Jewel sparkles in tough times

Despite financial struggles and heartbreaks, the American megastar is taking it all in her stride, choosing family over fame and forgiveness over bitterness

NEW YORK • She has sung for a pope and a president, but at a recent show, Jewel styled her own hair and sang Christmas carols with her dad at a cosy theatre in Hershey, a small town in Pennsylvania.

It is a dramatic drop in altitude for the folk singer-turned-megastar, whose debut album went platinum 15 times over in the 1990s, when she posed for the cover of Time magazine and sang duets with Bob Dylan.

But Jewel Kilcher - who became first-name famous - said this is exactly the life she had hoped for.

"Fame doesn't always happen at a human pace," she said, her lips curving into an enigmatic half-smile immortalised on the cover of her 1995 debut Pieces Of You.

"Fame happens sometimes at a pace that causes a lot of psychological problems. So my mission, No. 1, was to be a happy, whole human; and No. 2 was to be a musician."

At 43, Jewel is also a best-selling poet and occasional actress - she stars in Hallmark Channel's Fixer Upper mystery movie series. She is also a single mum to a six-year-old boy who lives with her in Nashville.

On the music front, Jewel is on tour with her family by her side and she is also working with Cirque du Soleil to present a biographical one-night show in March.
On the music front, Jewel is on tour with her family by her side and she is also working with Cirque du Soleil to present a biographical one-night show in March. PHOTO: JEWEL/INSTAGRAM

In song, she can summon many voices - deep and powerful, girlish and sweet, piercing and agile.

In conversation, she exudes a thoughtful warmth, calling to mind the word so often assigned to her by fans and critics: earnest.

Fortunately, she does not mind it.

"I never saw that as an insult. I think there's a danger in all of our jobs when we become too proficient at them. There's something very, very special about the beginning of anyone's career.

"Because that's when you're innovative, because no one has told you the rules that you've to operate by."

So, yes, she thinks she sounds an awful lot like Kermit the Frog on Pieces Of You, a record she described in her 2015 memoir as "full of mistakes", but also "honest".

And she will allow that her best-selling book of poetry - 1998's A Night Without Armour - is filled with all the angst one might expect from an expressive soul fumbling through the teen and early 20something years - because that was who she was then.

"I never liked art as propaganda, where people make themselves seem more perfect or more polished or more educated or more mature than they are," she added.

Marilyn Manson - the infamous goth rocker - once pulled Jewel aside to tell her that his favourite song of hers was I'm Sensitive.

The lyrics go: "Your words can crush things that are unseen/So please be careful with me, I'm sensitive/And I'd like to stay that way."

In an era still gripped by grunge, Jewel climbed to the top of the pop charts with sweet, simple folk tunes.

Her poetry collection sold more than two million copies, becoming one of the top-selling volumes of poetry in American history.

She has always tried to offer answers through song, poetry, prose and, now, as an entrepreneur.

Last year, she launched Jewel Inc, whose offerings include Whole Human, a mindfulness-focused programme that markets training resources to companies and schools.

"These lessons took me 40 years to figure out and it was a messy journey for me," said the singer who grew up in a log cabin in Alaska.

Her family was filled with artists and musicians who survived largely on animals they hunted and produce they could grow.

At five, she began singing in hotels and restaurants with her family. Three years later, her parents divorced. Jewel and her two brothers stayed with their father, a Vietnam veteran who struggled with alcoholism.

At 18, she moved to San Diego to pursue her music career. About a year later, Atlantic Records wanted to sign her. When her stardom grew overwhelming, she took a two-year break after her sophomore record, 1998's Spirit.

"I didn't like that level of fame," she said. "That's a strange thing to say, maybe, but I slowed it down. And I realised I had the power to do that. I never had to give up my authenticity."

That fortitude was further tested by new challenges - the heartbreak of failed romances and a divorce.

In 2003, she learnt that her mother - who had acted as her business manager since the start of her career - had mismanaged the finances, leaving the singer millions of dollars in debt. The two have been estranged since.

Jewel's struggles have made her only more resilient, she said, and she has never hesitated to share them openly - in her music, writing and, soon, on a stage in Las Vegas.

She is working with Cirque du Soleil to present a biographical one-night show in March.

"I gained a skill set where no matter what I was faced with, I realised I can overcome it and I can pick myself up, I can figure out what I can do better and I can forgive and move on and go back to the drawing board , and never felt like a victim.

"I just didn't know that it would lead me to a second phase in my career."

On the music front, it is also the first time that her family - son, father and brothers - have joined her for a full tour. Her dad is sober now and a celebrity in his own right, starring with his sons on Discovery Channel reality show Alaska: The Last Frontier.

The show, which profiles the lives of the family on their remote homestead, is in its seventh season.

"My dad's a miracle. He changed in his 60s. And for anybody out there struggling with shame or addiction or the fear that so much of their life has gone in a certain direction and it's too late to change it, my dad is proof that that isn't the case," she noted.

In Hershey, there is proof, too, that the venue is not the Vatican or the White House. There are no superstars sharing her stage, but she is surrounded by her band and family.

"I feel so far from where I've been," Jewel sang and she is exactly where she wants to be.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2018, with the headline 'Jewel sparkles in tough times'. Print Edition | Subscribe