Q&A: Jewel

After a turn towards a more pop-dance sound, the singer/songwriter returns to her roots on 'Goodbye Alice in Wonderland."

The last time we all saw Jewel, she was hot.

Not hot, like beautiful-hot, the sort of earthy-granola beauty that Jewel fans had come to expect. It was more of a "I'm a naughty firefighter" hot, as she pranced in red vinyl shorts and a white tank top -- one that quickly became see-through, when she was hosed down -- in the video for "Intuition," the hit from her last album, "0304."

The whole look was a bit of a departure for Jewel, to say the least, and one that seemed to confuse her fans. In a career that her label, Atlantic Records, says has seen her sell more than 25 million albums worldwide, "0304" was her first release to not go platinum in the United States.

It's understandable, then, that fans, radio programmers, retailers and seemingly anyone else with an interest in Jewel's career are pleased to hear the first single from her new album, "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland," due May 2. The song, "Again and Again," leaves behind the synth-driven dance-pop of "Intuition," in favor of the sincere ruminations and guitar licks that Jewel's fans had come to expect.

The last album owed to Atlantic, "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" is a melodic send-off—to Jewel's 20s, to 10 years in the music business and to her first record label contract. The 13 tracks chronologically survey the artist's journey from the plains of Alaska to the streets of Los Angeles and the complexities that have marked each step.

Jewel, who says "Goodbye" is "the most autobiographical work I have made" since her first record, discussed the album and her career with Billboard.

You've been in the music business for 10 years now and your new "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" marks your sixth album. What did you want to get across this time around?

I wanted this record to be really honest -- to the point that people would almost feel embarrassed for me. That meant in the production I needed to find ways to get as little between me and the listener as possible.

I also see this record as a bookend to my first record, [1997's] "Pieces of You," because I was just turning 20 and a whole phase in my life was just ending. Getting signed to a record deal marked the beginning of a whole new phase, so there was a lot of introspection that took place. The same thing happened with record, because I was turning 30 and sort of looking back at the rough phase between 20 and 30. Now, my record deal has come to an end and I'm going to be a free agent. So it's really kind of a funny bookend.

I also think this album serves as a somewhat cryptic chronicle my life, from being raised on a ranch in Alaska to being homeless and living in my car to seeing Hollywood for the first time to the little elixir that said 'Drink Me' to being signed to a label and going on a wild journey and kind of going full circle where I live on a ranch now in Texas.

Would you characterize "Alice" as a positive album?

A lot of people tell me that they can't tell if this is the happiest record they have ever heard from me or the saddest record they have ever heard.

So the lyrics could be interpreted either way?

Yes, I think so. The reason I titled it "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" is because a lot of the songs deal with a similar theme, having to do with the letting go of fantasies or fairy tales and trying to see reality for how it is and then how do you really see truth without making it disillusioned or bitter, which I think a lot of this deals with.

I think most adults, most children, were told fairytales -- love is a really good example. You know, just find love, just find true love and the rest of your life gets easier. Well, when you do find true love the rest of your life usually gets difficult and its much harder than anybody tells you. And when you keep looking for that fairytale love and you keep thinking its going to get easier everyday, you kind of have such a deep level of dissatisfaction during the struggle of love that you might move on instead of stick it through. I think women do it a lot, same with men, who kid themselves about who they are with, that their needs are a lot stronger than their ability to see the truth.

So a lot of the record has to do with finding reality and not always being able to be completely tickled with reality but still being able to find a way to remain hopeful about it. With that said its sort of a mixed answer its sort of both at the same time. It has been some of the hardest times I've ever had and at the same time the most rewarding times I've ever had and that kind of comes across in each song.

Did the process of writing this album differ than those in the past?

Not really, no, my writing process has remained fairly the same. I have about 500 songs in my catalog and I've always been able to figure out what kind of record I am making. I've never actually had to "write a record," and I tend to just have a pretty easy relationship with writing.

If there is a spot which I feel is missing on the record I'll write to fill that spot. I'm constantly writing and I'm doing songs live and I can tell if they are working. For all my records I've gone back to songs that I had written and go up to songs that I have just written.

The only thing that has changed for me in the process is becoming a professional writer and starting to write for other people. It's a different process; it's more like a job -– kinda like acting. You're paid to come in, sit down and produce instantly and that's kind of a slightly different process. Whereas when I write on my own I generally sort of just let a mood hit me and follow sort of a vague feeling.

Were most of the songs written in recent times?

I didn't go back to any random lyrics from the past to rework into these songs. But there were songs where I reached back. "Stevensville" I actually wrote when I was 25; "A Thousand Miles Away" I probably wrote when I was 18; "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" was much more recent. I had performed it live, for maybe six months or so.

