INTERVIEW: Jewel on her new album, book, film and 25 years of ‘Pieces of You’

Jewel Kilcher

Jewel Kilcher. Courtesy: Brendan Walter.

Having lived out of her car and on the street when she was a teen, it’s understandable why Jewel carries  the issue of homelessness—particularly homeless children—close to her heart. The singer-songwriter, born Jewel Kilcher, started a nonprofit in Las Vegas working with at-risk youth and has lobbied on Capitol Hill for more protections for children.

Jewel on making ‘Pieces of You’

Scroll down for Jewel’s words on making her debut album at Neil Young’s Redwood City ranch and what the album means to her 25 years on.

The nonprofit, Jewel Never Broken, is what brought film director Rotimi Rainwater to Las Vegas several years ago as he filmed the experiences of homeless youth for a new project. Eventually, Jewel herself jumped aboard the film, “Lost in America,” as an executive producer. And now, as the film nears its theater debut (and subsequent Netflix streaming), she has released “No More Tears,” a song from its soundtrack. It’s the preamble to what’s sure to be a busy 2020 for Kilcher, who is releasing a book and her first new album in five years and marking the 25th anniversary of her diamond RIAA-certified debut, Pieces of You.

“Anything that can really serve as a good mouthpiece, that can reach a lot of people raising awareness for this issue, I find worthwhile,” Jewel said of the film. “A lot of what we struggle with and what works against us is a lack of awareness and empathy for who and what these kids are, and what they’re going through.”

“Lost in America,” which Jewel co-produced with actresses Halle Berry and Rosario Dawson, tells the story of youths who live on the streets and how they got there. Those who have a choice typically choose the street over the alternative because it’s safer than the alternative, she explained. Many have been abused, disowned because of their gender or sexual orientation, and in most cases, unable to find work because there are strict limitations on how much youths can work.

At the same time, other people pigeonhole them as being lazy, something Jewel said she’s heard over and over again. She’s followed the conversation over the growing homeless epidemic in the Bay Area and has partnered with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who has also lobbied for more rights and protections for the homeless in San Francisco.

Jewel also said she has a relative in the Bay Area who works to improve the lives of disadvantaged people here, including homeless youths.

“They’re incredibly vulnerable to being leveraged and taken advantage of and abducted—500,000 a year, I think, die on the streets,” she said.

Jewel wrote “No More Tears,” also the first taste of her 2020 album, specifically for the film. As she saw the stories of the children pieced together, she reflected back on her own experience. She grew up poor in Alaska before making her way to California to pursue music. Before she was discovered and incited a label bidding war, she was destitute.

“You know those moments when you think there’s just no way things are going to change or turn around for you,” she said of the heartfelt piano ballad. “The resolve it takes for any of these kids not to have killed themselves means that they have a tremendous capacity for life. They want to live.

Jewel Kilcher

Jewel Kilcher. Courtesy: Brendan Walter.

“When you invest in yourself and you invest in that humanity; when you assign yourself some value when nobody else has, it’s a real act of defiance. Life does get better; life can turn around if you stay tenaciously focused on that. There really is a beautiful future waiting, and that’s what I wanted to write this song about—to give them hope.”

The song will also be on Jewel’s new album that will be released in March or April. She described her new songs as emotionally and lyric-driven, which has been her niche since the beginning, but also more soulful.

Thematically, the songs cover the gamut, from the personal to more socially conscious numbers. She said two of them are called “Half Life” and “Nothing But Love.”

“As a singer-songwriter, I’ve always felt like it’s my privilege to look at the world around me and reflect it from social commentary,” she said.

For the first time ever, Jewel wrote all of the songs from scratch rather than picking and choosing from a bank of existing material.

“I’ve never actually had to write a record [before] and I didn’t want to do that for this one,” she said.

Jewel has previously written a book of poetry, a memoir and children’s books, several of which became New York Times Best Sellers. To mark the silver anniversary of her breakthrough debut album, she has written a new autobiographical book.

