Jewel has been in a reflective mood lately. The singer, famous for folksy tracks like "Hands" and "You Were Meant For Me," released an album comprised of songs written in her teens back in September. Days later, she published a memoir recounting her tumultuous years growing up in rural Alaska. And just last week, she debuted a heartfelt documentary with the public housing advocacy group ReThink that argues for public housing projects to combat homelessness -- an issue dear to her heart.
For what a then-teenage Jewel thought would be a couple months, turned into a year -- she lived out of her car in San Diego, California, writing songs and poetry and performing regular gigs at a cafe. Atlantic Records eventually yanked her out of poverty, but she hasn't forgotten what it was like.
"It's very difficult to work your way out of that when you don't have a physical address to put on a job application," Jewel, whose full name is Jewel Kilcher, told The Huffington Post.
In San Diego, she came to resent the idea that someone could think she wasn't a hard worker because she didn't have a home. Jewel tried to work hard. At 15, she'd left her abusive alcoholic father for an unheated cabin, riding horseback or hitchhiking to work in Alaska. Later, after relocating under sunnier skies, health problems made it difficult for her to hold down a regular job. When she refuted one employer's come-on and didn't get her paycheck, Jewel was turned out of her apartment in California.
In our interview, she remembered washing her hair one day in a Denny's bathroom, suddenly making eye contact through the mirror with a pair of women behind her. They looked horrified, she recalled, intent on keeping their distance. Humiliated, Jewel left.
"They were just so judgmental and so happy to write me off -- which we do every day with homeless people -- and it makes you feel very insignificant," the singer said.
The ReThink documentary Jewel narrates, "Our Journey Home," emphasizes the dignity a home -- any home -- provides. In it, she tells three stories of people and families who used their stint in public housing to put themselves through medical school and other occupational training. Then, they moved out.
It echoes the singer's own bootstrapping tale, which she attributes, in part, to her self-reliant early years.
"I knew at 15 that girls like me end up, statistically, repeating what we're raised around, and I didn't have very much going for me," the singer explained. "But I did have a sort of pervasive pioneer spirit that's very prevalent in Alaska," she said, adding that she believes girls are taught differently in the "lower 48." Different in a bad way.
"We do women a disservice as young girls by not teaching them how the world works, and that they'll be making their own way," Jewel said. "In Alaska, the female pioneers built their own houses, they felled their own trees ... very capable women." Capable of working their way out of impoverishment, even.
For all the adversity she has faced, Jewel maintains a hopelessly optimistic outlook. In an age when sincerity is often mocked, that earnestness can make us uncomfortable -- just look at Twitter whenever an actor or actress tears up during an Oscars acceptance speech. To Jewel, though, it's not just sappy sentiment. It's honesty. She doesn't have time for feigned nonchalance, or a tolerance for irony.
"Maybe it is the age of cynicism," the singer mused, before adding, "I think cynicism is a luxury of spoiled people."
It's certainly a luxury she doesn't afford herself. Decades have passed since Jewel's home ran on four wheels, but she still doesn't seem jaded. She has stayed the same -- stubbornly, charmingly -- "sensitive girl," like she confessed decades ago. To her, it's a sign of strong character.
"I think if you really have hard times, you find a way to overcome," Jewel said. "You can't afford cynicism, because it will break you."
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