"Words get in the Way" was a song I wrote when I was in the studio because I felt like that tempo and beat would be missing and just sort of a certain kind of whimsical type love song. "Again and Again" is a new song; "Only One Too" is a new song; "Long Slow Slide" I wrote it during my "This Way" [2001] record so I must have been 25 or so 26ish.

Tell me about "Fragile Heart," which appeared in a different version on your last album, 2003's "0302."

I like that song, I think it has a shot for being a little radio song. The last record didn't have the legs for it, so I was hoping. I think it deserves its day.

"Stevensville" -- raw, autobiographical, weird to sing?

I was sitting, I had just moved to Texas, I was about 25 at the time and I was watching television and I saw a hand-washing, dishwashing commercial and I saw these ladies that had had an obvious set-stylist and wardrobe stylist and you know and I don't know why it just struck me that someone had told them how to do their hair and how to dress so they would look like younger, hip housewives. I don't know why but it just struck me as so odd and ironic and obvious in a way and it sort of set me off on a tangent and I don't know why. That just sort of made the whole song come out.

How was the experience of working with producer Rob Cavello?

I was so adamant about trying to make this record sound honest and raw somehow and really showcase the uniqueness of the songwriting instead of causing it to get more generic through the recording process, which it really happens a lot. I looked at producers and I didn't find any that I liked and I ended up making the record all on my own. I just used Jim Keltner on drums and I flew in some cats from Nashville, some pretty old school cats, and produced it myself and called it "The Hollywood Hills Sessions," which was a working title and it was this record in its whole entirety.

I was going to turn it in because it's my last record anyway and I knew it was really honest, it's a total singer songwriter type of album, really laid back, sort of like a Neil Young kind of harvest record. Total singer songwriter, totally honest, I was very pleased with it. I didn't think it was going to be the biggest hit record but I felt like I did my songs justice and what I really wanted to get across, just the honesty that I am at and where the songs are at.

I played it to a friend and you know he was like, "This is a really great record and you did a really great job but I think you can make it a little bit better," and he said, "I think I know just the guy for you," and he said Rob Cavello and I said, "The Rock guy?" I was like, "Have you not heard a word I've been saying about how I want this record to turn out?" And he said, "No, just meet with him," and when I did meet with him it was instantly obvious.

We just went in, kind of like, "Let's try it out, let's spend a week in the studio." I felt pretty sure that he really got where I was coming from and I think one of his great talents is helping an artist be authentic to who they really are. He doesn't have any desire to try and change it into commerciality. I think the reason he has had commercial success is because he's fought so hard to just let the artist shine for themselves, to the best of their ability.

I've had a problem in the past with producers comprehending -- "Well, the other songs are six minutes long." There aren't many people who think that that is pretty cool. You know its easy to kind of miss the subtleties and anger in a lot of my lyrics and so I think that a lot of my records have sounded really pretty because my voice is pretty and kind of on the surface a lot of my lyrics are kind of pretty, but the kind of anger that is under there or the irony in the music has never really come out and I think Rob understood that pretty innately as well. He really stuck up for me to kind of have that in there as well.

How much of what you brought to the studio evolved?

Things stayed pretty similar. What I noticed I did is that I usually cut songs too slow. So I noticed the biggest thing we did with Rob is sort of push the tempo. So yeah, there was a lot that I did that stayed and that were pretty strong.

I think something that worked good was that Rob would have me play on my guitar for the band so they kind of got the feeling from where I was coming from during my performance. That way they were kind of able to vibe off of the more I was trying to get across that isn't in the lyrics necessarily.

How have you survived for a decade in a business where artists tend to be so disposable?

It is a funny business. You know when I was living in my car and a record label came to me I really felt in a great negotiating position because I felt like I had nothing to lose so I felt that it was going to be my way or there was going to be no way. You couldn't take anything away from me.

My first record got successful which really validated a young artist's first instinct. You know at that point in my career if my first record hadn't been successful I might have felt the pressure to try and change what I do to try and fit in. You know for me, I think one of the best things that first record did was it validated my first instinct. It taught me to really fight for what really interests me, and besides that it bought me financial independence. I became rich. That brought me to another great negotiating position because I didn't need money.

So, I was kind of able to do whatever the heck I wanted to my whole career and being famous has never been my biggest goal so that has never dictated what I'm trying to do. It's just sort of been about what I'm into, what interests me and really trying to learn what the studio is about and really trying to push myself because I felt that I had a fair amount of skill in writing and singing, but as far as recording went, I was just lost. I felt like it took all those years until now to finally get to the record where I felt like I was able to use the studio for my own benefit instead of it kind of covering me up more.

