Grrrly Talk: Q&A with Jewel, Playing at the Fillmore Tuesday, November 3
Jewel's new album Lullaby
New Times: A lot of people don't know how tough you are, they hear these sensitive, thoughtful songs, and they make assumptions that you're a softy. But you're a misfit in many ways. Do you ever miss your vagabond lifestyle?
Jewel: My childhood was difficult in a lot of ways and really great in a lot of ways. I feel really blessed that I was able to be raised outdoors, and be raised in Alaska with music as an outlet. Writing always gave me an outlet that I think kept me from doing drugs and helped me deal with a lifestyle that was kind of difficult. I moved out when I was 15, and I was raised by a single father who did the best that he could with three kids by himself. And I grew up singing in bars.
I've always been a very observant person, I've always had a writer's heart, I think. I've always really enjoyed watching people and kind of watching them closely, and I guess I was always drawn to writers who were really honest. And so I became, at a young age, attracted to writers like Bukowski... I really appreciated their honesty and their willingness to show their flaws as much as their talent.
I think a lot of people tend to use the media or talent as a sort of propaganda machine to make themselves seem more perfect than they are. And I think that alienates the people watching or listening. It did to me at least as a kid. And I thought, you know, I gotta tell the truth somewhere and I might as well tell the truth in my writing. I tried to find a balance being tough in an environment that kind of required me to be on my toes and a little bit street smart and at the same time without letting it harden the sensitive parts of me that I really liked and that made me feel happy.
And so my life kind of became a balance, trying to learn how to balance, but I wasn't always great at it. I've always been kind of a little bit, I wouldn't say scrappy is the right word, but it's [like] a certain type of pride. Not the type of pride that would keep me from cleaning toilets for money because I would do anything to try and support myself and figure out a way to make a living. But at the same time I wouldn't take anything. Like if a boss wanted to fire me, because I wouldn't sleep with him. I was like, "Fire me." I've always kind of had a real fighter's attitude and fighter's spirit of "I won't be beat." I didn't want life to make me bitter, because I really felt like that would be like letting life beat me twice. I felt like I wanted to go through my life and still figure out how to be a happy person instead of being a statistic that would have ended up a drug addict.
NT: Do you consider yourself a writer first or a musician first? I know you sang when you were very, very young, so you were a musician in a certain way, but were you first drawn to the lyrical side or to the musical side of composing?
J: They both fascinated me in really opposite ways. I never thought I would be a songwriter, but I was fascinated with words. I got interested in poetry and reading and novelists. I wasn't always into poetry. I had a teacher who got me into philosophy and reading all the classics in seventh grade or so, so I started reading Plato and stuff like that. And then it was [about] being very black-and-white and very rational, and reasoning was fascinating to me. And it gave the world an order.
And suddenly I discovered Pablo Neruda and Bukowski, and I discovered a more esoteric, poetic way of saying things, which appealed to me, too. I thought both were really useful and I guess it's kind of reflected in my writing. Sometimes I'm very sharp and articulate and other times I'm more metaphorical. I had written poetry but never music and I had written short stories and essays.
Although I was singing cover songs, and I was singing my dad's material, the two never came together until I was 16 and I was going to start street singing. I had to come up with some material. I didn't know how to read music, and so I thought I would just make up lyrics. It seemed pretty natural, because I had been writing poetry my whole life and I had been singing my whole life. And I just thought I would start writing songs out of, I guess, laziness, because I didn't learn how to read music. But it wasn't something intended like, "Now I'm going to be a songwriter" or something. It was just a fun adventure. [My earlier material was] sort of these very long stories put to music.
NT: Can you describe when and why you decided to pick up a guitar?
J: I got a full scholarship to go to a private school when I was 16. I didn't realize that for Spring break you weren't allowed to stay on campus, and I didn't have enough money to leave for Alaska. I was fascinated with how in the states down here, what we call the lower 48, all the states are so close together, and I thought I would hobo across the country and hitchhike through Mexico.
In Alaska a lot of people hitchhike still, and I hitchhiked to school. So I thought that I would street sing and that's how I would earn my way down there. So I hoboed by train and started writing lyrics about what I was seeing around me. And I hitchhiked from Tijuana down to Cabo San Lucas. And I just wrote one song in that whole time and that was "Who Will Save Your Soul," and it ended up being my first single.
NT: You carried a knife, did you ever have to use it?
J: Not on that trip. One time, when I was 14 or so, I was hitchhiking in Alaska and a guy picked me up and he was like, "You know you're really a pretty young girl you shouldn't be hitchhiking." And I was like, "I know I hear it all the time." He kept saying it over and over and by the seventh time of him saying [it], it weirded me out. I had a knife in my boot, and I stuck it under his chin and said, "Are you going to F with me?" He laughed and I realized when he laughed that he was really just a really nice guy. I had read him wrong. We ended up being best friends, and he ended up touring with me when I became successful.
NT: Lilith Fair is coming back next year. You were on the 1997 tour. Have you been approached to participate?
J: I'm looking at it. I've traveled so much of my life that the way I try to tour now are in these two week bursts, so like on this tour I basically will do 17 shows in 17 days. I don't take days off. And I do that just so I can knock out a region and still be able to tour, which I love singing live, but it still gives me time to be home. On big tours, you're gone for a year at a time. I'd have to see what the schedule is and see if it works out.
NT: Have you kept in touch with any of the women from Lilith in the past decade?
J: Gosh, probably Emmylou Harris the most. And the Indigo Girls, who I run into. It's kind of a shame about our business, we all live in such different places it's like astronauts: we all have our own orbits and we tour separately, so it's hard to stay in touch.
