Jewel on the Surprising Talent That Made Her a Music Superstar
The first thing I noticed when I sat down with Jewel was her beautifully sculpted cheekbones and trademark smile, but I was instantly redirected toward her glow; a warm and welcoming glow emanating from that same place where, no doubt, her poetic music and lyrics originate. I wanted to learn more. It hasn’t been easy for Jewel, the daughter of a single father who experienced post-Vietnam PTSD and self-medicated with alcohol. The impoverished father/daughter duo, knocked around bars in Jewel’s home state of Alaska, crooning to just barely pay the bills. On her own by age of fifteen, to escape an abusive home environment, the multiplatinum, multi-award-winning artist poured her pain, anxiety, depression, and confusion into some of the most lyrically potent and widely listened to music of the past two and a half decades. She became a music icon in the process.
Discovered in a Southern California coffee house with little more than her guitar, Jewel would go on to sell more than thirty million albums, and it all started with her breakout 1995 album, Pieces of You, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Hits like Standing Still, Hands, Who Will Save Your Soul, You Were Meant for Me, and Intuition, reflect Jewel’s evolutionary inward journey and continue to resonate, worldwide, throughout our human culture. It’s no wonder The Voice producer, Mark Burnett, calls Jewel “One of the greatest singer-songwriters in history.”
Now, the forty-seven-year-old mother of one has devoted much of her public platform to mental health advocacy and what she gleefully calls her ongoing practice of “being consciously present” with her experiences. Jewel’s Never Broken (an nod to her hit song, Hands and her New York Times bestselling memoir) movement offers free mindfulness and mental health resources and what she calls “actionable exercises,” while her second annual World Mental Health Day Summit and Concert, is taking place, virtually, on Sunday, October 10th at TheWellness-Experience.com.
Jewel’s anticipated upcoming album Freewheelin’ Woman, which reflects her personal and musical evolution of “being on this side of life,” as she lovingly calls her current chapter, will be released in Spring 2022.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about your name Jewel. Is there a story behind your first name?
Jewel: It’s a family name. My grandfather’s name was Jasper Jade Jewel Caroll, my mother’s name was Lenedra Jewel Caroll, and my other grandfather was Yule. The feminine pronunciation of that name was Jewel. It kind of came from both sides.
Allison Kugel: Interesting. Tell me about the three most significant events in your life that shaped who you are today.
Jewel. I don’t really think that way, but the interesting thing I find about healing is that our stories can’t change. We can’t go back and change our history, but we can change how we relate to the story. We can change which features we make salient and important to us, and we can change which memories we draw on. A good example would be, growing up as a child I didn’t think I was lovable because my parents didn’t seem to love me or care for me. So, if you had asked me that question many years ago, I would have said a big part of my story was that I felt unlovable. Through time, and through healing, you start to realize it’s not that I was unlovable and it’s not even that my parents didn’t love me. It’s that my parents didn’t know how to love. Again, it’s not how your story changes, but how you relate to the story that changes. Realizing that my parents didn’t know how to love builds empathy. It builds a different sense of self-worth, because it’s not suddenly about me, or from an ego perspective, about my lack of ability to be loved or lovable, and it allows room for a different narrative.
Allison Kugel: At what age did you come to that conclusion?
Jewel: I’ve been studying for the last couple of years, sort of a system of misunderstandings, and realizing that a lot of conclusions we draw about ourselves are based on a misunderstanding. It’s about looking through it through fresh eyes and saying, “Is that true?” and challenging that truth. It’s kind of a process I’ve always been interested in but looking at it in terms of misunderstandings and updating misunderstandings has probably been more in the last couple of years.
Allison Kugel: For me, personally, I always say that my parents raised me the best way they knew how, and then when I became an adult, I re-raised myself. Does that resonate with you?
Jewel: Yes. I remember at some point thinking wouldn’t it be embarrassing if I spent my whole adulthood getting over my childhood (laugh). At some point, how do you start to transcend your story? You do have to heal and reclaim a lot of that narrative, and then you get to start saying, “Now, what do I want to do with it?” In my book (New York Times bestseller, Never Broken/Penguin Random House), I called it “an archeological dig back to my true self.” My life had a lot of drama and a lot of trauma. My mom left when I was eight. My dad was a Vietnam veteran who was trauma-triggered. He was abusive and an alcoholic. I moved out at [the age of] 15 and was paying rent. I was homeless by 18, because I wouldn’t have sex with my boss. I was living in my car and then my car got stolen. So, I knew, statistically, kids like me ended up repeating the cycle, and I didn’t want to be a statistic. But if your nurture was really bad, how do you get to know your nature? That is what I’ve spent my life dedicated to, is figuring out what causes happiness? Happiness is a side effect of choices. Our choices are usually stimulated by misunderstandings. We have to examine those and rework them so we can go where we want in life.
