For all the successes Jewel has enjoyed in her professional life, it’s a seemingly rich inner life that drives the singer-songwriter and has been the source of both her greatest pain and her biggest victories. Much of that life is explored both on her latest album, Picking Up the Pieces (her first for new label home Sugar Hill), and in her memoir, Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story, due Sept. 15.
The album, which dropped Sept. 11, is her first set of new material since her second Big Machine Label Group (BMLG) country project, Sweet and Wild, in 2010. In the interim, she gave birth to son Kase, now 4; released a pair of ?children’s albums and a holiday set; and amicably divorced rodeo star husband Ty Murray after six years of marriage and 16 as a couple. While some of the songs on Picking Up the Pieces pre-date the divorce, the pain of the split finds its way into others. With the new set, Jewel aimed to return to the folky sound that put her on the map two decades ago with her multiplatinum 1995 debut release, Pieces of You. The current project was recorded in Nashville, where Jewel, 41, has lived with Kase for two-and-a-half years. Billboard sat down with Jewel to chat about music, motivation and more esoteric things.
In the album’s liner notes, you thank Nashville producer Paul Worley for “kicking me in the butt by backing out and making me produce this CD.” What happened there?
[Paul] came in a week before pre-production and said, “I’m not going to do the record,” and I was pissed. He said, “You’re going to thank me … You need to be doing this.” I just thought he took another gig and was bailing on me, and I was pretty upset about it.
I’ve produced some of my own records myself, but they weren’t this type of work. I’m comfortable in the studio, but I always felt I had more to learn from other people than what I knew on my own. That has helped me a lot as an artist, but at the same time it can also hold you back. Paul felt the same thing. He felt no one should put a filter on me, that I had the vision for what I wanted. It really was the kick in the pants I probably needed.
Was producing yourself a good experience?
It was. I knew I didn’t want to have a label when I started recording and would shop it at the end. I wanted no influences. Whenever you have anybody around, no matter how transparent of a producer they are, it is a filter that you become interpreted through. My job is to serve emotion, and if emotion gets diluted, I didn’t do my job. I wanted this record to feel like there was something from my vein to your vein.
During your time on BMLG, was country music a comfortable fit for you?
I loved it. It’s funny, when I [first] got signed — when I was living in a car — I didn’t know a thing about the business. So I went to my label and said, “Can we get ‘You Were Meant for Me’ played on country radio?” It’s a country song. It’s a shuffle. I’m shocked it got played on pop radio. I thought it should be a natural fit for country, but Atlantic Records in New York didn’t have a relationship with country radio. It’s then that I learned there’s these completely separate systems.
When I first came out, country radio was Shania Twain and Faith Hill. It was a lot more pop than what I was. [But] as a singer-songwriter, I knew I had to get into the country business, because it was the only place I could tell stories. [So] it was an awesome experience for me. It’s felt like a great home. For the first time in my life I was asked, “Why did you write this lyric?” [by country] radio. [At pop radio], I was just asked, “What’s your favorite nail color?” I’m like, “Really? Did you ask Beck that?”
Will anything be worked to radio from this project?
I went into the studio thinking, “I’m not going to think about radio. I’m not going to think about genre. I’m not going to think about tempo.” To get that out of my head and make a record pure and independent from all the stuff you learn over 20 years was really difficult. “My Father’s Daughter” is being taken to Americana. Country has changed a lot. Right now where it’s at, I can’t really see any of my stuff getting on there.
How did your collaboration with Dolly Parton on “My Father’s Daughter” come to be?
As a kid growing up with an outhouse, my heroes were always Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. They were the only other icons I’d heard of that were raised similarly to me. I liked that they had the courage to say, “This is exactly who and what the hell I am.” So I got the courage to ask her to sing on the record, and she agreed. I never thought I’d be producing Dolly Parton on a record. That was weird.
Does she take direction well?
She’s such a pro and everything you would hope she would be: Shows up 15 minutes early, has her notes, knows her parts, and she’s just like, “Honey, don’t you be nervous about bossing me around. You get what you need out of me while you got me. You don’t know how much longer I’m going to be around.” Sweeter than hell.
How was collaborating with Rodney Crowell on “It Doesn’t Hurt Right Now”?
We wrote a couple of songs together and just had a real poet’s affinity for each other. He’s a real craftsman. It’s not often you’re around people in the business that care so much about the craft. A lot of people just want to be famous.
What can your fans can expect from the book?
People often ask me, “How did you go from being raised in the sticks, to being abused, to moving out at 15, to being homeless at 18?” I did it really consciously. Imperfectly, but I knew at 15 girls like me end up in the ditch, pregnant or in an abusive relationship. I wanted to beat those odds. If I was to look at nature vs. nurture, how would I ever know my nature by how I was nurtured? And if you become what you’re raised around, what did that say about my future and my hopes? Could I re-nurture myself? I started asking myself those questions at 15, writing them down in my journal. I’d read a bunch of philosophy. It set me on a path, and writing for me just became my medicine and my way of tracking my progress. It accidentally became a career, but it’s never what I considered my greatest success. My greatest success is that I kept standing up and I never let my life make me bitter …
My life has been an open story in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot of things I went through that I never shared, and the worst things I suffered were at the height of my career. I kept my mouth shut and got about rebuilding and never talked about it. So this is really the first time I talk about what those setbacks were … [including] being millions of dollars in debt by the time I was 33.
At the back of the book I list 20 takeaways that helped me overcome agoraphobia and all kinds of things. I’m now building a website based on those 20 things. I created these exercises for myself to help retrain my brain, change my way of thinking and challenge my beliefs. They changed my life. I really believe if you have tenacity and a willingness to say, “I am accountable. I am not a victim,” then you can create tremendous change in your life.