GUS RUELAS / AP Enlarge
Fame and fortune were never the goals for Jewel Kilcher when she began writing songs. Growing up in Alaska, in a home without running water or electricity, or going to an arts school in Michigan, she wasn't planning on selling 30 million albums and becoming one of the world's best-known songwriters.
When she wrote her first songs, she was just trying to get to Mexico.
"I was 16 years old, and I wanted to hitchhike to Mexico for spring break. I was going to school in Michigan at the time and hoboed my way across the country and street sang," Jewel says. "I just made up lyrics because I couldn't read music and I couldn't learn other people's music. 'Who Will Save Your Soul' was the first song I ever wrote, and I wrote it on that trip when I was 16 seeing America for the first time."
"Who Will Save Your Soul" eventually became a major hit off Jewel's debut album, "Pieces of You," which sold 12 million copies when it was released in 1995. It launched her career as one of her generation's top pop stars. But she made waves in the music industry last year when she signed with Valory Records as a country artist. "Perfectly Clear" was released in June, selling more than 48,000 copies the first week.
"This album has been living in me for so long. It's actually been the greatest pleasure of any record I've ever made. I had such a specific idea of how I wanted it to sound. It came out real easy," Jewel says. "I used the Linda Ronstadt album 'Heart Like a Wheel' almost as a template because what I loved about that record is that it relied on the strength of her voice and on the strength of great songs without a lot of production."
Jewel found help with the production from an unlikely source: Big & Rich's John Rich, who co-produced the album.
"We seem so different, but when you scratch the surface, we come from the same place musically. He loves to craft. You won't meet a person who loves to write or who loves a well-written song more than John, so we really bonded as songwriters even though we didn't write together. We both tried to make songs what they were and not get in their way," Jewel says.
The relationship led to a professional first for Jewel. "Till It Feels Like Cheating" is the first song she has ever recorded that she didn't write.
"I was wanting a song that would use a certain register in my voice. This came across John's desk, and he said it reminded him of me," she says. "Having an affair with your husband, making time in your busy life to have an affair with your husband, I thought it was a great idea [for a song], so I decided to cut it."
But it's Jewel's words and her songs that make her special. The simplicity of this album is what makes it effective. It's Jewel, sitting around a camp fire singing songs with clever hooks and tantalizing melodies. Of course, her songs are also about more than trying to entertain others. They are a way for her to delve into her soul and bring emotions to the surface.
"When I'm writing by myself, it tends to be my subconscious talking about myself. I'll be writing and think, 'Hmm, that's interesting.' I used to journal write as a kid, and I learned so much about myself. I really became intimate with myself to help me keep track of my life. I always learn something about what I'm thinking or what I'm going through by the time I get done with a song," she says. "When I'm writing, it's almost like writing a book in my head, and I get excited to turn the pages because I'm not sure where it's going."
It was in one of her quiet times that she wrote "Thump, Thump." It was written about Ty Murray, a world champion bull rider and Jewel's longtime boyfriend.
"We've been together for 10 years, and it still feels really new and exciting and exhilarating and scary. To be able to write 'Thump, Thump' for him is a nice feeling."
Her father was the influence behind "Loved By You." It's a waltz that Jewel says is in the style of music her father sang to her on cattle drives or while fishing when she was a young girl.
"I've never been able to fit this on a record, and it's been a lot of fun for me to dedicate it to him. It's very rewarding to be able to thank him for the way he raised me and the music he raised me with."
Jewel was pigeonholed early on as a pop singer, and it led to a lot of album sales and awards, but she feels the most comfortable sitting around a fire on her ranch, singing the songs of her father. Her first single as a country artist, "Stronger Woman," was a good start for her. It climbed to No. 11. Even though she's sold 30 million albums, she knows that in a sense, she's starting over.
"There are people not familiar with me. ['Stronger Woman'] let me introduce myself to new people," she says. "I've never felt entitled to anything. I've always tried to live by the adage that there is always somebody more talented or harder working. I try to be the very best at my craft. I take country music very seriously.
"My fans are with me. They are very aware that I love country music, that I sing and write country music. They've heard half this album for 10 years. A lot of it's been kicking around for 10, 12, 15 years, so my fans are already excited about it. It's not every day that you can be 13 years into a career and introduce yourself to new people. I find that very exciting."
Contact Brian Dugger at: firstname.lastname@example.org.