Allison Kugel: Did you do that with the help of a therapist, or was it mainly self-work?
Jewel: It was an internal process for me. [At the time] I didn’t have access to therapists. When I moved out at 15, I started having panic attacks and didn’t know what they were. I also started getting really sick and I thought it was stress related, so I started studying food as medicine. I started having so many panic attacks, that I was able to experiment while I was having them to see what things worked. And then it was really when I was homeless that I hit a whole new level of being able to understand a lot of my behaviors. I was shop lifting a dress and I looked in the mirror and saw what I looked like, and I looked like a statistic. I hadn’t beat the odds. I turned into a homeless kid who was stealing and going to end up in jail or on drugs. I remembered this quote by Buddha that said, “Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have. It depends on what you think.” I wanted to see if I could change my life one thought at a time. But I couldn’t perceive what I was thinking in real time, because I was so disassociated, and I couldn’t witness my thoughts happening. So, I decided to come up with this hack where I realized your hands are the servants of your thoughts. If you want to see what you’re thinking, just watch what you’re doing. It’s your thought cooled down, slowed down into action. My big life plan in that moment was to not steal the dress, and to write down everything my hands did for two weeks, I think. I didn’t know what I was looking for.
Allison Kugel: What your hands were doing… explain that.
Jewel: I opened a door, I shut a door. I washed my hands. I wouldn’t shake somebody’s hand. I stole vegetables. Whatever it was, I was looking for a pattern to clue me in about what I was thinking? At the end of the two weeks, I sat down and looked at everything and the pattern definitely showed I quit believing in myself. The much more interesting thing was that my anxiety went away. I didn’t have a panic attack for the whole two weeks. What I had stumbled onto was mindfulness and being present. The word “mindfulness” wasn’t around at that time. It was just through my journaling and going inward that I realized fear is a thief and it robs us of any chance we have to change. My anxiety was me taking my past and projecting it onto my future that hadn’t happened yet.
Allison Kugel: Tell me how your music connects to all of this. Your lyrics can stand alone as poetry. When you were writing many of your songs that went on to become huge hits, did you first write them as poems?
Jewel: My songs came together with lyrics and melody, but writing poems had been my first skill, and my first love was writing.
Allison Kugel: I can tell.
Jewel: I think writing was me developing that relationship with my observer; with that quiet voice that is so easily drowned out, but that is so wise and sees so much. When you sit down to write, whether you’re going to be a writer or not, you’re giving a pen to your authenticity. You’re giving your authenticity a way of communicating to you. It is your soul trying to communicate with you. Poetry, especially so, because it leaves enough room, and it is symbolic.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your upcoming World Mental Health Day Summit and Concert. This is the second annual event of its kind. How did it come together? And how can people get involved and attend?
Jewel: As I mentioned to you, moving out at 15 and having this daunting feeling of, “Oh my gosh! If happiness wasn’t taught in my home, is it a learnable skill? Is it a teachable skill?” Then realizing everything that I needed to learn to be a happy and whole human, and not a human full of holes (laughs).
Allison Kugel: (Laugh) I like that!
Jewel: It was an education that I originally lacked, and I wasn’t taught it in school. It had to be this 360-degree thing this very three-dimensional thing. I had to learn about food as medicine. I had to learn about my mind affecting my body. I had to learn that my thoughts can create a dilated or contracted state which then creates physiological reactions, biochemical reactions, vascular reactions, as well as learning things like relationship fitness. I wasn’t raised thinking relationships were great, and, growing up, relationships in my life were never nurturing. I needed to gain a whole new education in all kinds of things. When I became famous, the thing I used my name for was not getting a table at a restaurant, it was to find the best experts. It took a lot of time and a lot of digging to find those special people that looked at their craft from this very holistic standpoint, and to curate that information. This wellness festival is like a culmination of a lifetime of learning and gathering for myself and wanting to democratize that wellness. This will be our second time doing this event on World Mental Health Day.