Atlantic Records has changed a lot since your last album three years ago. Are you concerned that many of your allies are no longer there?

I was really concerned, especially as far as how many changeovers are happening. I had even looked to going to Warner Brothers for this record, but I would have had to offer up more records to do that.

Are you pleased to have the chance for a fresh start with your label deal ending?

To be 31 and already a free agent, that's an unusual position to be in and I'm glad for that. I didn't know how the label was going to shape up. If I was going to turn in a record that was un-releasable just to get out of my contract, I didn't know what kind of poker I would be playing. But, it took me some time to make this record and watched to see the label kind of settle down and I've been really, really pleased so far.

They have been really straight with me and I think that they really want to get this record for me and I think they want it for themselves and I want it for myself and it seems to be a really good partnership so far.

"Again and Again" has reached the top 20 on Billboard's Adult Top 40 airplay chart. How does it feel to be back on radio?

I've been through the ringer on every side of it and my music in general has never been a real easy sell on the radio. It usually is a long slow fight. I've never had radio go, "Wow, right on," which means that a label usually has to stick with me. You know I try and keep things as affordable for myself and them so we can keep things [going] as long as we can and to push as long as we can.

I'm proud of this record. It's a really good artistic record and I think that they get it and they are really into my next single as well.

Which single is next?

I think it's going to be "Good Day." I would be so thrilled if a [song in 3/4 time] made it onto the radio. It would be such a triumph.

Your last album was a departure from your image as the go-to granola girl. It was much more pop. Do you feel like you lost some ground with your audience?

I sold about a million records on that one, so I think that my core audience got it. Anybody that has seen me live knows enough about my humor, that I will play country songs as well as jazz standards anything is fair game. They know that I love the tin-pan alley style of writing.

If anyone listened to that record they would know that it is really a smart record. The lyrics are really smart and it's a good story telling record, in my opinion. So, I didn't fluff out of compromise or anything. I mean if I was going "ooh, baby, baby" or "come on uh huh uh huh" or something I guess we would all worry about me. But for me it was really just I was getting into electronic music and dance remixes.

And with the war coming, I looked at what people listen to during war time and it's usually dancehall remix music. You know [in] the 40s and any war, were crowding into dancehalls wanting to lose themselves. I loved that, I loved trying, that's why I sampled so many songs from the 40s and tried to use a writing style that was very tin-pan alley and for me it was just a tremendous fun and challenge.

Like the song, "Leave the Lights On" had a really old school tin-pan alley lyric structure the way I set up the verses with a completely modern context was a really big turn on for me to do. And the video, I didn't think anybody could mistake the video, but I was wrong. It's such a funny video, but I guess people would just see a clip of it instead of seeing the whole video, which is what I think ended up happening.

How about the tie-in with the "Intuition" razor with your first single? That seemed to stir up a good deal of criticism.

I think part of it must have been the press just trying to start some trouble. I mean I've been around for 10 years, what else are you going to say? You've got to come up with a story.

I think a lot of my core fans really got it. I've gotten a lot of compliments, people coming up to me telling me that they loved it.

I can't believe people didn't get it. I think the Schick thing threw it all off. I think that's the one thing people didn't get. I didn't have complete control over my licensing, but I got it back now so it can't happen again. That was a little bit beyond my control -- not to say that I wont endorse products again, but it will be something a little more compatible with something rather than Schick.

The song or the Razor?

I think that most people got the joke and got the music, but when they saw the commercial they were like, "Now how does this tie in?" But that was beyond my control. At that time I didn't own the whole song and that was just a regrettable thing, but s*** happens.

But the record, that's one of my favorite records [that I've] made. There is a song on there called "Haunted" that I really like. It's a really deep record and I just felt like nobody really dealt into it. As time goes by, I have more and more fans going, "You know I listened to that whole record."

So what are your career goals now?

I don't think I'm going to want to work this hard on records. I've been really competitive my whole life trying to make my music work on mass level. That might sound strange to say. It's been a neat challenge, but I've gotten into things where I want to start to write for other people and I would like to maybe produce some other artists.

You know, I'm thinking I might start looking into having a family in a couple of years and if I do, I don't think I'm going to want to put out such a big record. I will probably be a free agent and put out smaller records.

Is that your intention? Not pursue another large contract?

It's too soon to say really, but I'm definitely toying with it. It's really going to come down to numbers and how much I have to front and how hard I have to push a record on my own you know all of that crap.

As far as just creativity goes, I would like to just work out of my house more. I would like to put out a country record. I would like to [make] a jazz standard record where I write the songs.

Other than that, I don't have many other goals. The game gets tiring for me. I'm very committed to this record, I am touring for two years, but after that I don't think I am going to want to stay as visible as I am on any other record.