Singer-songwriter Jewel dishes on new memoir, reality show

September 21, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — She’s sold tens of millions of records as a singer-songwriter.

Now, four-time Grammy nominee Jewel is returning to the public eye with a pair of projects: penning the new memoir “Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story” and joining the Discovery Channel reality show “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” which returns for Season 5 on Sunday, Oct. 16 at 9 p.m.

“My family, it’s their show,” Jewel Kilcher told WTOP. “It’s my dad, my brother, my uncle and my cousin. Most people don’t even realize it’s my family: the Kilcher family. They were discovered completely by accident [four seasons ago]. It had nothing to do with the fact that they’re my family.”

This will be Jewel’s first appearance on the series, returning to her hometown of Homer, Alaska, in a homecoming teased with Biblical proportions in the trailer: “The prodigal daughter returns.”

“This is the first time I’ve been on this show,” Jewel said. “It’s been fun. I was going up there just to take my son home, and they just happened to be filming and shooting at the time, so my son and I jumped in and I got to share a lot of how I was raised with him, so that was really a treat for me.”

Such a homecoming marks a full-circle journey after a challenging past detailed in the memoir.

“I keep getting asked how I went from an abusive childhood to moving out at 15 to being homeless at 18 and how did I end up OK?” Jewel said. “A lot of people suffer from so many setbacks in life and they really feel that they’re broken forever and that they’re damaged goods, and that isn’t the case.”

Born in Utah, Jewel grew up in Alaska, where she began performing with her family at a young age.

“I started singing with my parents when I was 5,” Jewel said. “I got up on stage with them. They sang in hotels for tourists. I started yodeling at that age. When I was 8, my mom left and I took her place in the family act, but instead of singing in hotels, we were singing in bars and things like that.”

But as she entered adolescence, she knew she had to get out.

“I ended up moving out at 15,” Jewel said. “I knew statistically that girls like me end up repeating the cycle they were raised by, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. So I set out on this very conscious mission of like, ‘Can I re-nurture myself if my nurture was bad?'”

So, she earned a scholarship to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, Michigan.

“It really upped my game, because I was surrounded by such talented kids,” Jewel said. “I was in a very good position of feeling grateful for the opportunity. I tried to take advantage of every single aspect of it. I learned to play guitar during that time … hitchhiking around America during spring breaks.”

Indeed, it was on a spring break trip to Mexico when she wrote “Who Will Save Your Soul.”

“I was surprised at school you weren’t allowed to stay on campus for spring breaks, you had to go home and I couldn’t afford it,” Jewel said. “So I decided to make lemonade out of lemons and street sing across America and just have adventures. So that’s what I did, I started street singing and made up lyrics as I saw people walking by and it ended up becoming ‘Who Will Save Your Soul.'”

That song reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 5 on the U.S. Adult Top 40. It served as the lead single off her massive debut album for Atlantic Records, “Pieces of You” (1995), which went 26-times platinum and earned her three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist.

“When I got signed, it was the height of grunge,” Jewel said. “I was tired of feeling bad, so I was talking about how do I feel better. It was so out-of-sync with the times, but I didn’t want to change who I was. I never thought I would get big play on the radio, but I thought if I worked really hard, I could have a career like John Prine. … Amazingly, a tide-shift happened and I started to dig in my heels.”

She had to dig in quick. After the radio success of “Who Will Save Your Soul,” other songs from the album immediately caught fire. “You Were Meant for Me” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the U.S. Adult Top 40, earning a Grammy nomination for Female Pop Vocal Performance.

“It tells the story of going to Mexico and accidentally getting involved in a drug bust,” Jewel said. “Me and my friend Steve Poltz ended up staying and hanging out with the Federales and we wrote ‘You Were Meant for Me’ on that trip. … People can YouTube my drug-bust story.

Likewise, “Foolish Games” also reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on the U.S. Adult Top 40, earning yet another Grammy nomination for Female Pop Vocal Performance the next year.

“I always loved Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat,’ and I had always wanted to write a song that had a lot of imagery and angst. ‘Foolish Games’ was a poem I had started and I turned it into a song.”

