Crown Jewel

By David Michael Conner

Originally published on Advocate.com May 13 2009 12:00 AM ET

It has been nearly 15 years since Jewel, the Alaskan ingenue with a voice as clear and sweet as simple syrup, launched Pieces of You, one of the most successful debut albums in history. Since then, the artist has released folk, rock, pop, spiritual, dance, and country albums, penned a best-selling book of poetry, and costarred in Ride With the Devil, a film by Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee.

On May 5, Jewel released her first independent album -- a collection of lullabies. (In a quick-fire word association game, she says "lullaby" means "music for the soul." Her associations with love, equality, her guitar, and Lady GaGa are at the end of this interview.)

The charming singer was characteristically chipper at 7:30 in the morning, with a half hour to talk before her next appointment.

Advocate.com: Are you always up and working this early?Jewel: I'm an early person!

The songs on your new album, Lullaby, include "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," and "Angel Standing By," a song from your first album, Pieces of You, as well as 10 new tunes.I've always covered the gamut musically. I'm just really interested in exploring music, and I wanted this album to be a compilation of songs that have kind of helped to soothe and relax me over the years. I've always written lullabies for myself when I was anxious, to help me fall asleep. I wrote "Angel Standing By" when I was homeless, and I would sing it because I was obviously really scared at night. I've always used songs to unwind; I never drank or did drugs. [Playing music] has really helped me through difficult times, to keep my spirits high and keep my hopes up. I decided to collect all these songs that I've loved. I thought there must be other adults out there who would like an album to fall asleep to or that would help them relax at the end of the day. I didn't want anything too up-tempo. I made everything along a certain mood even though it covers all sorts of genres.

This album seems to put more focus on your voice than some albums -- for example, your foray into dance music, 0304.I love doing different styles. It's just like with clothing: Some days you're feelin' sassy and others you just want to wear sweats. This is my first self-produced album ... I did it at the ranch, and I think that helped me. I don't like singing in the studio. I like singing live, and that's how I approached this album with the vocals. I just sat down with my guitar and sang the songs all the way through, and then I would arrange and produce around those recordings. It was a lot more natural way for me to sing and I was more relaxed in the studio. It was fun!

You produced this album yourself. How was that different?It was so much fun. I love my label and I'll do another album for them in the fall, but as part of my contract I negotiated this little independent side project and I loved it. This album won't produce a single for the radio. Don't get me wrong -- I hope to have another song on the radio and all that. It was just nice not to have to serve any master except art, to make an album that didn't have to be defined in that way. It was a passion project for me. It was also really a fun challenge business-wise to see how far I could take it, you know, and to get it out there and get people to hear it.

JEWEL XLRG (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Your first album was folk-rock and had lines in it that maybe weren't very radio-friendly-especially the title track, "Pieces of You," which includes lyrics like "You say he's a faggot / Do you want to bash in his brain / You say he's a faggot / Are you afraid that you're just the same?" Do you think you could ever work such controversial subject matter into your country music? That song was such a great social experiment because obviously it's standing up for ... tolerance. But when I sing it -- and it's been my whole career -- I'm not really sure that a lot of people are really listening to me. I sing it and people get up and are offended. It's fascinating because [a lot of people] won't really listen to the lyrics and get the point. I don't know if I'd ever even ... you know, at the time, there was this really beautiful girl who was really mean to me [ laughs ], and I wanted to lash out and say that she was ugly and I started writing the song and thought, what a fascinating thing. Hatred usually says something about yourself and your insecurity. I don't know ... I'd be open to it, but I haven't felt like writing anything exactly like that since that time.

It was a pretty big deal for me at the time when that song came out. I was 17 and someone played that song for me, and it was powerful to me as a young gay person to hear someone singing those words. Around the same time, you were one of the first headliners in Lilith Fair. The festival is rumored to be coming back in 2010. Do you plan to be involved with it?I'll have to look into it. [Touring] got to where I really hated being on the road and so instead I'll do these short, two-week tours where I'll do 14 shows in 14 days and then come home. I'd have to see what the schedule is like. I really want to build a home life with my husband and tour around that schedule.

