An Interview with Jewel

by Nikki Tranter


PopMatters Books Editor

“I wanna go home
Take off this uniform,
And leave the show.”

51; Pink Floyd, “Stop”

“Fame is filled with spoiled children,
They grow fat on fantasy,
I guess that’s why I’m leaving,
I crave reality.”

51; Jewel, “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland”

Ten years ago, on a song called “I’m Sensitive”, Jewel implored us: “Please be careful with me, I’m sensitive, and I’d like to stay that way.” Her debut record, Pieces of You, which featured that pseudo-paean to new-woman delicacy breathed romanticism. Jewel presented herself, whether intentionally or not, as a fragile and easily bruised young woman concerned as much with the big issues (homelessness; discrimination), as those perfectly suited to our own nubile romantic fantasies (eternal love; heavenly guides). This soft, folksy babe with the bent tooth was, for any growing girl in the mid-1990s, the perfect companion to Alanis Morissette. Those of us left out of the grunge loop finally had our mentors. We could scream with hormonal rage at lunchtime, before crying ourselves to sleep over stuff we just didn’t understand, but sure liked to pretend we did. (Jewel’s “Little Sister” was especially pertinent.)

Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
US release: 2 May 2006

Then we grew up, and so did Jewel. As an experienced adult, Jewel is still sensitive, but she’s lost much of her sugariness. Her new CD, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, by name alone, carries literary, poetic overtones, but her adoration of Bukowski has finally hit the forefront, and she’s telling it, as they say, like it is. Though still around, the angels are fewer. There are a lot more demons, this time out, to explore and overcome.

Goodbye is Jewel’s story. She’s Alice, and Hollywood is her Wonderland with its excess, lies, successes, and failures. The album marks a full circle shift for the singer, from her childhood on an Alaskan ranch, teaching herself to write songs, to the super-successful, satisfied lady of the western plains. She’s back on a ranch, this time in Texas, and it seems she may have found her fantasy in rodeo champion, Ty Murray. She sneaks in the romance on the record (on “10,000 Miles Away” and first single, “Again and Again”), but only after much Glamour Town tearing down, skewering Hollywood glitz and fakery. From “Satellite”:

There’s a pretty lady in a bikini,
Her eyes are clear,
But her teeth look like smashed out window panes,
She’s trying to fix her dreams,
With seaweed and sushi and carrot juice and wheat germ.

As her own romanticism fades, she decries its lack in modern culture on “Stephenville, TX”:

I’m trying to figure out who I am,
But there’s no hand to hold, no Dr. Martin Luther King,
There’s just sycophants,
And the mindlessness on TV or in the magazines,
On the latest ways to behave,
So why not follow me, the blond bombshell deity?
I’ll sell you neat ideas without big words,
And a little bit of cleavage to help wash it all down.

It’s a new side to Jewel, hinted at previously, yet only now so outwardly investigated. There are not-so-veiled messages here, too, to Jewel’s critics. Yes, she’s strived for depth in her music and her writing (her books include 1997’s A Night Without Armor and 2001’s Chasing Down the Dawn), with several major hits and a few soggy misses. The point, revealed in a song like “Stephenville”, is that regardless of the result, the desire for depth and self-fulfillment and self-understanding is the key. We’re not all likely to relate to Jewel’s star stories as easily as we did her pre-star ones back in 1995, but the fact that we got her then allows us to get her now. We were there, and, just like her, we’re still here. Now, what does that say about the power of angels?

Jewel video: Making the Record: Goodbye Alice in Wonderland
[windows | real | quicktime] video: “Again & Again”
[windows] video: “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland”
[windows | real] audio: “Goodbye Alice in Wonderland”
[windows | real]

How do you get the message of this record, and especially the title song, across to today’s aspiring musicians, or fame-desirers, that it’s not an easy road, and that it is something to authentically want as an artist?
I don’t care either way. I don’t mean that to sound glib, but it’s really okay. I don’t expect people to understand. I’m kind of about supplying information, supplying tone, supplying melody, supplying texture. People can come into it at any angle they want; get out of whatever they want. It’s art—it sure isn’t religion, and in no shape or form meant to be didactic on any level. My only rule with myself is to tell the truth about my life and where I am. That’s what helps me in my life, and, you know, it makes me money and—it’s kind of bizarre. [Laughs]. It’s not that I expect people to go, [feigning sudden enlightenment] “Ohhh”, you know? It would be a bit arrogant if I expected that, I guess.

What was behind your decision to sequence these songs so specifically?
Part of it was just because the songs are so autobiographical that it lent itself to having a beginning, a middle, and an end. In somewhat of a cryptic manner, it really does take you from me being raised on a ranch in Alaska to being homeless to seeing Hollywood the first time, getting signed, becoming famous, and now kind of full circle: I’m living on a ranch now in Texas. When sequencing the songs, it’s actually quite an eclectic record, and it could be challenging to put a song like “Satellite” and “Only One Two” on the same record as a song like “Where You Are”. It really sounds like, I wouldn’t say different artists, but not the same record necessarily. Sequencing it became an important and challenging task. I also think that each song should get set up in a way that it shows off the song after it.

