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Plain and Simple Suits Her

After toying with a new sound, Jewel went back to the basics: wistful thoughts, a guitar. Hey, it sure worked the first time.

November 15, 1998|MARC WEINGARTEN | Marc Weingarten is a regular contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — Although Jewel certainly ranks high among pop music's nouveau riche, the sprawling mock-Tudor home she shares with her mother in a tranquil area of northern San Diego County is hardly a monument to showy opulence.

Cozy, offhandedly casual and overstuffed with family mementos and "shabby chic" touches, the house bears only the most subtle signs of its owner's celebrity status, such as Jewel's 1997 American Music Award for best new artist, which is sandwiched on a shelf beside books on art and Eastern religion.

Yet here she is, just returning home from a vigorous ride on her quarter horse, and looking like a bedraggled ranch hand in her Wrangler jeans and straw cowboy hat.

"Sorry I'm late," Jewel tells a photographer who's been cooling his heels for half an hour. "I'll just be a minute."

First, though, Jewel's mother and manager, Nedra Carroll, gives her daughter a hug and an update on the marathon strategy meeting she's been having with executives from Jewel's label, Atlantic Records, regarding "Spirit," the singer-songwriter's second album, which will be released Tuesday.

Some hushed confidences are shared, Jewel lets out a few guileless giggles, and then it's off to the bedroom for a quick make-over--without the aid of a makeup artist or hair stylist, thank you very much.

Fifteen minutes later, a newly spit-polished Jewel emerges wearing hip-hugging black pants and a black silk blouse. "OK, where do you want me?" she resignedly asks the photographer.

Four years after releasing her 10-million-selling "Pieces of You"--one of the dozen most successful recording debut albums in pop music history--Jewel Kilcher is grinding the promotional gears again, this time for an album that may determine whether the Alaska native's first record was a mandate for long-term success or just a brief shining moment. (See accompanying review.)

"Spirit" is her second attempt at a follow-up to "Pieces of You." So concerned was Jewel about making a strong impression the second time around that she spent nearly a month in 1996 recording tracks for a new album. She brought in lots of studio players in an attempt give her sound an edge, only to discover that it didn't sound like her at all. So she abandoned the nearly completed album altogether.

"The biggest factor was that she was working on it right when 'Pieces of You' took off," says Carroll, "and we found ourselves catapulted out there, and she could never get back to finish it. When the time finally came to make another record two years later, those songs didn't feel right to her. She didn't feel comfortable working with a band, and she could hear that in those tracks. Musically and technically, she wasn't pleased."

"It was really a growth thing for me," Jewel says of the aborted second album. "I did it for all the wrong reasons. I was trying to put a record out that was a response to all the criticism I was getting, but it wasn't sincere to who I was. That's when I started getting comfortable with the fact that you can only do what you do. It was a good process, though, 'cause by the time I got to this new record, I was feeling pretty good about myself."


Jewel's rise from struggling folk singer and part-time waitress living out of her car to incipient pop cultural icon has been unusually swift, but even she will tell you it was hardly capricious. After "Pieces of You" slipped under the media's radar upon its initial release in 1995, this veteran of a thousand bar gigs hit the road for almost three years, and didn't stop until she got the message across to audiences and radio programmers alike.

"I think Jewel has one of the most extraordinary voices in the world," says Atlantic executive vice president and general manager Ron Shapiro, whose quest to make "Pieces of You" a bestseller consumed him for three years. "When I first heard her sing her songs, I thought the world needed to stop feeling angry and that there are people in love, and that those were things that were being repressed in music. I felt that she was an anointed messenger of the heart."

Shapiro and Jewel's dogged determination yielded astonishing returns, especially considering that "Pieces of You" is primarily a quiet album of introverted acoustic folk-pop. And MTV certainly gave Jewel a leg up by making the videos for such singles as "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games" playlist fixtures for two years.

"I've exceeded every goal I've ever had," says Jewel, who's finished her photo shoot and is now munching a zucchini-and-turkey lunch in her backyard, which looks out over an immaculate swimming pool and a large grove of orange trees.

"The initial goal for 'Pieces of You' was to sell 30,000 copies, then we were like, 'Oh, maybe it'll sell 100,000,' and then when it sold a million, we were like, 'Whoa!' There were a lot of people that wanted to make it a radio record, but it wouldn't have been me.

"I have to be honest about what I do, and I wanted 'Spirit' to show my growth."

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