"The point of life is to transmute pain," Jewel says on a call from the road.
The multiplatinum, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter knows a thing or two about suffering. She’s been writing about it since her stunning 1995 debut album, Pieces of You became one of the biggest selling albums of all time. She’s among that elite group of artists known by a single name and these days the “Who Will Save Your Soul” songbird seems determined to continue to live up to it. Despite having had astonishing worldwide success with thirteen studio albums, the Alaska native shines brightest in a live venue. Alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, she summons a sort of otherworldly glow that can be hard to categorize but is incredibly infectious. She’s easy to listen to and easy to love.
While she has always been a kind of renaissance woman, publishing multiple best-selling books and starring in films like Ang Lee’s Ride With The Devil, she has recently turned her attention to education. Sort of. The story of Jewel’s origins as a homeless folkie isn’t news, but the methodology with which she pulled herself out of poverty and into the driver’s seat of her own future has taken an even more prominent place in her brand. Under the newly formed Jewel Inc, she plans to take a mindfulness practice, vetted by professionals in neurobiology, to schools and businesses. The program is available on her new website.
But fans need not worry that she’s abandoning her roots. Music is, of course, still at the heart of her efforts. Currently gearing up for an innovative and interactive holiday tour, the Alaska native will share the stage with her father, Atz, and two of her brothers, Atz Lee and Nikos, known to many for their show on the Discovery Channel, Alaska: The Last Frontier. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Cirque Du Soleil will unveil a genre-busting Las Vegas show about her life next year. It’s called “One Night for One Drop” and all proceeds go to One Drop, a non-profit organization started by the founder of Cirque du Soleil, Guy Laliberté. The show is March 2 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. She also has her sights on stepping back into the studio to follow up her critically-acclaimed 2015 offering, Picking Up The Pieces.
What prompted you to go out on this holiday tour?
Jewel: I’ve been restructuring my business now that the profit center in the music industry has really changed. I think musicians have to be very proactive. I like the disrupted market that we’re in and seeing where I intersect with culture. We’re basically here to bring connection, autonomy and self-reliance using education and entertainment. Some of the tools I’m creating are purely educational, creating a mindfulness curriculum for english classes in pubic schools and partnering with Zappos on a mindfulness business culture for companies. As I looked at the music segment, I realized families are looking for opportunities to connect. People in general have a very fragmented, disconnected sense of community. We have a desire to learn how to do things and to create that authentic sense of self-esteem. So with the Christmas tour I decided to try and tackle all of that. Create community and teach people how to do things.
Jewel: I’m bringing some crafters out on the road. I grew up making presents for my family. We didn’t have money. We built, we made baskets, we carved things, we made jewelry for each other. And I treasure them. To this day, I don’t really like getting store-bought gifts. For the holiday tour, I wanted to give families the opportunity to make presents for each other. Little kids can learn how to bead a necklace for their parents. People can make drawings for their loved ones. There’ll be a crafts fair before each show where you can sign up for workshops. Then my family and I will be singing the music at night.
What does performing with your family mean to you?
Jewel: It’s really special. My family has toured with me off and on throughout my whole career but never all together at the same time. It’ll be the first time we’ll be on the road together. I think as a mom, now that my son is six, it’s really special for him see this tradition of ours in a really authentic way. It’s multi-generational. To have that sense of connection and community with music and entertainment at the same time.
Do you view your art as healing?
Jewel: I think catharsis is healing by nature. The arts don’t need permission to enter the observer’s soul. They don’t need permission to move you. So as an audience sitting in a darkened room, you never know how it will affect you. Things get released that need to be released and the art goes right where it needs to go.
Mindfulness has been a term you’ve used a lot lately. How has mindfulness served your work as a musician?
