâ€”a Telefunken V76."
Coming up on nearly two decades of crafting songs, Jewel is now in a position to guide the up-and-coming songwriters, as she saw her favorites as guides to her. "A couple of things are important to know about yourself. One is to have a viewpoint and to have something to say. If you don't have a strong viewpoint, you just sound like everybody else. You also have to understand if you want to be heard more than you want to be liked and if you want to be great more than you want to be popular. Sometimes you'll make a decision that'll make you very popular, but it won't give you longevity or it won't help you be taken seriously, but it will make you famous. And both are fine. If you want to get famous, that's a great ambition and it's a great career. It'll just make you less tortured to prioritize if you're going to be focusing more on writing and reading and really cultivating and protecting that, versus the other, which you do need to do more networking and more socializing." She goes on to say, "The other I would say is read. I was shocked. I did the songwriting show called Platinum Hits for Bravo and they hadn't read a book. I mean they just hadn't read great work and they weren't writing great work. I think it's fine, even in pop music, if you want to just be a mercenary writerâ€”you still have to have something great to draw on. I think the more you read, the better off you're going to be."
The future may move in any direction for Jewelâ€”since there isn't likely to be a formula added any time soon. She is currently on tour supporting Greatest Hits, will appear as June Carter Cash in Lifetime's Ring of Fire (airing May 27) and has multiple projects in the works to begin right after she comes off the road. As she explains, "I have a Christmas record coming out this year and then I have another folk album I'd like to do. And another country albumâ€”I'm not sure which'll come first." Whatever it is, or whatever comes firstâ€”or nextâ€”for Jewel, chances are it will be far from typical.
Written by Troy Richardson / Photgraphy by Ryan Hunter