JEWEL: Marrying Dreams and Reality

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

The kind of myth-busting that takes place on Wonderland makes it feel darker than her past collections. The sarcasm seems sharper, the narrator more weary of the hypocrisy she encounters and more intent on exposing it to the masses. But Jewel doesn’t like to think of herself as a cynic. “What a lot of people call optimism, I think is actually ignorance,” she says. “And to me [cynicism] is the same thing; it’s still kind of hiding and escaping your feelings. It’s just a cooler version of it. So to me it’s about learning to walk down the middle and seeing the world for what it is…and at the same time to be able to find beauty in it.”

These subtleties probed on Wonderland make it astonishingly mature in just moments. Even as the album chronicles a growing process that often comes only with age, some of its contents were written long ago. “1,000 Miles” is a longtime fan favorite, “Fragile Heart” appeared in a different incarnation on 0304 and “Satellite” was written more than a decade ago, after her first visit to Hollywood. But it’s the biting lyrics about “volleyball, Valium and power bars,” as they takes superficiality to task, that ring every bit as true 10 years later–and it’s easy to see why she thought it would fit the album’s theme. It’s one advantage to having a back catalog that amasses hundreds of songs, which Jewel draws from regularly on tour. “I take requests,” she says. “I don’t really ever write set lists.”

But this is not the first time Jewel has reached way back in her catalog while constructing an album. Her debut single, 1996’s “Who Will Save Your Soul,” was one of the first songs she ever wrote, at age 16. On a break from school, she wanted to hitchhike through Mexico and earn her pocket money as a street singer. The trouble was, she didn’t own a guitar or know how to play one. So she bought one and learned four chords–A minor, C, G and D. She mastered them quickly–but could only play them in that order, she recalls, laughing.

“I couldn’t read music, so learning other people’s songs was way too much work,” she says. “It was just so much lazier and easier to make up lyrics about people who walked by as I sang on the street. So I just started writing about stuff I saw around me, and I just kept writing verses. There are like 300 of them. I’d never write a bridge to the song because I couldn’t switch chords.” That epic, edited down, became “Who Will Save Your Soul,” which introduced her to the world as a folk-pop poet whose observations about society were equal parts sweet and sour.

Since then, needless to say, Jewel’s learned a few more guitar chords. But for her, the songwriting process is still every bit as organic and unfettered as when she was a young troubadour. “Sometimes it’s just as fast as I can write them…it’s like reading a book in your head,” she says. “I don’t really always know what the song’s about. It’s like I’m turning a page in my head and I’m like, ‘I wonder what happens in the next chapter.’ Sometimes I don’t even know what the song’s about until it’s over.”

Boyfriend Ty has told her he can tell when a song’s forming in her head because she gets a certain look. The couple has lived together on a ranch in Stephenville, Texas, since 2000. It’s very much a return to the kind of solitary life she lived growing up in Alaska, and proximity to the great outdoors has always offered her a particular kind of inspiration. “I tend to write more relevantly about social issues if I’m away from society for some reason,” she says. “If I’m out of the noise, I can hear the noise better.”

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