Jewel: I have no idea what I would look like without mindfulness. When I was eight, my mom left and my dad became an alcoholic and started becoming abusive. I was bar singing and I saw people drinking to medicate their pain. I knew I was in trouble. But I would sit down to write and my anxiety lessened. I learned things if I was observant and curious. When I became homeless I really had to double down on that. I was shoplifting and having panic attacks. One day during that time I was trying to steal a dress and I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was a statistic. I hadn’t beaten the odds and realized that I was going to die or end up in jail if I didn’t get serious about what’s happening in my life. I remember this quote by buddha that says, “happiness does not depend on who you are or what you have but what you think.” I doubled down on trying to change my life one thought at at a time. That’s when I started developing a lot of these mindfulness exercises that Dr. Judson Brewer has now corroborated and has shown why they help rewire the brain.
And he’s been working with you on developing the programs on your website, right?
Jewel: Yeah. The science that’s been proven now with mindfulness is incredible. How it can grow gray matter. How it can shrink your amygdala. What it can do for neuropatterning. It worked for me but it is a practice. It takes repetition and really being diligent. But if you’re willing to do that, you can rewire your brain. When I was 18, I thought, “If I get addicted to negative things, maybe I can be addicted to positive things.”
Do you believe your physical beauty has impacted and/or challenged your career?
Jewel: I grew up bar singing from the age of eight. I was around predators who said things like, “call me when you’re sixteen” or “you’re gonna be so great to fuck when you’re older.” Keeping my sexuality or my energy to myself was paramount. I was fired for not sleeping with my boss, which is how I ended up homeless because he wouldn’t give me my paycheck. I don’t think any of that happened because I was pretty in all honesty. It happens when there’s vulnerability and people willing to prey on vulnerability. It isn’t about how you look. When you’re in that position and there’s somebody powerful who feels like they can leverage that. Because of my training while singing in bars, I was a professional at using wit or humor to give it back to them. By the time I was an adult, I could spot that kind of man coming. I was very clear that my currency was my intelligence and my talent. When I met men in the music industry who were willing to dismiss me as ‘that type of girl,’ I was able to quickly say, “you're going to take me seriously but not in the way you think.” I was able to get their attention with my intellect or my wit. I never cared about normal rules or pleasantries but didn’t rely on my sexuality. I didn’t like that people said that as a singer/songwriter, you had to downplay how you look. I didn’t like the message to that you had to be pretty to be liked or had to downplay how you look to be taken seriously. Both of those things are negative messages for females and my video “Intuition” was really about that. I remember the head of a major label said, “Nobody wants to see Joni Mitchell in a miniskirt. Knock it the fuck off.” (Laughs)
You’ve said before that you sometimes don’t always write songs to challenge your voice.
Jewel: I’ve always really liked storytelling. I’ve always looked at my voice as a tool to be used. Lately I’ve been trying to get better at singing and have been pushing myself vocally. But I can’t help it. I love honesty, so even the way I approach singing standards or doing a symphony show, it’s about going out there and being as honest and raw as I can. I do not like when people use art as propaganda to make themselves seem more perfect than they are. I think we should show our flaws very proudly so that humanity can see that none of us are perfect. All of us are struggling. I love artists who are willing to do it in public so that people can see a reflection of themselves. I liked Anais Nin because of that. I liked Bukowski because of that. I appreciated that they weren’t using their art to seem like the world’s smartest or most together people. I try to emulate that.
So tell me about the show with Cirque Du Soleil show.
Jewel: They’re doing a show about my life. They’re going to be giving all the proceeds to a water charity. I’ve had a water charity since 1997 and that’s their charity as well. We’re just now working out the details. I think their work is unparalleled. I’ve never really told my life story this way. We all deal with loss and love and betrayal and then realizing we are the source of love again. It’s a real human story and I’m excited to have Cirque tell it with me.
What’s next for you after the holiday tour?
Jewel: I really want to focus on my singing a lot more. I’ve been thinking about doing a standards record with some originals next summer. I’m building my business with Zappos and focus on the Cirque show, so I’ll be in Vegas for a while for both of those things.