Is the art of the song lost in the mosaic of the full picture? Are you missing anything, perhaps, listening to the songs out of sequence?
No. I’m really fascinated with layers. You know, I love to play a vocal against a melody, a lyric against a vocal tone. It just sort of lends an irony. I try to put as many layers within one song. I love the idea that each song stands on its own, that I don’t repeat anything during the record. Each song is very different. And then I also love that you can then put those 13 songs together and see a bigger picture and a whole different story. Because I like to be able to hear a record over and over as a fan; to get something different out of it each time.

Are you thinking of particular records that create that picture from individual, strong songs?
I think The Wall did that, kind of. Each song is sonically satisfying. I think each song on the record is really great. I don’t think there’s any filler, where you’re just, like, “Eh, I’ll skip that one.” It’s a completely different record than mine [laughs], but it first springs to my mind. But, still it has an overall theme somehow. They’re saying what they want to say about the world and how they fit into it. The whole thing—together—definitely makes a strong statement.

Is that something you miss, or look for, in musicians today? The high art approach to music and album creation?
I like it when it happens, but I certainly don’t feel I need to ... I’m really lucky because I get to do it. It’s fun for me; it’s a kick for me [that] I can make this kind of record. It’s a tremendous liberty that I have. You know, sure, when I look at downloading, a lot of it has to do with technology, everything changes and that’s okay. I think part of it also has to do with the fact that artists quit making interesting records. They’re sort of making singles. Radio changed, and singles became very important, and artists started focusing on making sure they had songs on a record that could go to radio. Over the years the record atrophied, to the point where, why would you pay 20 bucks when you just skip every song on there? Why not just buy the single, you know, it makes sense. There are still artists that I think enjoy making records. Hopefully some fans that enjoy it. But I don’t really care. It’s sort of like, to each their own. If somebody wants to buy this record, hear it they way I laid it out, great. If somebody just falls in love with “Stephenville, TX”, great, you know, get it.

Your expectations concerning the recording and releasing records would have changed as the business changed?
Probably, yeah. Definitely. I mean, my first record was a folk record at the height of grunge—when it sold three copies, it figured. I certainly didn’t think it’d have the record sales that I’ve had over my career. I thought I’d be kind of like an underground artists. I love John Prine, Tom Waits, and I was a songwriter fan. I thought that’s the kind of record I’d made. I thought I’d tour and make a living. The more people that told me I wouldn’t make it, the more stubborn I got.

Was there any preparing you for what eventually happened?
No. Coming from Alaska, I was not one of those kids that looked in the mirror and thought I’d be famous. I never practiced my signature, you know [laughs]? It wasn’t anything that was on my radar.

What do you think, at this point in your career is making you happiest?
Balance, I guess. You know, the same things that always made me happy still do. I’m pretty simple. I was raised a certain way, on a ranch, and that tends to be the lifestyle that I enjoy. I’ve never been one for really fancy things. The things that thrill me are that I can afford medication, go to the movies whenever I want, get on a plane whenever I want. It just thrills me, you know. I really love writing. I really get a kick out of it—I can’t believe that I get a chance to do it.

When did you begin to understand the power of writing and reading in your development?
When I was six, probably. I know when the first analogy ... I remember hearing a poem as a kid, and they had compared, I can’t even remember what it was, but it was the first time I knew that you could do that, you know, comparing—gosh, I can’t even remember what it was. But it made me start writing and I tried to do the same thing. I compared a lamp to a cloud, and that to me was just like—I had finally been able to imitate this poet perfectly [laughs]. But for some reason, the idea of metaphor and analogy and synonym—I don’t know why but it really turns me on. I guess I was a boring little kid. As I began to read more, I got into the classics. I found the power of thought to be really empowering. You know, I read The Symposium and Pascal, and the idea that you could achieve immortality through love, and you know, I was pretty drunk on the idea of the dialectic reading—pure reason leads to pure thought. I got really turned on to poetry after that—Neruda. I don’t know, reading just always really turns me on. I just promised I would always try and tell the truth when I wrote. I always admired Bukowski and Anais Nin. I figured that’s sort of the road that I would take out of all the other roads.

So, there’s no reservation looking back at your old records, because it’s all development, all immediately relevant because it relates so directly to you who you are now?
With this record, there’s a song called “Satellite” that I wrote when I was 19, there’s song called “10,000 Miles Away” that I wrote when I was 17, probably. And there’re some songs I wrote just for the record, specifically, while I was in the studio. So, it really covers the gamut. But I’ve always been that way. I’ve always included, on every record, some of my earliest material because it has something special in a way. Just a rawness. You know what’s funny, I mean, you’re a writer, I’m sure. There are things that are of value when you’re young and you don’t know what you’re doing. You have all balls and no craft [laughs]. That’s a bit crass, but ... When you grow you sometimes lose the emotional rawness as you gain craft. And that’s not always good; it can be very boring. To be technically perfect is very uninteresting. The trick, I think, is to learn how to combine the two; keep the emotional rawness and accessibility and somehow combine with craft and keep learning and growing.

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