Pop music: A precious commodity

It's been a long hard struggle for Jewel to get the recognition and success she deserves. But, as the singer / songwriter from Alaska tells Glyn Brown, that's been pretty much the story of her life

There is not, in truth, a helpful shorthand way to describe Jewel Kilcher. 23-year-old Alaskan singer / songwriter might do it. But not that well. Jewel is a Swiss-descended Heidi whose debut and so far only LP, Pieces of You, slumbered like a dormouse in a teapot on release and then took off on a slow burn that has seen it reach sales of over four million in the US. The music is gentle, funny, hokey but intelligent - country-pop that's sometimes easily philosophical and occasionally grimly adolescent, Jewel seems to have no image of herself other than as a struggler who, coming from the backwoods, takes in everything she sees of the world goggle-eyed and interprets it through her lyric- and poetry-writing. Some of this poetry is scattered over her album sleeve: make sense, if you can, of a girl whose five-line haiku on Las Vegas goes "Women who suck / their cigarettes / as though they were / giving their / hatred head" and can also sing the chirpy "Cold Song" - "We'll stay inside where it's nice and warm / Tell our bosses we're caught in a sneezing storm / We'll sniffle and snuggle and watch more TV / Oh, Deedee come and catch a cold with me."

Read how America has lost its head over this beautiful wiseacre and you feel dubious - after all, Jewel has a luxurious voice, but her live show still retains an element of unbalance. Her infamous yodelling technique (she's part-Swiss, remember) is a wonder of the world, but can get tiresome, and some of her songs need an edit. On the other hand, she has suffered slings and arrows - "If a guy with a beard and sandals were singing some of this, you'd get up and put his eyes out," said one rather vitriolic UK writer - and it's not as if she's not aware of her own shortcomings. She told one genuflecting journalist that some of her songs are "dorky", and when we meet, confirms, "I thought `You Were Meant for Me' was so bad that I can't listen to the track on the album, the way I sing on it is so terrible." Yet other songs are gorgeous in their simple, gemlike clarity.

Pieces of You was put together when Jewel was an 18-year-old living in a camper van, and there is nothing overworked in it, but just an articulate, aching observation of what life's like. It's startlingly uplifting. And so, in a way, is Jewel. Her history is short but eventful and, if she sometimes comes on like a self-help book, it's clearly been developed as a coping mechanism. Things began well enough. Grandfather Kilcher was part of a group of Swiss pioneers who settled above the 49th parallel just after the gold rush, founding the Northern Exposure-type town of Homer, where Jewel's father, Atz, brought up his family. And where there was very, very little. Jewel and her two brothers would wake up in the family cabin with frost on their eyelashes. Using the outhouse meant thawing the water first. Instead of a telephone, there was the ride line, a public radio station. "So everyone had a handle, a name, which you could make up. Uh... `Two pigs in heaven looking for a king-sized bed. If have one, please call...' If you're in the middle of nowhere, it's how you keep in touch. `To Miss Suzy Jane, can't come by tonight', or whatever." Later, the family got a party line, shared with all the neighbours within a 10- mile radius. The infant Jewel would pick up the receiver and be tuned in to every local imbroglio. So you'd hear everyone's secret thoughts and conversations? It sounds like telepathy or Wings of Desire. She roars with laughter. "Actually, it sounds like, `Would you please get off the phone!'"

To hear her tell it, Homer drew a rare assortment of cosmopolitan intellectuals, "though it wasn't some hippy-dippy return to the land or something". Her own parents fitted in so, although Jewel's schooling was hit-and-miss and her access to outside information limited - at 18, she was unclear whether the Beatles or the Monkees recorded "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" - what she did learn was helpfully eclectic. "My mother would sit me in the middle of a room with six tape-players around me. She'd put on different chants from all over the world - Bulgarian, Gregorian, East Indian, American Indian - at the same time, and in the middle you'd hear the soil of the language, and rhythm and breathing."

Her father, however, a Vietnam vet, social worker and part-time songwriter, sounds rather more volatile, and it was at his hands that Jewel's idyllic if poverty-stricken existence took a downturn. When her parents divorced, the eight-year-old was put in his care, A "mean" drinker, Atz decided to take a father-daughter musical act on the road and, in an effort to please him, says Jewel, "I sang my little brains out." There followed years of touring bars and clubs where Jewel saw a great deal of life's seedier side. "I learned everything about human nature there, and how to exist within it without it hurting me."

At 16, she lit out to find her mom, in San Diego. There followed thankless years of waitressing and other dead-end jobs which were "so insufferable, I'd have preferred digging ditches". Jewel developed a kidney infection she's never quite got rid of, and new depths of poverty were achieved - there's a story of her throwing up over herself in the back of a car as her mother tried to barter for antibiotics. Jewel concluded depression was making her ill. "Far from saving the world, I couldn't save myself. I had to make my life worth living, because it wasn't, and I wanted to die."

Here's where the camper van comes in because, in a move that's half leap of faith, half insane, she and her mom moved into one so Jewel could quit work and concentrate on her songs. She got a deal, made her album - and it lay dormant, radio stations refusing to play it because it was "uncommercial". "I thought, oh yeah? I'm gonna tour my brains out just to prove you wrong!" Which she did. Along the way, she hooked up with Sean Penn, who heard a demo and called her "the best songwriter since Dylan". During their affair, he carried her guitars on tour - "he was so sweet" - and got her to write a song for his movie The Crossing Guard.

It paid off. Fans who'd seen her bludgeoned the media, and now she records at Neil Young's studio, tours with the likes of Dylan and Johnny Cash and was recently Grammy-nominated. To what does she attribute the album's success? She laughs. "Despite the guitar mistakes, the six-minute songs with no chorus? Maybe it's that it's emotional, not calculated. That album was so naively done, it wasn't meant to be heard by the world, I wasn't that careful with it. Which, I guess, is kind of part of its charm."

Jewel plays Bloomsbury Theatre, London on Sunday (0171-388 8822); She appears on `Later...' (BBC2) on 1 Nov and plays Shepherd's Bush Empire on 14 Nov (0181-740 7474)

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
Sport
footballMan City manager would have loved to have signed Argentine
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site on Friday

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Sport
Enner Valencia
footballStriker has enjoyed a rapid rise to fame via winning the title with ‘The Blue Ballet’ in Ecuador
Arts and Entertainment
A top literary agent has compared online giant Amazon to Isis
arts + entsAndrew Wylie has pulled no punches in criticism of Amazon
Arts and Entertainment
Charlie Sheen said he would
tv

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities