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)