Are we going to see you on Dancing With the Stars next season?I don't know ... sometimes I think I got lucky breaking my leg [ laughs ]. Ty has been working his butt off. He left at like 7 in the morning yesterday and didn't come home until 9 o'clock at night. Such grueling days.

Do you think you'd still be in the competition now if you hadn't hurt yourself?I know that Ty has a really strong work ethic and when he puts his mind to something he'll really improve, but ... that's like comparing apples and oranges. He's not metro at all, and I didn't know how far he'd be able to go, but it's been amazing to see how far he'll go. America's really responding to his personality. He's such a stand-up guy in a world of flakes and it's been amazing to see America fall in love with him.

It's been entertaining, and maybe educational, to see a cowboy adapt so well to such a campy atmosphere.Yeah, you know, I think that's a big reason he did the show: People don't get a chance to be around real cowboys or bull riding or rodeos and he wanted to try and let people get to know a lot of stuff that people don't know.

You were with Ty for about 10 years before getting married. Why did you finally tie the knot?We wanted to start a family, and it just finally felt like time. We both got our careers beyond what we ever thought we would, and it just felt like time to take the next step.

JEWEL TY XLRG (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

So this raises the question, what if you weren't able to get married? Would your life be any different?Mmm ... I wasn't sure how marriage would ever change it. We weren't in a hurry. We'd been together for so long and were committed like we were married, and we never really felt a big pressure about it. But ... I think it did change things ... for me. I moved around my whole life, I've been unsettled my whole life, and for some reason being married made me feel really settled. I was surprised by that because I really didn't think it would change anything.

How do you feel about gay marriage?I can't believe it's an issue. I think that if you're a person of faith and you want marriage to be between a man and a woman, that's great, it's your prerogative. I don't see how gay marriage threatens that, personally. I'm honestly just surprised it's an issue at all.

A lot of people still associate you with Alaska. What do you think about that other famous Alaskan, Sarah Palin? Ah ... um, well, Alaska is full of women. She and I don't agree politically, necessarily. But Alaska is a place that, you know, I wasn't raised thinking that I was that different as a woman, but I was raised on a homestead and for the women up there, it's kind of a can-do attitude. Women up there are really independent, strong-minded, and she's probably a reflection of that, even though we're very different-minded politically. There's a lot of really strong-willed, independent-minded women up there. You know, you just get things done. I didn't know that that was unusual until I came to the [lower 48] states. And then I felt really lucky.

And you ended up gravitating to Texas. How did that happen?I met Ty. It's gorgeous; it's a great place to write. I love the solitude.

One of the songs on your new album is Swedish. Do you speak Swedish?I learned a fair amount when I was about 18. I knew about six or seven words when I started learning it, and so of course I wrote a song using those six or seven words. It probably sounds like a fifth-grader wrote it [ laughs ]. I did learn more after I wrote the song, though.

Do you keep everything you write?I am pretty prolific and I've written hundreds and hundreds of songs but I'm not very good at keeping track of them. I lose them. And so I got into the habit of going online and saying, "Hey, does anyone have this song? I sang it once in Toronto, I think ... " and this one guy kept coming back with bootlegs. He's kind of an archivist doing it for himself. I ended up hiring him [ laughs ] to help me keep track of my hundreds of songs. It's been great. When I want to go back and get x song, he sends them to me.

JEWEL X100 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

You use online fan bootlegs as a resource? That's amazing. Do you plan to start changing the way you produce and distribute your music?This album was an interesting experiment to see how far I could take it. I've always encouraged bootlegging for myself in my career. I think it helps create a rabid, loyal fan base. And I don't think it hurts sales of any new album I put out, because people start to want everything you put out. I've never felt threatened by bootlegs. Massive digital downloading of albums has hurt the business, though. People will grab your album off of LimeWire and it has radically affected the music business. But I think there are other ways that musicians can work in the business and make money; it's just changing. One of the things I did with this album was to partner with FTD florists for Mother's Day sales -- the album came with a bouquet of flowers for Mother's Day. I also partnered with Fisher-Price. It's a great partnership. I'll get exposed to a whole new group of people who otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to my music. I'll get to see myself on the endcap of the toy section [ laughs ]. So there's a lot of really interesting partnerships. I feel really proud that my manager, Virginia, and I have been able to do all this ourselves -- get on Jay Leno and the Today show. I'm excited about getting to do more albums that don't have any real classification and getting the music out there to fans.