Allison Kugel: Is there a website people can visit to find out about the event and attend. And can people attend virtually?
Jewel: Yes, it is all virtual, actually and it’s free to attend at www.thewellness-experience.com. The event is eight hours with famous fitness trainers from yoga and other [modalities], there will be talks with musicians, clinics on anxiety, all kinds of stuff.
Allison Kugel: You and I have this in common because I had also struggled with anxiety and panic attacks from the time I was eight years old. My feeling is that you don’t get “cured,” but, rather, you heal from it. What do you think?
Jewel: In my book (Never Broken/Penguin Random House) I write about a really difficult thing that happened with my mom in my thirties, and it really set me back. I was thinking about how to heal again while I was in my thirties, and I had this sort of flash or inspiration come to me, that we are not actually broken. No matter what trauma we suffer, I always came at it like I had to fix myself as if I was broken. That is a really daunting and really depressing way to go about it. I realized that a soul is not a teacup. It can’t be broken. It exists perfectly and whole. A lot of the exercises I developed during that time in my life, that are available on www.jewelneverbroken.com, are the little exercises I used to help distinguish the self and the other. And, yes, it is something you heal from. Anxiety does not have the grip it used to have over me. I hadn’t had an anxiety attack in probably twenty years. But interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I was totally triggered and had a panic attack. It was fascinating.
Allison Kugel: It is an empowering perspective to, instead of being scared by it, to become curious about it.
Jewel: I had the skills to care for myself, and in retrospect realize what triggered me. It was really fascinating what triggered me and I learned a lot. I don’t live in fear that I’m going to keep having panic attacks. The money that we are going to try and raise from this wellness experience all goes to my foundation where we teach these skills to kids that don’t have access to therapy and traditional support groups. Resiliency is just a fancy word for having multiple tools to handle life as it happens. If this tool doesn’t work, try this one. If that tool doesn’t work, try that one.
Allison Kugel: You and I both have sons. Your son is ten and mine is twelve. I feel like we are pioneers in that we are both raising young men who will eventually be grown men, and we want them to be more in touch with their emotions, and how they relate to their emotions, than previous generations of men. How do you speak to your son about his emotions and how he identifies with them?
Jewel: My son is a very emotional child. He is very creative. Something I’ve really been working on with my son is differentiating between a genuine emotion and a reaction.
Allison Kugel: Good one.
Jewel: If you look at things generationally, if you have really strict parents that child will grow up and be really lenient. Uber religious parents sometimes will cause the opposite reaction and the child will become the exact opposite.
Allison Kugel: Over correction, yes.
Jewel: But it’s the same. It’s just a different side of the same coin. Looking at emotionality and how we raise boys, for me it has been going back and really studying masculinity among indigenous cultures; the rites of passage from a male perspective, and not putting my female perspective on it. But instead, learning about masculinity in an indigenous way as well as realizing I would have a tendency to want to over empower my child’s feelings. Learning that you can’t use your feelings as a tactic is really important for a child, especially for a child that has a mom that’s like, “I care about your feelings (laughs),” which I do. But right now, the world isn’t having a lot of authentic feelings, it’s having a lot of reactions. It’s using volatile and highly emotionally charged reactions to bully people into behavior. That’s the role type of being woke now. I find that really interesting, and something I’m thinking about right now with my son is, “How do I implement him learning to self-assess because we don’t want to have a reaction. We want to have a thoughtful and centered response. That’s powerful. That where you’re in your body and in your heart, and you’re forming a response. That’s focused and intentional, versus just a reaction that is highly emotional. It’s a little nuance, but I think it really matters.
Allison Kugel: Can great art be born out of joy and contentment, or do you feel that art is always the byproduct of trauma, pain, and processing pain?
Jewel: Both things are true, and so what do you want your life to be? I know a lot of artists that are stuck on a treadmill of self-imposed hatred, self-hatred, self-flagellation, because they believe it’s the only way, they can make art. Or I have friends that just stay high, and they only can write when they’re high. Whatever you believe is true. I personally believe art is much bigger than that. Art is just the mirror of life. A mirror doesn’t stop being a mirror because you’re happy (laugh). It’s a mirror all the time. It’s there to capture the imprint of all life and there is great beauty. There are poems that celebrate sheer joy and ecstatic ecstasy. I definitely would recommend any artist to take themselves off the cross upon which they have nailed themselves, because your art can still be really potent and engaging and healing through beauty as well.