“It’s about change and looking at the metrics of what change [is] and how most of us grow and become different, but we don’t actually achieve change,” she said. “It’s a book about … neural wiring and how we create our reality through a series of emotional bonds and how to detach those and reattach them.”

The idea came to her after inspecting the apparent change in her own life. On the outside, she went from homeless to successful. But behind the scenes, she continued struggle with the same demons.

What does ‘Pieces of You’ mean to you, 25 years later?

I was discovered when I was homeless, and by the end of that year, living in my car, I started to get a grip on what happiness meant to me. I had learned to meditate, discipline my mind, overcome a panic attack. And my authenticity and happiness meant more to me than anything else. I wasn’t trying to get signed, but when record labels started coming to me, it was scary. I think if you take somebody with my emotional background, and you add fame to the mix, it doesn’t typically work out great.

If you look at most famous people, there’s a lot of psychological breakdown that happened because it’s not really a very healthy lifestyle. It’s a lot of drug addiction, and it’s fraught with problems. And I felt like I was a real candidate for that. My solution was to make a really simple record. I didn’t think the record would be incredibly successful, but I knew it would be a really authentic record.

So instead of taking a huge signing bonus and working with the hottest producers that were being introduced to me, I did the opposite. I turned down the signing bonus, took a big back-end [deal]. … I’d hoped to have a career like John Prine, a singer-songwriter, that would carve out a living and be really happy with that.

It got a lot bigger than I anticipated. I feel really fortunate that I was able to make something that was so authentically representative of who and what I was. I was seen for that. It’s kind of an unusual experience for somebody with my background—you know, neglected and adverse upbringing—to be able to be myself and not have to pretend to be somebody else.

You know, it would have been easy to go into pop music and do what everybody said and cover songs everybody said and do what the smarter people say and dress a certain way. And maybe I would’ve been successful for being what would have felt inauthentic—like a lie.

I’m really proud that first record was able to do well because it was a deeply satisfying thing to be able to say, “This is who I am. I’m a singer-songwriter.” I was able to make a living at that. To have mentors like Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Merle Haggard … during that record and believe in that record meant a lot.

“You know, I went from a girl in Alaska with an outhouse and no running water to the cover of TIME magazine,” she said. “But at the same time, I was having the same experiences over and over. … It went from mountain scenery to, you know, beach scenery. But I was on the same road, sort of having the same experience. And some of those experiences weren’t great. I was experiencing betrayal and loss over and over to the point where mathematically they couldn’t be a coincidence. There must’ve been something I was missing. I wasn’t actually changing. That’s what really prompted the book.”

What was it like to work with Neil Young on his ranch while recording the album?

It was incredible. Ben Keith was my producer and he co-produced Harvest and Harvest Moon with Neil. I used the Stray Gators, who are Neil’s band. Then Neil ended up taking me on tour after that, and he actually wrote a really sweet quote for “Never Broken.”

Just having him as a mentor, being on that ranch, having those musicians that aren’t thinking about pop music or hits or radio or “that song should be three minutes long.” I have several six- and eight-minutes-long songs on that record. They just really believed in me. They really were trained to serve the song, and it was a tremendous blessing, because I was so young that if I was with a different producer, I think I could have been talked into editing my songs down.

So Neil was always very gracious. Maybe one of my favorite Neil stories was when I was touring with him. I was solo acoustic and we were playing Madison Square Garden and he was with Crazy Horse. I must have been visibly green.

I walked by the green room and he was, like, “What the matter! You look nervous!”

And I’m like, “I am nervous.” He goes, “Why!” I’m like, “’Cause you’re Neil Young with Crazy Horse and I’m solo acoustic, and they’re going to kill me. Nobody knows me.”

And he stuck his finger in my face and he goes, “This is just another hash house on the road to success. You show them no respect!” It was a great, great order.

























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(1) Comment

  1. Joanne Reed

    Great article! "The most precious jewels are not made of stone, but of flesh" Robert Ludlum. I wrote a blog article recently about Jewel because she is a rare gem, a hidden treasure with exceptional lucidity and self-awareness, and when she speaks it is like listening to pearls of wisdom. Singing is only half the story there is much more to it.

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