By Mark Guarino
Jewel Kilcher grew up in public. Her first incarnation was as the naïve 21-year-old Alaskan waif, singing earnest folk confessionals on a debut (1995’s multi-million selling breakthrough “Pieces of You”) that, rife with amateurish and heavy-handed lyrics, took almost two years to find its audience. After its follow-up and a subsequent Christmas album, Jewel is emerging as a more confident singer-songwriter who actually has gotten better over time. Her latest album, “This Way” (Atlantic) is a band-oriented collection of bold folk pop with strong melodies and sharply astute lyrics.
She talked last week about her new album. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: You told me you had some of the songs on this record since you were 20. But really, this is the most produced album of the past three. Was there any pressure to make a mature-sounding record with those early songs?
A: I don’t believe in all that stuff. I do what I do because I enjoy it. Each of my records are really honest. My first record, I was a kid who lived in a coffeehouse. I didn’t want to produce it and sound slick. The second record was the first being in a studio and relying on someone to interpret me. And the third one just shows my growth in the studio.
Q: Now at age 28 you’re already an elder stateswomen for younger singer-songwriters. Is that why you started a website (soulcitycafe.com) to find and promote new talent?
A: All over the world I’d see really talented artists who would never be signed to major labels today. I thought, ‘if a John Prine came across today, would he be given a shot and chance to make a living?’ ‘If a Townes Van Zandt came along or Zappa or Lou Reed?’ There’s not a place or support for that artist. The industry expects them to bear fruit in the first three months. I wanted to create place to musicians to do what they do naturally and for fans to go and find music.
Q: Yet your label stuck with your first record for almost three years until it broke through and found an audience. Did they show patience they wouldn’t show today?
A: That was sort of an anomaly. No, I don’t think it’s that way anymore. That’s not to say it won’t happen still.
Q: Why not?
A: Oh, I think kids really don’t want to buy a record and sit down and listen to it. That’s what kids used to want and that’s what the industry is used to but that’s changing. Now with downloads, we’re entering a smorgasbord way of listening to music and the record industry never wanted to accept that.
Q: Does that put a new kind of pressure on the artist?
A: It does. But I think the artist plays a role in it too. Artists quit making good records in favor of looking for one or two hits and the rest is filler. Whereas I try to make record with the 12 best songs I have on there.
Q: Does downloading make you anxious that there are people out there getting your music for free?
A: I don’t know what to say, I just think it just is. I sold 2 million (copies of “This Way”) and it’s been downloaded 3 million times. It definitely keeps me from income since I make money off publishing. Yeah it’s hard for songwriters. You rely on publishing to make a living and we can’t make a living on publishing. At the same time, it’s an exciting thing. Soul City Café is a place where people can find new music.
Q: If the internet was so viable for artists in 1995, would you have done things differently and just set up a website and gone the independent route?
A: I probably wouldn’t be signed to a label and would have been independent.
Q: Your books of poetry have topped best seller lists and sold more volumes than those by would be described as professional literary poets. Were you surprised at the reception?
A: I was grateful. I can’t say I was surprised. It wouldn’t have surprised me either if they didn’t do well. I felt like I knew there was hunger out there the same way I know there is a hunger for artists on Soul City Café. I felt there was a hunger for things that aren’t homogenized. I knew there was a hunger for things that were honest. The cool thing is I achieved my goal, which was to get kids to write and show kids it’s not that difficult. That it can be as difficult as you want it to be. It can be Wordsworth but it also can be Bukowski. I judge tons of poetry contests every year. That’s my favorite thing. You read Poe as a fourth grader and what’s cool now is kids are turned on to Poe, Whitman, Neruda (and others).
Q: When your first album came out, so much was made of your childhood in Alaska and your constant touring in coffeeshops. Was there ever a point you were worried you were just becoming another pop culture commodity?
A: I think there’s two reasons why you would want my job and that’s because you want to be famous and the other is that you want to be an artist. You have to think which one is true for you before you get into it. I did it because I wanted to be an artist. I happened to become famous but it wasn’t having to compromise being an artist. It happened around me but despite of me. I quit for two years to concentrate on writing and came back to debut in the top ten. It’s only my third record. I’d like to have 30 great records. I kept getting better.