Allison Kugel: Good point. Do you pray, and if so, who or what do you pray to?
Jewel: I do pray. I think prayer is as real an element as fire, water or wind. I don’t have a religious denomination, so I was raised with a lot of Native American culture and influence, and so my culture and my prayers tend to lean more toward that.
Allison Kugel: You grew up in the Alaskan wilderness with very little. As a teen you were homeless and had nothing, and then suddenly you had a lot. How did you acclimate and what is your relationship with material luxuries today?
Jewel: I was lucky to be raised in Alaska with a lot of nature; big, wild, raw country. That was my church. I’m a really experience-based person and I wasn’t raised that way, nor did my personality ever feel hungry for material things in that way. My mom, however, if you read my book (Never Broken), she was very motivated by those things, and those things were very important to her. Money helps. Anybody that says money doesn’t help is full of it. It definitely cannot make you happy, which is why there are so many suicidal rich people, just like there are suicidal poor people, but it can remove a lot of stress. Having money for medical care, for airplane tickets, for food; those things have been such a relief in my life. It has been beyond a blessing. But other than that, I’m just not too motivated that way.
Allison Kugel: What makes you perfectly imperfect?
Jewel: Life is about growth. When you enjoy growth, it means you really have to love your mistakes. I pray every day for the eyes to see how I can grow. That means every day I’m going to see things that I’m not great at. Perfection is really an addiction that we cling to, and we usually get addicted to it quite young, and it’s a system of deserving. When you are in a system of deserving, you become obsessed with performance so that you can earn your way into love. A lot of us are stuck on this hamster wheel of, “If I perform better, if I’m more extraordinary, I will earn my own respect and I will earn the respect of those around me, and earn my way back into heaven, as it were.” Perfection doesn’t exist, and so we’re constantly setting ourselves up for failure and pain. And God forbid you make money doing it, you know (laugh)? God forbid you become a high performing person who has been motivated by perfection and then rewarded for it. Because it’s a reckoning we all have to come to terms with, the fact that nature isn’t perfect, it’s in harmony.
Allison Kugel: What remains on your bucket list?
Jewel: I was lucky to be a person that felt very engaged in my music that was a real passion and purpose. I knew that I was here to help people and my music helped me do that. I thought that if I served my purpose, I would just be fine and I would be taken care of, and it almost killed me. I just wore myself out because I kept thinking well if I’m serving a good purpose, I’ll be healthy. It isn’t actually how that works so I really exhausted myself and wore myself out and worked probably three hundred times harder than I needed to because I didn’t know how to do less at the time.
Allison Kugel: Do you mean like recording, touring, appearances?
Jewel: Yes, I was doing 1,000 shows a year. I was doing five and six shows a day.
Allison Kugel: Were you ever at home?
Jewel: No not for decades (laugh). It was in service of my purpose, and I was like that is noble so somehow, I don’t know I thought God owed me health. I have no idea what I was thinking (laugh). I didn’t even realize it was a thought and so for me as I re-engage and I have a new record and new book coming out, it has been a privilege to get to redo this in a whole new mindset. Not because I have a chip on my shoulder, not because I have to be a slave to my purpose, but because I want to see what I’m capable of when I’m rested and engaging in something in a much healthier way. My native uncles taught me a really beautiful definition of power and it is an act of power benefits both yourself and the community.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about the new music.
Jewel: I have a new album called Freewheeling Woman coming out. This was the first record I’ve written from scratch. Even with my first album I had 100’s of songs already written by the age of eighteen, so I would always just take songs out of my back catalogue, whether it was pop, country, or whatever. I didn’t want to do that for this one even though I have a lot of songs in my back catalog that I love. I wanted this new album to be written from the ground up and reflect who I am now. I think I was forty-five when I was writing it and it was hard! I see now why middle-aged artists do a lot of drugs (laugh).
Allison Kugel: Oh man (laughs).
