Jewel embraces her country music side and hopes fans will do the same
As one of America’s most prolific singersongwriters, Jewel has forged a wide and noble swath throughout the annals of modern music with her singular style of fiercely expressive songwriting. After a solid, accolade-heavy career that began in 1995 with one of the best-selling albums ever, the 12-time platinum Pieces of You, the acclaimed musician, poet, actress, painter, philanthropist and Grammy nominee has entered the realm of country music with a brand-new record, Perfectly Clear, released on June 3. As the flagship artist of the Nashville-based independent label Valory Music Co., Jewel is overjoyed to finally have her self-written music be worked at country radio, a format completely suitable for the daughter of an Alaskan cowboy who is known for her intimate folk style, ethereal voice and heartfelt command of poetic storytelling.
Rife with all the charming aspects Jewel is beloved for, from passionate vocal inflection to dynamic lyrics, Perfectly Clear brings the multifaceted artist’s lifetime fascination with country music full circle. The first single off the new album, “Stronger Woman,” a powerful and upbeat tribute to the female spirit, is a perfectly clear indication that Jewel’s new home in country music will be a happy one. And thanks to Jewel’s musical prowess and remarkable beauty, this rare gem often graces the covers of fashion magazines, from Vanity Fair to InStyle. Recently she spent some time with New Orleans Living Magazine just catching up and being her regular old amazing, breathtaking self! Later this year, on Saturday, October 4, Jewel will make a stop in Biloxi while on tour with Brad Paisley for a concert at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, one not to be missed given this diamond girl’s exquisite and enchanting live show. Mark your calendars now!
Good morning, Jewel! How are you doing, and how are all the cows out on your ranch today? Everyone’s chewing their cud?
[Laughs] I just got home from chores. Everyone’s good, all the calves are good. Yep, everyone’s chewing cud and sucking milk!
I’m so excited that you’re finally releasing Perfectly Clear, a country music album. You must be ecstatic!
I’m thrilled! This is a record I’ve wanted to get out my entire career. I’ve always written country music and put country songs on all of my records, but my old label just wouldn’t work anything at country radio. I don’t see this new record as a huge departure for me; I wrote all the songs, so it’s still just me and my songwriting. It’s definitely not as pop-driven for sure. I’ve always listened to country radio, even though my records were getting pushed at other formats. I mean, I was happy anywhere that they had me, but I always thought it was comical that “You Were Meant for Me” was up there with the Spice Girls or “Hands” was with Ricky Martin or “Who Will Save Your Soul” was up there with Nirvana! [Laughs] It was great! But in general I listened to country because I liked the stories, and I always thought it was some of the best writing going on.
I understand why it’s hardly a leap for you to start releasing music in the country format, because it’s easy to hear that you are naturally inclined toward country.
Yeah, I’ve been in the country format my whole life; it’s the format I was raised in growing up on a ranch, and I’ve got a lot of passion for it. A lot of my heroes were country singer-songwriters like Loretta Lynn. When I first heard her song “The Pill,” it just blew my mind. I didn’t know you could just write like that about your life and what you were going through in such a straightforward way. I found it really refreshing.
You’ve been fortunate to call some of your musical heroes your mentors.
I liked Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. I always liked the storytellers and the lyricists. I was lucky enough to know Bob Dylan as a mentor; he recommended Jimmie Rodgers records to me. And Merle Haggard listened to a lot of jazz music when he took me under his wing. Many of my heroes are influenced by all kinds of music and their style of writing just kind of comes out how it does, and that’s really similar to me; you hear all my influences in my music. That doesn’t change on this record. I feel like my hits “You Were Meant for Me,” “Hands” and “Standing Still” would have worked great at country radio. I know my fans won’t feel that this record is a crazy departure, even if they’re not necessarily bona fide country fans. I think they’re going to like this because they like storytelling and lyricdriven music. All they’ve ever expected of me is just to be true to myself and remain myself.
What kind of feedback are you getting about the first single, “Stronger Woman,” and what’s the message you intended with it?
I’m around cowboys all day long, usually as the only woman in these macho circles. I always hear guys say, “Why do women nag so much?” and “Why are woman such nags?” [Laughs] Obviously, I see the woman’s perspective, and sort of wrote this song to say that ultimately, it’s up to a woman to make herself happy. I didn’t write it as a male-bashing song. I don’t think you can expect a man to make you happy—I think that usually makes you kind of unsatisfied and makes you feel passive-aggressive and out of control with your life. I think that’s what men perceive as “naggy” a lot of the times. And it’s always something that I’ve tried to follow in my own life: Take responsibility and never be a victim. No matter what, it’s up to me to find what works and to make that happen. And I think that’s true for men as well. I wanted it to be a song that encouraged women to remember that we are stronger than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. What’s been nice is that men are really liking the song too, especially dads who have daughters.
Storytelling is your thing. I imagine you’re highly introspective and big on observation, sitting very quietly, intently absorbing everything in your path.
I’m not as outgoing as people would expect me to be for an entertainer. That surprises people a lot. I’m pretty shy, especially in groups. I’ve never been that girl that wanted to walk in a room and have all eyes on me, you know! [Laughs] That embarrasses me pretty badly. I’m not close to many people, but like with [boyfriend] Ty [Murray] or with my band, I’m very, very goofy. I have a very irreverent, acerbic sense of humor. It’s fun because I still can surprise people that don’t know me with it!
