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Readers Digest September 1999

‘Being Safe Isn’t Being Happy’

Jewel knew she had to risk everything to succeed in her dream to sing.

By Suzanne Chazin

JEWEL KILCHER was just 18, straight out of school and completely unsure of what to do with her life. She had moved to San Diego to be with her divorced mother and was working a series of low-paying jobs. There was little time or money for exploring careers. In fact, she was barely scraping by.

Things only worsened when a burning began in the teenager’s back and travelled all the way down her groin. Her hair was damp with fever on the day she went to hospital with her mother.

IT WAS the eighth medical facility mother and daughter had visited that hazy spring afternoon in 1993. Three hospitals and four clinics had already refused to treat the girl’s raging kidney infection because she was broke and lacked medical insurance.

Finally they found a doctor who would treat her, but it was a physical and spiritual low point. In the following weeks, Jewel poured out her anxieties to her mother Nedra Carroll. What should she do? She loved the arts – literature, drawing, dance, music. But how could she pursue any of these demanding careers when just surviving was claiming so much of her energy?

Nedra, short of money herself, came up with a novel solution: they would give up their flat and move into vans near the beach. Without the pressure to pay rent, Jewel could focus on achieving her goal.

After searching her soul, Jewel decided that songwriting and singing mattered most. But Nedra, who herself had performed folk songs with Jewel’s father, probed further. Jewel thought about her reasons. Money? She’d always had so little she’d grown used to it. Fame? She’d always felt like an outsider so that didn’t matter. The one thing she really cared about was her songs – inspiring people with her words. “I want to sing to remind people to live their dreams,” she told her mother.

Still, she couldn’t help feeling a flicker of fear. Friends were sceptical and their doubts were contagious. What if she failed at the one thing she wanted to do? Maybe she should look for something safer – singing on tourist boats or teaching music.

“Maybe I should have a fall-back plan,” she suggested to her mother.

Nedra shook her head. “If you have a fall back plan you will fall back. You are young. Be brave. Have faith in yourself.”

So the decision was made: the two would live like frontier women on the beach. And Jewel would put her talents and ambitions to the test.

It wasn’t the first time either had lived such a spartan life. Nedra and Jewel’s father, Atz Kilcher, a social worker, were brought up on the Alaskan frontier. Though the Kilchers moved often when Jewel and her two brothers were small, she spent a good part of her most formative years on her grandparents’ farm, 225 miles from Anchorage.

Frontier child

The farm was a place of rugged beauty, surrounded by canyons and mountains. But it was also isolated and harsh, with only a coal stove for heat and an outhouse for plumbing.

There, learning to do tough, physically demanding work, Jewel honed a spirit of determination. Even before the move, she had shown a single-mindedness that impressed her family. At school for instance, she was diagnosed with dyslexia, a disability that affected her reading and co-ordination. Later that year she was rejected from after-school gymnastics because she couldn’t do somersaults and cartwheels.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t do gymnastics,” her mother told her. “It just means you’ll have to work harder.”

So Jewel began practising three hours a night until she could do the moves as well as the natural athletes in her year.

But the young girl couldn’t will away the most devastating event of her childhood. When she was eight, her parents divorced. Nedra stayed in Anchorage, and Atz moved to his parents’ farm. The children spent time with both parents, but lived mainly with their father.

He and Jewel became a singing duo. But unlike her parents’ performances, some of these were in seedy clubs. “What I saw in those places turned me off drugs, drinking and smoking for life,” she says.

She also observed first-hand what happened to people who lose their passion for life and end up merely existing. And she vowed it would never happen to her.

Singing to the chatter of bar crowds taught Jewel something she might never have learnt any other way. One night shortly before one of their performances, she and her father got into an argument. Already upset, Jewel broke into tears when her father reminded her to leave her personal life behind when she went on-stage. What did it matter, she thought, since the audience was just a few drunken men?

Then someone in the crowd scolded her. “Stop looking so depressed,” he called out. The words had a humbling effect. Jewel suddenly understood her job was to please the audience, not herself. She stopped crying and finished the set flawlessly. And she determined never to take an audience for granted again.

By the age of 13, restless and wanting to spend more time with her mother, Jewel packed up and moved in with Nedra in Anchorage. But she was no longer the child her mother had tucked into bed each night five years earlier. “I was bitter about the divorce, angry and mistrustful when I first moved in with my mom,” explains Jewel. She made friends with members of street gangs. She dated older men. She even shoplifted a few times.

But Jewel’s life took yet another turn when a teacher from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan heard her sing. Impressed by her voice, he encouraged her to apply to the prestigious arts school. Jewel did, and won a scholarship. The school gave Jewel formal training in dance, writing and theatre and broadened her artistic horizons.

On the Beach

Growing up without running water turned out to be good preparation for living in a van beside the pacific. Used to quick scrub-downs in Alaska’s sub-zero temperatures, Jewel was expert at washing her hair efficiently in public toilets. She was comfortable with charity-shop clothes and could get by on little more than carrots and peanut butter while looking for work.

Eventually, she found a regular spot performing at a Pacific Beach coffee house. While there, she wrote a song entitled “Who Will Save Your Soul?” about those who lead lives of physical comfort but spiritual emptiness.

By the middle of 1993 Jewel was attracting overflowing crowds to the coffee house and drawing the attention of talent scouts. Then in December 1993, her shimmering voice and folk-style acoustic songs landed her a contact with Atlantic Records.

Jewel might have hoped that the worst of her struggles were behind her. But yet another round was just beginning. When her first album Pieces of You, was released in February 1995, it sold fewer than 500 copies a week. Her sweetly innocent voice and uplifting songs were met with derision by the often-cynical entertainment industry. Undeterred, Jewel travelled the country, usually with only a road manager to keep her company.

Back in San Diego, Nedra helped to manage her career. Jewel played mostly small clubs, sometimes 40 concerts in 30 days, never staying more than two nights in any city.

Worse still were some of her bookings. Once, Jewel was booked to play a black school in Detroit. She peeked through the curtain before the show, delighted to see a hall full of students. But their noisy exuberance turned to boos when the curtain went up. They had expected a rap singer called Jewell, and a young woman with an acoustic guitar didn’t turn them on. Many of the students left. Still, recalling her father’s admonition years earlier, Jewel realized it was her job to give a good show. So she sang with undiminished passion for those who stayed.

Radio stations refused to play her. Music critics scoffed at her. She was derided for everything from her crooked teeth to her constant encouragement that fans follow their dreams. But Jewel stayed on the road, signing CD’s and thanking everyone who came to see her.

Despite the carping of critics, more and more people took note of her talent and word spread of her live performances. As her fan base grew by word of mouth, the critics counted for less. By appealing directly to those for whom she wrote, Jewel ignited her career.

The decisive breakthrough came in mid-1996, when Pieces of You went gold, selling 500,000 copies. With radio stations at last responding to her fans, the single, “Who Will Save Your Soul?” became a hit. By the time her second CD, Spirit, was released late last year, Jewel had an international following. Spirit went on to sell three million copies.

All of which is a stunning journey for a young woman who was virtually homeless just six years ago. But Jewel understands how it happened – the conversation with her mother that made all the difference.

“If she’d encouraged me to have a fall-back plan, I’d have made one. I was scared. But being safe didn’t mean being happy.” Happiness came instead from following her passion – and realizing there could be no turning back.

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