As Jewel’s career took off, she knew she had to capitalize with tour dates.

“I did 700-800 shows a year,” she said. “I was doing four or five cities, three or four shows a day. It was really a tremendous amount of work, but it ended up really paying off. I sold I think 3,000 records in the first 12 months, and after that, I started selling half a million records every month. It was unreal.”

The tidal wave of success continued into her second album, “Spirit” (1998), which went seven-times platinum worldwide off the strength of the single “Hands,” which hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Her third album, “This Way” (2001), went three-times platinum worldwide with hit singles like “Standing Still,” which reached No. 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 3 on the U.S. Adult Top 40.

“I think I had hundreds of songs by the time I got discovered, so I never had the pressure of trying to figure out, ‘Ooh, I have to write a whole record from scratch.’ Even my most recent record — I just did a new folk record that’s very similar to ‘Pieces of You’ — some of the songs on there I wrote when I was 19. … I’ve done that with every single album: my pop records, rock records, country records.”

Arguably her biggest challenge came when she transitioned into country music on two albums: “Perfectly Clear,” featuring the single “Stronger Woman” produced by John Rich of Big & Rich, and “Sweet and Wild” (201), which featured the Grammy-nominated country hit “Satisfied.”

“I was raised on country music and great singer-songwriters,” Jewel said. “So I listened to Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard as much as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.”

In fact, Dylan mentored her early on, teaching her to hold fast to her own creative impulses.

“Bob Dylan mentored me and told me, ‘You have to follow your muse no matter where it takes you. Don’t think about being popular. Think about what interests you creatively, what keeps you alive creatively,'” Jewel said. “I’ve really had the luxury of being able to experiment. … I’ve never personally gotten my self worth by, ‘Ooh, am I famous enough? Is this song a hit enough?’ It’s a horrible hamster wheel to be on. I’ve just tried to do what interested me creatively. That’s how I’ve lived my life.”

Those career impulses have led to TV in recent years, co-hosting Bravo’s songwriting contest “Platinum Hit” with ex-“American Idol” judge Kara DioGuardi, as well as serving as judge on Season 4 of NBC’s “The Sing-Off.” Most recently, she cracked jokes on Comedy Central’s “Roast of Rob Lowe.”

“It was a lot of fun,” Jewel said of the roast. “It was strange and surreal. I do a lot of stand-up in my own shows, which nobody really knows. But it’s never mean and it’s usually self-effacing. So to get up there and go after 12 people on a dais, it’s a very surreal experience, but it was a great experience.”

It’s only fitting, then, that her TV pursuits would bring her full circle to Discovery Channel’s “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” allowing her to come back home as the “prodigal daughter” purging the same demons chronicled in such detail in the new memoir. Not only is the book her own personal outlet, she also hopes her words will prove to be a therapeutic experience for others facing similar issues.

“I decided to share my life story because I’ve had every setback a human can have,” Jewel said. “I’ve found the resilience and internal resources to overcome them and say, ‘This is gonna make me a more exceptional person, not a damaged one.’ If I can overcome these setbacks, I believe anybody can.”

She says her new outlook boils down to a pair of quotes by two of history’s deepest thinkers.

“Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I would refine that to say, ‘I perceive what I think, therefore I am,'” Jewel said. “You can perceive you’re sad or you can perceive you’re happy. … The more we can get rid of the anxiety and the clutter in our mind and drop into our intuitive sense, we’re able to redirect and have a sane narrative of our life, rather than just inheriting one we feel like we have no say over.”

After Descartes, the second is Buddha.

“Buddha said, ‘Happiness doesn’t depend on who we are or what we have, it depends on what we think,” Jewel said. “It doesn’t take the right therapist or house or career, it has to do with our thoughts and if we’re willing to take accountability and say, ‘Nobody can keep me unhappy. It’s up to me.'”

Allow us to add a third wise poet, her mentor Bob Dylan, who told her, “Follow your muse no matter where it takes you,” and a fourth voice of Jewel herself: “Break the yolks and make a smiley face.”

Click here for more of Jewel’s inspirational words of wisdom. Listen to the full interview with Jewel below:

September 21, 2023 | (Jason Fraley)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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