NT: Your new record Lullaby was not released on a major label. Why did you decide to do an independent release?
J: I'm kind of excited by where the music business is now. And when I signed with my new label Valory Records, I worked into the contract that between releases for them I could release independent albums as long as it didn't compete. And I did it because I think that there is music that isn't necessarily what labels consider commercial, [music] that I think is valid. And I think fans like this album, it doesn't have anything up-tempo so there is no snappy radio number to get on, but I really believed in it, I believed that fans would like it.
And so it was a fun topic that I got to do by myself, I got to produce it myself, I got to do my own vision. I didn't have to think about marketing or genres or singles or anything like that. I got to just create art as a piece in and of itself, and for me, that was a really liberating experience. It felt like getting back to just music for pure music.
NT: What about the music industry currently excites you? A lot of people are now just making singles instead of albums. What's your take on the shift, and how do you plan to adapt?
J: It's a pretty complicated thing that caused it but there were a lot of factors that caused where we are now, the first of which is the technology to download. I think the second is that labels became very hit-oriented instead of being career-oriented and so artists became a little bit disposable. Managers lost sight and I think artists lost sight. I think a lot of people became so eager to become famous that they forgot about maintaining a career.
And so you have a lot of disposable artists who would have one hit and then disappear. And suddenly you have labels now that don't have legacy acts that they could continue to make money off of, and they're always scrambling to have a new hit single. I liken it to a drug user: you're always looking for a big hit instead of a sustained high... sort of.
But I don't think the love of music, however, is ever going to go away. I feel really excited about it because I've been able to already establish my career and have a fanbase. And I'm very prolific. And this gives me a chance to have a direct relationship with my fanbase and put songs out directly to them instead of having to go through labels and radio stations.
NT: You've said the new album helps people unwind. Coldplay was voted best band to fall asleep to by the British public. The band was probably a bit disappointed by it. Would you be interested in that honor?
J: (laughs) I've been writing myself lullabies 'cause I've always had a hard time calming down at night. I guess I'd been anxious and worried a lot, and I would write songs like "Raven" and "Angels Standing By" during kind of stressful times in my life. Almost like a meditation and prayer, and also to give myself hope and change my frame of mind. I just thought, if I'm an adult and I like that kind of music, there must be other adults who would want that. It's been fun for me to see the response to people saying they're using it during traffic rush hour to keep from acting out road rage and things like that.
NT: This current tour is strictly acoustic. Why did you choose this format and what do you like about it?
J: I like it because it allows me the freedom not to have a choreographed show. Every night is different and spontaneous. Every setlist is different every night. I don't even write set lists. It's just whatever song people are requesting and whatever mood I'm in that night. It's also what I've been doing probably the longest, and I guess I'm most comfortable at it. I love being with the band doing rock shows, but it's a lot of fun to be able to tell stories, where people get to know me, sort of like being in my living room.
NT: You once opened for Peter Murphy. That's really funny. Are you a fan of Bauhaus?
J: I didn't really know who they were until I opened for Peter Murphy and then I realized how influential they were, which is really fascinating. Goth sort of before goth happened. But it was a difficult show to open for.
NT: It's Halloween weekend, I had to ask. At the beginning of your career, a lot of your fans were teenage girls, like you were. Now you and your fans are all grown up. Do you feel that your fanbase ever wants you to stay in the Pieces of You state of mind? Or do they let you grow as an artist?
J: I think the only person that puts you in a box is yourself. I've realized over the years, and I guess I realized it early on, but you can't make 100 percent of anybody happy. And there's no right or wrong to it and so the only way you can navigate your life is by what you like. And so that's how I've tried to live my career, and it's also been the type [of approach that has] let me create a fanbase that likes that as well. I'm amazed actually, I saw [this manifest itself Wednesday] night at a show, at a meet-and-greet before my show, and there was a 50-year-old guy who said 0304 was his favorite album of mine. So you just never know.
NT: What compelled to start your charity Project Clean Water?
J: When I was homeless I had sick kidneys and I had to drink a gallon of water a day and I couldn't afford it and I thought if we're in America, drinking bottled water, wonder what it's like in a place that has no bottled water. And I thought if I was ever in a position to help I'd look into it, and amazingly my life did turn around, and I got to start a charity. Gosh, I guess it was back in 1997. I funded it by myself, we got 35 wells in 15 countries. And I recently partnered with Richard Branson's organization Virgin Unite and Voss water.
NT: As a former Alaskan, what are your thoughts on Sarah Palin?
J: I actually get asked this a lot, and I tend to stay away from political opinion. So I won't really comment on her politics except that there are some things I don't agree with politically with her. But as a woman I can say that in Alaska, a lot of women are from pioneer stock. It was still a territory in the '50s and a lot of the families that moved up there really were pioneers that had very visionary and adventurous spirits. And the women had to hunt and had to build houses and plow fields and it's still a very tangible spirit in the state.
And so the women I was raised with, and the way I was raised even by men, was with a sort of very equal attitude. Women did everything that men did, not that we had anything to prove, it's just that women up there get done whatever needs to get done. If a house needs to get built, they'll build one. And if a horse needs to get shoed, they'll shoe it. I didn't realize that was unusual, but I was raised feeling like I was as capable of doing anything that I set my mind to, and I'm really happy about that. I think it's refreshing for a lot of Americans to see a woman wearing waders and jumping into the ocean.
But that isn't unique to Sarah Palin, I think almost every woman in Alaska is like that.
Get the Music Newsletter
Find out about upcoming concerts and special offers happening in the South Florida music scene.