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A country girl at heart, Jewel goes to Nashville

May 25, 2008|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer
  • NASHVILLE GAL: Jewel??s country-flavored new disc, ??Perfectly Clear,?? will be released June 3. ??I??ve always loved this town,?? she says. ??You can throw a rock and hit somebody in the head who is more talented than you.???o
NASHVILLE GAL: Jewel??s country-flavored new disc, ??Perfectly Clear,??… (Christopher Berkley / For…)

NASHVILLE — BACK when she was living in her van, when playing a San Diego coffeehouse was a big gig, Jewel Kilcher had an inspiring vision of fame. She'd read about intellectuals who gathered to find common ground in disparate pursuits, each bringing his or her own ingredient -- a little Klimt, a little Henry Miller and Monet -- to create a magical stew of ideas.

That, she figured, had to be what it was like for the famous and the fabulous in the modern pop music world -- lying about, perhaps, as if they were students in Plato's academy, swapping songwriting tricks and unusual chord progressions.

"Wrong," she said.

That would have come as a surprise only to a kid who grew up largely in the wilds of Alaska, playing lumberjack bars with a knife on her belt, prohibited from cutting her hair until it was the same length as Crystal Gayle's. It turned out, of course, that the pop music world was a petty place, laced with narcissism and insecurity; collaboration can be difficult when one artist's success is seen as correlated to another's failure.

So, Jewel set off on her own path, and she's done pretty well for herself. Since the 1995 release of her debut, "Pieces of You," she has sold roughly 27 million albums -- about one every 15 seconds, 24 hours a day, for 13 years. All along, she said, she was driven largely by a quest to find authenticity in the music business.

In the last year, she realized it was here all along, in Nashville, where she'd recorded all but one of her records, where the neon signs on Broadway are in the shapes of guitars, where Dolly Parton sang of Music Row: "If you want to be a star, that's where you've got to go."

For her seventh and latest album, "Perfectly Clear," Jewel has gone country. Largely self-produced, the album will be released on June 3; its first single, "Stronger Woman," has been making a robust showing on country radio and the country charts for weeks.

There are subtle suggestions that Jewel, who turned 34 on Friday, has entered a new and strange world. She released two versions of "Stronger Women," for instance -- one using the word "horny" and another using "frisky" -- to ensure that she wouldn't ruffle any of Nashville's conservative feathers. Still, she said, this feels like home. And those who will see her transition as some sort of career overhaul or reinvention -- and she's been accused of all of that before -- haven't been paying attention, she said.

"I've always loved this town," she said. "You can throw a rock and hit somebody in the head who is more talented than you."

Before and after

Today's Jewel is different, to a degree, from the breathy, mesmerizing ingenue of her teens. She is well-coiffed, businesslike and made-up immaculately. Her appointments are kept for her on a tight schedule, including this one, an interview at Nashville's century-old Hermitage Hotel, a palace of Italian marble and stained glass.

But at times she is still clearly torn between her old life and her new, still a little stunned, after all this time, at what has befallen her. When the waitress picked up Jewel's linen napkin from the table, unfurled it and tried to place it on her lap -- they do that for everyone at the Hermitage -- she blushed over the attention.

"Oh, I can do that," she said with a quiet smile.

If she were discovered today, Jewel said, she would be pegged as a country artist from the start, because the alternative-radio programming that was the foundation of her early career has largely disappeared. "That was a magical window," she said. "I mean, they would play my songs between Nirvana and Soundgarden."

Partly as a result, many of today's songwriters Jewel sees as professional kin -- fellow storytellers like Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley -- rose through the country charts.

"It's a cool thing that's happened. And it demands authenticity," she said. "You either rise or fall based on talent and merit. They don't really trade on much else."

That contention will raise a few eyebrows in the music industry. Jewel's own sense of authenticity has been called into question in the past. And Nashville can be as commercial as it comes, and as a result is enormously divisive in the industry; country-punk renegade Hank Williams III lamented on a 2006 album that country music had been overrun by "these kids from a manufactured town."

The unvarnished truth, however, according to Jewel, is that she doesn't particularly need to care if critics or even some fans see her as straying from her roots -- even if she has never come close to replicating the commercial success she found with "Pieces of You."

"I went from being homeless to selling 11 million copies of that record," she said with a shrug. "I'm not a real decadent person. I didn't spend it on cars and houses. Every other record after that, I had nothing to lose. It kind of set me up. It bought me freedom."

She comes by it naturally

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