Jewel: They do it to bypass the work that it takes to get past the domestic architecture that had gotten into me, and to find a new, honest, raw, but different new place creatively. I think I wrote two hundred songs for this album to get the 12 or 14 that I like. It has a more soul feel. Kind of like a Muscles Shoals soul feel. I’m singing very differently than I’ve sung. Singing a lot better than I’ve ever sung and its sort of a celebration. I’m 47 now but it feels fun to be just like on my side of life. I enjoy it (Laugh)
Allison Kugel: Did you ever at a time in your career feel that you ever needed to use substances to reach like that higher level of creativity?
Jewel: I never felt that was something I needed to do. I was raised in bars watching people drink and do drugs until they died so I never drank or did drugs.
Allison Kugel: Last year was the 25th anniversary of “Pieces of You” that is a milestone. How did you celebrate?
Jewel: I did a show here where I live in this little theatre. It was during quarantine and I did it live. Which was really fun for me to be home, be with my son. I love doing visual art, so I did this huge 40-foot back drop drew it and painted it. Sang the whole album top to bottom which was so fun. I had never done that.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Jewel Kilcher to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
Jewel: I think that a lot of us feel this huge obligation to see why we’re here. Something I learned from my Native American uncles is that the purpose of your life is to be happy. It is your birthright to be happy, and if you are not happy, you need to do something about it. Nobody owes you happiness. The obsession with meaning; meaning is a side effect of experience. It’s like the teaching of Buddha, looking at the flower. Flowers don’t go around going, “What is my meaning?” They exist, and existing gives meaning. Ask yourself, “Am I happy? Am I doing things that make me happy?” I think one thing would be to start reframing it and coming back to meaning as a side effect of experience. What is your experience? Are you happy? Great! If you’re not, what would you be willing to change? And are you willing to be accountable to that?
Allison Kugel: Would you ever do a Las Vegas residency?
Jewel: I don’t know. If I thought of the right thing to do or the right show. I did a Cirque du Soleil show about my life, as a charity thing, which was really fun, and I thought about doing it as a regular thing, but it’s a lot of work!
Allison Kugel: If you could travel back in time and change or witness any famous historical event, where would go, and what would you attempt to change or bear witness to?
Jewel: When I was young, I was very obsessed with philosophy and the dialectic, and I was very influenced by Socrates. I realized I could think, and I didn’t know that before. I was a dyslexic, really poor kid and so the power of learning through questioning something, and the knowing that two people coming together can create something that could be known by a third person was powerful for me. When I realized I could do that to myself, where I realized I could ask myself a question and I would hear an answer that I didn’t even know I knew, that got really exciting to me. I became obsessed with that era, although it wouldn’t have been good to be a woman back than (laugh). Other than that, I’ve never really given much thought to what time period I would go back to in history, because what if, for me, that moment is now?
Allison Kugel: One day, when a movie is made about your life, what is something you hope and pray they get right?
Jewel: Something I’ve been surprised about in my own life is that what I thought were my talents didn’t actually help me in my life. The talent that really helped me was my persistence. That’s not a real sexy word. It’s not a word most people aspire to, but when I look back, just not quitting ended up being my best talent. Whenever I was faced with a challenge, just being willing to stand up and be willing to do something different today than I did yesterday and standing up again and trying something different today than I did yesterday. Again, it’s not a very sexy thing, but it’s why I have the life that I have. It’s the quality and the trait that led me to where I am. Everything else was sort of a dressing around it.
Allison Kugel: I think that is a great answer. You want to be remembered for your persistence and your ability to constantly learn and try a new way of doing things until you reach that apex of where you want to be.
Jewel: I think that whether it’s music or healing, people don’t get to see behind the curtain very much. It’s not pretty work. You don’t just arrive. It’s kind of a gritty process to get great at writing, to get great at singing, to get healthier and to get happier. I wish that people celebrated grit and not quitting. If you’re in it and you’re slogging it out, you’re doing it. That is the guarantee that you’ll get to the top, because the only guarantee of getting to the top of the mountain is one unbeautiful step at a time.
Shop the 25th anniversary deluxe edition of Jewel’s 1995 album, Pieces of You. Join Jewel’s mental health community at JewelNeverBroken.com. Log on to TheWellness-Experience.com to attend Jewel’s World Mental Health Day Summit and Concert Virtual Event this Sunday, October 10, 2021. This virtual event is FREE to attend. Follow Jewel on Instagram @Jewel.
Hear the extended interview with Jewel on the Allison Interviews Podcast. Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment journalist and host of the Allison Interviews podcast. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and YouTube. Follow on Instagram @theallisonkugel.