It's perfectly clear that Nashville is the place for Jewel

June 03, 2008|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - 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 placelaced 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 CDs. All along, she said, she was driven largely by a quest to find authenticity in the music business.

In the past year, she realized it was here all along, in Nashville, where she'd recorded all but one of her records.

For her seventh and latest album, Perfectly Clear, Jewel has gone country. Largely self-produced, the album is in stores today; 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 May 23, has entered a new and strange world. She released two versions of "Stronger Woman," 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."

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."

In spirit, if not in genre, Jewel has always been a little country. It comes with the territory when you grow up picking your own heating coal from the hillsides, using an outhouse, curing your own salmon and learning yodeling techniques that your father gleaned from Jimmie Rodgers records.

Country music was the logical soundtrack.

Indeed, Jewel wrote several tracks on the new album when she was a teenager. They include "Perfectly Clear," a breakup song she wrote at 18 after she became fascinated with picking a moment in time and writing about it from every angle, and "Loved by You (Cowboy Waltz)," which she wrote at 17, inspired by the open range of Alaska.

Jewel had been nibbling at the fringe of the country music industry for a while; she has hosted the reality-TV show Nashville Star and sung with country singer-songwriter Jason Michael Carroll on his debut album, Waitin' in the Country.

"I didn't wake up one morning and become somebody new," she said. "I tried to pick the best 11 songs and sing the heck out of them."

Scott Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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