You've done that pretty well. My sister bought your dance album and she's not typically into that genre of music, and I've followed you into the country genre. I even watched Nashville Star when you were judging, which I never would have done otherwise. So now you've made this children's album …It isn't actually a kids' album, and I think that's something I'm going to have to work hard to really dispel.

You made "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" a really beautiful song to listen to, and I admit, I was a little bit nervous to listen to it.[ Giggles ] I know what you mean, yeah. I had tons of songs I could have put on the album, but I fell in love with that song. There's all these verses that nobody knows. I love finding songs that are unusual. Musically, I believe in music without borders. I just feel like there's good music and bad music -- those are the only genres I believe in. I could play you Gram Parsons or Emmylou Harris, if you're not a country fan, or Steve Earle or, God, just so many artists -- Kris Kristofferson or Crystal Gayle -- God! You'd be blown away by Crystal Gayle records! They're just beautiful. And the same with any genre, with dance. You know, I just wanted to make smart, lyric-driven dance music. It doesn't have to be all dumb and "oh, baby, baby." That's the only way I've approached music and had my fans follow me.

Do you have a big gay and lesbian following?I do, yeah, I've always been really lucky to be supported by a loyal fan base. And, you know, there's a lot more tolerance out there than people would think. I've pulled in all these different followings ... the sort of hard-core following, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell fans, some club kids that aren't necessarily folk music fans ... and then the country album folded in a conservative crowd. And -- I know this sounds really weird -- but I have a lot of biker fans because I played so many biker bars as a kid, and people come in from that lifestyle. And it's really great because we all sit in the room ... all my gay and lesbian fans and other people sitting next to one another from all walks of life, and everybody gets along. That's what I love about touring. The gay fans scream out; the conservative fans scream out. We see what we have in common rather than what we don't. It's OK to disagree as long as we don't limit the rights of others. That's how I try and live my life. I have friends who I don't agree with, but I'm still great friends with them. My shows are great little experiments: my redneck friends must be tolerant of my gay friends and my gay friends must be tolerant of my redneck friends. It's perfect.

Click on to the next page to see how Jewel does with Advocate.com's word association game.

Advocate.com Said, Jewel Said

Lullaby -- "Music for the soul."

Cowboys -- "Hot!"

Guitar -- "Companion. Until I had my husband, my best friend and most loyal companion was my guitar and music. It's helped me battle loneliness and it's been a great weapon at times, standing up for what you believe in. I really love my guitar."

Love -- "Healing. Having the type of life I've had -- moving out when I was 15, homeless when I was 18, I think you have a choice to either let life make you bitter or more compassionate with a bigger heart and more yielding. I've tried to let my experiences make me more compassionate and more touched by humanity and the struggles of myself and people. I think turning to love instead of bitterness and cynicism is really important if you're gonna stay alive and enjoy life at all."

Reality -- "What you perceive it to be. I think reality is very dependent on a perception of life and it can change as we grow and evolve."

Lady GaGa -- "Love her! I got to meet her at the Today show and it was really neat! I go, 'Hi, I'm Jewel' and she goes, 'I know who you are!' [ Laughs ] She's really cute and really clever. It's fun to see people that are as strong visually -- you know, in music, you're always looking for that hook ... what the hook of the song is or what your style of music is going to be, and I think that her style and her look is a very strong hook."

Equality -- "Gosh, where to start on equality. America was founded on liberty and equality, and the right to be equal. I think when the forefathers set out with such an ambitious task and we're still fighting for it, even after slavery, we're still fighting for equal rights for everybody. But at least this is a country where we can fight for it. I know it gets frustrating 'cause we feel like everything should have happened yesterday -- and I agree -- but at least we can have the debate and we're making a lot of headway."