JEWEL: Marrying Dreams and Reality

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Eleven years ago, a petite blonde folk singer with a sweet, plaintive soprano arrived on the music scene, plying her spare story songs to a generation obsessed with grunge. Much to her surprise, just a few short years after she’d been living in her car on the streets of California, 20-year-old Jewel’s debut album, Pieces of You, went on to sell an astonishing 12 million copies.Talk about a fairy tale.

Eleven years ago, a petite blonde folk singer with a sweet, plaintive soprano arrived on the music scene, plying her spare story songs to a generation obsessed with grunge. Much to her surprise, just a few short years after she’d been living in her car on the streets of California, 20-year-old Jewel’s debut album, Pieces of You, went on to sell an astonishing 12 million copies.

Now 31, Jewel chronicles that otherworldly rise to fame and its lessons on her latest effort, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland, a cohesive folk-pop narrative produced by rock’s Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls). “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I don’t know if this is the happiest record you ever wrote or the saddest,'” she laughs.

In many ways, this latest project is a bookend to her debut, she says. It’s the last of her required six-album deal with Atlantic Records, and both records were created as she was experiencing major milestones in her life, turning 20 and 30, respectively.

But if some artists are intimidated — stymied, even — by the pressures of scoring near overnight success at such a young age, Jewel says instead that it set her free. “I never wanted to be famous, so I didn’t care if I dropped off the map after that,” she says. “So it was just like, ‘Wow,’ I get to make records and follow my muse and challenge myself musically…and push myself in the studio, explore music and really just do it for the kick of it.”

That doesn’t mean the experience didn’t have its ups and downs: “I’m embarrassed to say the rest is rock ‘n’ roll cliché / I hit the bottom when I reached the top,” she sings on the title track, which opens with the narrator on a plane leaving L.A. Wonderland includes plenty of frank references to the trappings of fame, which she says surprised her in ways she didn’t expect. “It’s funny,” she says, “I never though fame would be that fun,” she says. “I’ve seen the underbelly of humanity since I was pretty young, and I don’t feel like what I’ve seen in the job has added to it particularly.”

What was unexpected was her own reaction to the embarrassment of the riches celebrity laid at her feet. So overwhelmed was she by the offers that started rolling in–from publishing a book of her poetry (A Night Without Armor in 1998) to starring in Ang Lee’s 1999 film Ride With the Devil–that she felt like she had to do them all. “I felt so lucky when I started making money doing something I love. And then I felt like, ‘Now I can do a book, and now I can do acting, and now I can do drawing,'” she says. “I was spending all my time working, and it became the same grind as when I had an office job. I worked 365 days a year. I was exhausted all the time–and for what?”

For material, Wonderland mines her upbringing on a farm in Alaska and her relationship with her longtime boyfriend, retired rodeo star Ty Murray. As a result, it’s her most nakedly autobiographical work to date, recalling the confessional vibe of her debut. It’s a distinct departure from her last recording, 2003’s techno-dance-pop 0304, which took a tone more ironic than intimate and received mixed reviews from critics. But despite the fact that her music has seemed to move away from such candor over the years, Jewel says she felt no apprehension about writing so openly on this album.

“I’m cryptic about the things I feel like being cryptic about,” she says. “I’ve always felt safer by telling the truth. When you hide things, it makes people feel like they want to find you out, and they pretty much leave me alone.”

As its title hints, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland is fundamentally about the myths we grow up believing and the process of shedding those untruths as we grow. On the title track, the narrator compares herself to the heroine of the famous fairy tale; a young woman takes a sip from the bottle marked “Drink Me” and is taken on an unexpected journey. Throughout, she experiences the disillusionment of both fame and love: “Growing up is not an absence of dreaming/It’s being able to understand the difference/between the ones you can hold and the ones you’ve been sold.

“I do think that in the entertainment industry…we sell a sleight of hand, and people are told that it’s real,” she says. “There are a lot of girls who are really skinny, and they’re frickin’ cokeheads. You know, there is a lot of illusion being sold but also truth being told. So it’s kind of just yours for the taking and yours to sift through.”

But more than the cult of celebrity, one of the myths Wonderland is most concerned with is the fantasy of Hollywood-perfect love. On the first single and leadoff track, “Again and Again,” the narrator pleads with her lover, “Like a movie I once saw/in the darkness I recall/feeling the beauty and the pain/…Say you feel the same.”

“You watch movies, you read books, and you think, ‘I just need to fall in love and everything will take care of itself,” Jewel admits. “Once I fall in love, everything else will make sense and nothing else will matter,'” Jewel says. “And it’s the exact opposite; your world falls apart. Your heart gets crushed, and you’re so unprepared, really…for that. It’s shocking. It shocks most of us the first time we’re in love.”

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