The prospect of releasing a "Greatest Hits" album this year has been both happy and humbling for Jewel.
"I think it's neat," says the singer-songwriter, a onetime Interlochen Arts Academy student who emerged in 1995 with a debut album, "Pieces of You," that's been certified 12 times platinum. "I got signed when I was 17, and I never thought my career would go as far as it did. I really idolized John Prine, Tom Waits, that sort of (artist). I hoped that would be my lot -- I'd get to have a fan base and make records and tour. I never dreamed it would get to the highs it had.
"And when it did I was quite concerned about longevity, and I've always tried to make decisions that hopefully would create a good, strong fan base that was really loyal. And that's what's happened, so I feel really blessed."
Born in Utah and raised in Alaska, Jewel (nee Kilcher), 38, started out singing -- and yodeling -- with her father, then learned to play guitar while at Interlochen as a teenager. She also started writing songs there, trying them out at Ray's Coffee House in Traverse City.
Moving to San Diego with her mother, and occasionally living out of their car, Jewel became a fixture in that city's scene, performing on the street and in various clubs and coffee houses. "It wasn't an easy time," she notes. "I was living in my car because I'd just been fired from a job because I wouldn't sleep with my boss. Then the car got stolen, and I had bad kidneys. It was hard times."
But, she's quick to add, "I think there's a big misconception that I was struggling for my art. It was really just circumstances. I went back to singing as a fail-safe, 'cause I couldn't hold a job down because of my kidneys. It was a way to make some cash. I wasn't trying to get signed or anything."
She did, however. With a strong manager, a former Paramount studio executive named Inga Vainshtein, Jewel was the subject of a bidding war and signed with Atlantic Records for "Pieces" of you, which was recorded at Neil Young's ranch with his band the Stray Gators and produced by longtime Young cohort Ben Keith. Atlantic put Jewel on the road for multi-week residencies at coffee houses in several cities -- including Brazil in Royal Oak -- but "Pieces of You" was anything but a quick success when it was released in February of 1995.
"When my first record came out, it looked like it wasn't going to sell anything," Jewel recalls. "It had sold maybe 3,000 copies in the first 10 months or something FActions of my label wanted to drop me. It was hard. I was thinking, 'What am I doing? Am I making the wrong kind of music?' I didn't want to end up in a car again."
Not long after, Jewel found a mentor and champion in Bob Dylan, who took her on the road as an opening act that year. Though told not to expect Dylan to check out her set or even speak to her, Jewel was surprised when Dylan's tour manager told him that he did, in fact, want to meet her -- and more than that.
"He mentored me every night after the shows," Jewel remembers. "We talked about books and what I was reading. He'd go over lyrics with me. He gave me a lot of confidence. He believed in what I was doing and really encouraged me. So I stuck with the record a little bit longer."
At the time Jewel was also working on a sophomore album she describes as "a little bit reactionary" to the lack of success she was initially having with "Pieces of You" -- in other words, she was trying to write hits. Enter Neil Young. "He asked me to go on the road with him," Jewel says, "and one day I was visiting with him and we talked about singles and what it meant to have hits. I told him I had written a song I wasn't fond of, but I thought it would be a hit. He advised me against that. He just said, 'Do what you're doing. Go play live and if fans respond to you live, everything will fall in place.'
"So that's what I did, and the rest is history. I went from selling nothing to selling 500,000 copies a week."
"Pieces of You" ultimately hit No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart, Top 5 in Australia and Norway and No. 1 in New Zealand. It spawned a pair of No. 2 singles, "You Were Meant For Me" and "Foolish Games," while "Who Will Save Your Soul" reached No. 11. Jewel appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was nominated for a pair of Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist, and was named Favorite New Artist at the 1997 American Music Awards.
"The great gift 'Pieces of You' gave me was selling so many records that, if I was careful with my money, I would be able to make decisions based on art for the rest of my life instead of trying to pay the mortgage," Jewel says now. "That's what I tried to do. I've never been in a position where I had to make a hit. That's why I've taken so many turns in my career and pushed myself to do different things."
Jewel's career since then has certainly been marked by musical adventures and chance-taking. Though "Pieces of You's" immediate follow-up, 1998's "Spirit," was a quadruple-platinum success, she's experimented with more ambitious pop sounds on "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" and country on 2008's "Perfectly Clear" and 2010's "Sweet and Wild." She also recorded a holiday album "Joy," in 1999, and a children's set, "Lullaby," in 2009, and has published two poetry books and an autobiography.
She was even a contestant on the eighth season of "Dancing With the Stars" but had to pull out before the premiere after suffering stress fractures in her legs.
"You know, a huge part of this has been this insane fan base I've had," says Jewel, who married champion rodeo cowboy in 2008 and had a son, Kase Townes Murray, in 2011. "They've always been in really close contact with me, and vice versa. We've kept our fingers on each other's pulses. Nothing I've done has ever caught them out of left field, I don't think. They've always been part of the process, and I think they can tell when someone's doing something for real or if it's something strictly for marketing reasons -- which I've tried to never do."
Jewel's "Greatest Hits" does, however, have a few hooks to freshen the old material. There's one new song, "Two Hearts Breaking," as well as a pair of remakes -- "Foolish Games" with Kelly Clarkson and "You Were Meant For Me" with Miranda Lambert and Pistol Annies, though the original versions of the songs also appear on the set.
"I just wanted to do some duets with some artists I really liked and some voices I like," Jewel explains. "Kelly was amazing. She was a hoot to have in the studio. She had done 'Foolish Games' in several talent shows prior to 'American Idol,' so she really knew it. I'm such a fan of her voice and love what she added to the song. She was so effortless on it. It's neat to hear it in her new light.
"And with Pistol Annies, I love them. I think they're cool, and I was really excited Miranda (Lambert) and the girls wanted to be on it. We had a lot of fun."
With "Greatest Hits" putting a bit of a cap on one era of her life and career, Jewel is now looking towards what's next. She's been writing "quite a bit of prose," including short-story fiction, though no plans for publication have been set. As for new music, she has another country album written and says she'd like to do a collection of pop standards. And, perhaps influenced by surveying her older material for "Greatest Hits," Jewel also has an appetite to go back to where she started.
"I'd really like to do a follow-up to 'Pieces of You,' " she explains. "I have sort of a mirror album to it, just kind of folky stuff that I'd (record) live, like I did 'Pieces of You.' I have a couple of ideas, so I'm not sure which will be first.
"I'm in a lucky and fortunate position. Very few women have sustained long-term careers with prestige. It's difficult. (Barbra) Streisand and Bette Midler and Cher. Madonna's done it her way. It's a high mark, a difficult standard. It's a different mold and a different path, but it's a great path if you can get there. I'm certainly not there yet -- but I have my eye on it."
Jewel and Lilly Hiatt perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at SoundBoard in the MotorCity Casino Hotel, 2901 Grand River Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $30-$42. Call 1-866-782-9633 or visit www.soundboarddetroit.com.
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