At the tender age of 21, Jewel Kilcher has already appeared on the cover of Time magazine, seen her debut album, Pieces of You, sell over four million copies, and become the most prominent symbol for the growing role of female singer/songwriters within the contemporary music landscape. She has been acknowledged for her insightful lyrics and four octave voice - as well as for her fetching good looks. All-in-all, it's been quite a ride for this very special young woman who hails from the decidedly out-of-the-way wilds of Homer, Alaska.
In fact it was her rough-and-tumble Alaskan upbringing (in a home where there was no shower, no television and that was heated only through a near-constantly burning fire0 that filled young Jewel with many of her life perspectives that were later to fill her songs with their striking lyrical images. It was a life with few luxuries, where making the morning walk to the outhouse - through two feet of snow - was a necessary fact-of-life. But rather than becoming angry, frustrated or bitter because of her childhood experiences, Jewel grew to love both the rugged Alaskan landscape and her spartan lifestyle. Her parents, who were both songwriters and singers, provided a rich environment for knowledge - as well as a love for the arts. From her earliest days, Jewel's mother used to take time each day to teach her and her two siblings all she knew about art, poetry and music - all of which remain vital parts of Jewels' day-to-day psyche. It was from her original love of poetry that Jewel's music began to take root
"Though those lessons from my mother I was given a tool" she said. "After my parents got divorced, I started writing poetry a lot because I didn't always know how to express myself. That to me is the real beauty of writing. It makes you more intimate with yourself."
But how does one make it from the wilds of Homer to winning Grammy Awards? For Jewel that long and tangled journey started when she won a vocal scholarship to attend Michigan's Interlochen Fine Arts Academy. Moving away from Alaska in her early teens was a traumatic time for Jewel because it exposed her to the "real world" for the first time in her young life. But the experience also provided her with the outlet she had been craving from the moment she discovered her love of music. Once she reached Michigan, Jewel never looked back.
"My two years there were a turning point," she said. "I saw a bigger world. I immersed myself in everything - drama, dance, sculpture, music. I imagine I was 16 or 17, during my senior year at Interlochen that I first started studying the guitar and getting serious about my songwriting"
After graduation, however, instead of jumping into the fray of trying to land a record contract - or at least test her music in a more competitive environment, Jewel decided to take the path of least resistance. Rather than moving to an industry hub like Los Angeles or New York, she drove her van out to San Diego and camped out for a period of six months. With no income and no responsibilities, Jewel lived a simple life that reminded her of her Alaskan upbringing. But instead of waking up to freezing temperatures day-after-day, in sunny So Cal she could swim, relax, write poems and work on her music to her heart's content. She began hanging out in "hip" local coffee shops where she would sing her songs for other aspiring young musicians - until the day the coffee store owner recognised Jewel's talent and offered her a job singing once a week in his "club"
"Until I started finding my direction, my time in San Diego was a difficult time for me," Jewel said. I felt a lot of social pressure to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I had no desire to go to college, but I also felt no peace in travelling or just bumming around. I got a number of dead-end jobs...got fired a couple of times. I was frightened and a little depressed. The idea of spending my life in a 9-to-5 job made me feel trapped and hopeless."
The coffee shop gig proved to be a blessing for Jewel for not only did it provide her with some much - needed pocket change, it also finally gave her a clear carrer direction. Her little shows became hot - ticket items in San Diego, with the intimate coffee shop environs being packed beyond capacity on the nights when Jewel was scheduled to perform. Even the local media began to pick up on the fast - growing Jewel phenomenon, labelling her voice as "crystalline" and "beautiful." It wasn't long before such praise began reaching the ears of record industry powers a few miles up the coast in L.A. Within two months label executives began pounding on her van door, hoping to get her to sign a major label deal.
"I was so surprised when I started to hear from record labels," she said. "My first reaction was one of relief - that I might be able to do something that I really enjoyed and get paid for it. My next reaction was one of shock - that people would actually hear my music."
Hear her music, indeed! In the more than two years that have now passed since Jewel's debut disc, Pieces of You, first became available, that effort has become one of the most successful - and important - albums of the late '90s. Following a relatively slow start, the disc began building commercial momentum that saw it pass the quintuple platinum sales level in late '97 - and it's a phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing down at any point in the near future. For many Jewel's chart-topping success has signalled the welcomed return of the singer/songwriter - performers with insight and passion whose efforts stand in sharp contrast to the more blatant energies of other rock genres. Her songs such as Who Will Save Your Soul have won countless industry awards and turned Jewel into an international phenomenon. But for this still naive young miss from Alaska, each day continues to bring new and amazing experiences to her doorstep.
"I wake up each day and wonder what wonderful thing is going to happen next," she said. "It's all been like a wonderful dream. But if it is a dream, I hope I never wake up."
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