You were born in Alaska and lived remotely on a ranch, and your father was a real cowboy and a singersongwriter. That’s an incredible basis for you as a country artist. That landscape of your life must transfuse directly to the blood of your songs.
It certainly does. I notice that with most of my writing, my compass has always sort of been the landscape that I’m in. My favorite childhood memories were the cattle drives in Alaska; we’d push all our cattle up to the summer grasslands where the hay fields grow. It’s a two-day ride, and my dad would grab his guitar and we’d sit around the campfire at night, and the cows were lolling in the background, and it was just idyllic. The songs my dad wrote are really great, pure cowboy music, with storytelling about local rivers and local characters and local animals. I love that style of writing, and obviously it had a huge impact on me as a writer. For my new album, I loved writing intricate lyrics and interspersing almost comical lines here and there to lighten the mood. Then there’s also that old straight-up cowboy music and yodeling that I wrote when I was about 18 that’s just now getting on a record. A lot of it is just a direct influence from being raised around cowboys and having a real love for the nostalgia and the poetry of that lifestyle.
You have so much great stuff on Perfectly Clear, like the song about rolling around like a marble called “Thump Thump.” It’s stunning!
Thank you! I hope my label gives that one a go because I really like that one. That’s a song that I felt like could have been on almost any record I’ve done, whatever you call that type of music. I’m really tickled with this record. It’s the first album I’ve made really all on my own before I even got to another label; I just paid for it myself. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound and what songs I wanted on it. John Rich helped me track it for two days, and he was great. I wanted to control the sound and keep it simple and highlight the songwriting and singing, and let that drive the record instead of slick production.
Well, you really know what you’re doing. People will love it!
Thank you! I’m so excited for people to hear it. There’s been so much talk about “Woo, she’s gone country!” and I don’t feel like that at all. I just wanted to make a great record, and I feel like country is going to be a great home for me. I feel I don’t have to change my songwriting style because it lends itself automatically to this genre.
You’ve been familiar with the Nashville scene for some time now, right?
My first album was recorded there, which is why it has country leanings on it. I made five of my seven records there. I’ve written there my whole career. I’ve always based myself out of Nashville because I like the town, I get along with and understand the people there because it’s based off of hard work and talent, and in L.A., I find it’s driven off of celebrity a little bit more, which I’ve never felt real comfortable with. My heroes always kept their noses in the books, so I figured I should too.
You honestly blew me away with your recent performance in Nashville; you have such stardust about you. And your yodeling nearly killed me! I had heard tales about your legendary yodeling and can’t believe I actually bore witness to it. It was absolutely amazing!
[Laughs] That’s funny! Thank you so much; I really appreciate it.
You’re still enjoying life in Texas out on the ranch with your boyfriend Ty Murray. What does the rodeo champion think of this whole country music thing?
Gosh, we’ve been on the ranch for about ten years. I’m getting used to it! [Laughs] He’s been amused that people think it’s any change at all. I think this is his favorite record, and not because of it being country, but because he likes the songs. He likes me solo rather than with a band. I think it’s the first time he’s felt like I’ve recorded with a band where it didn’t just cover me up.
How familiar are you with New Orleans?
I’ve gigged there and been to some bull ridings there, but haven’t had enough of a chance to hang out as much as I’d like to. I do love it, and I really need to come down for a week and spend time discovering it because it’s my kind of town. Food and music are my two favorite things, so I think that’s pretty much what I’d explore!
I think after walking around New Orleans and taking in all the incomparable sights and sounds, your head would be soaked like a sponge that needed to be wrung out into your storytelling cache. And you’d love all the characters here!
Yeah, a lot of my rhythm sections in my bands have been from that part of the world. They’ve always been good characters themselves! [Laughs]
Did you accept Shape magazine’s recent invitation to pose for the cover in a bikini?
I ended up turning it down. Shape is a respectable, great magazine, and I don’t feel like it exploits women or anything, and I turn down a lot of those silly and smutty magazines like Maxim. But at the end of the day, I just couldn’t see myself in a bikini talking about fitness instead of music!
Well, you always look so gorgeous, so you really must take care of yourself.
Thank you! I try. I’m like any girl; I gain and lose five pounds every other month. It’s tough being a girl! I love eating, and life’s too short to deny all great pleasures. There’s so much pressure on women, especially in my job. Instead of talking about your music, with women, they’ll want to talk about looks. It’s not handled the same way with men.
No, it’s not. I don’t think we’ll see George Strait appearing on a magazine cover in a bikini anytime soon.
No, not in a Speedo or anything! [Laughs] Even if they’re not famous, women are taught to be neurotic about their bodies. Eating disorders develop at really young ages, and I’ve tried to just be thankful and do the best with what God gave me.
Your poetry collection from 1998, A Night Without Armor, is the best-selling poetry book of all time. Any more poetry books from you down the line?
I’m thinking about doing a book of love poems. But I don’t know if I really want Ty’s mom reading it or not! [Laughs]
One more thing, Jewel: I understand there’s another guy in your life named George, and that he’s really, really cute and often seen with you in public.
He’s pretty cute! [Laughs] Yeah, we have a little five-pound Shih Tzu named George that goes with me everywhere. He’s the best! Ty can hardly compete!