Jewel - Biography

By David Downs


Acclaimed Alaska-raised singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher charmed mainland America with her modern folk album Pieces of You (1995 Atlantic) in 1995. Although she spent some time living in a van and gigging in San Diego, California, she became an international star by the age of 19. Jewel changed up her style to include club music in 2003 and country by 2008, and her 2009 children’s album is being distributed via toy company Fisher Price. Jewel seems like an apt fit for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” given her plaintive, naive-sounding voice and proven yodeling ability. The three-time Grammy nominee went twelve-times platinum with Pieces of You, though her six following releases repeatedly broke the top ten. Jewel has had quite a storied personal life as well and is currently married to a rodeo champion.


            Jewel Kilcher was born on May 23, 1974 in Payson, Utah, but was raised in Homer and Anchorage, Alaska. She is a descendant of Irish Mormon homesteaders on her mother’s side and Swiss-German World War II refugees on her father’s side.  Parents Atz and Nedra raised Jewel in an extremely musical environment; they recorded, performed and even toured native villages in Alaska. By the age of six, Jewel had ridden dog sled rides across frozen tundra to Eskimo concerts. Raised on a ranch, her house lacked running water or electricity, and featured a coal stove and outhouse.


Jewel’s parents divorced when she was eight, and she remained with her cowboy singer-songwriter father, touring as a duet act. She says she sung in biker bars and lumberjack joints, and hid from cops in bar bathrooms. When she was 15, she left home for a vocal scholarship at Interlochen Arts Academy, a private arts school in Michigan. There she majored in visual art, though she enjoyed the likes of authors Anaïs Nin and Charles Bukowski. A famed spring break street busking tour of Mexico gave Jewel material for her later hit “Who Will Save Your Soul.”


By 1993, the young artist ended up in San Diego with her mother, a spiritual guru and artist manager, who instructed her to play music full-time. She lived in a van, surfed, and played coffee shops, which is where Michael Balzary, also known as Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, first spotted her performing. He took some of her demos, becoming an early part of a fan base that quickly grew to include major label A&R reps. Atlantic Records paid for the recording of her first real demos and then a bidding war ensued for her debut album. Atlantic won and she was paired with Neil Young and Patsy Cline producer Ben Keith.


Pieces of You (1995 Atlantic) was released amid grunge’s dominance of the radio, as well as gangsta rap’s searing hold on American youth. The Alaskan offered the perfect antidote to such heat. Pieces of You is ethereal, translucent, and pure. “Foolish Games” feels like nothing more than Jewel’s voice and a piano riff. Soothing acoustic guitar ballads “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant for Me” are folk-pop perfection. The record initially sold 3,000 copies in San Diego in the nine months after its February 1995 debut, but the album was a slow burner. Jewel opened for Bob Dylan and Neil Young at Madison Square Garden. It took fourteen months, but “You Were Meant for Me” (co-written with Jewel’s long-time boyfriend Steve Poltz) hit number one on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1997 and went on to go platinum twelve times. Blender magazine noted Pieces of You outsold Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991 DGC) without all the drama. The Times of London compared her to Joni Mitchell.


Jewel dated actor and director Sean Penn in 1997 and actor Christopher Douglas in 1998. Also in 1998, she released A Night Without Armor: Poems by Jewel, which ended up on The New York Times bestseller list with a million-plus copies sold. Later in the year, producer Peter Collins, Patrick Leonard, and a large ensemble backed Jewel on Spirit (1998 –Atlantic), a collection of inspirational tracks that went to number three on the Billboard 200 with 368,000 copies sold in its first week. The four singles, “Hands,” “Down So Long,” “Jupiter,” and “Life Uncommon,” brought a new cool to the Adult Top 40 chart. 


In 1999, Joy: A Holiday Collection (1999 Atlantic) offered Christmas carols and spirituals that moved serious units and hit 58 on the Billboard 200. However, 2000’s Chasing Down the Dawn (2000 Atlantic) was a commercial non-entity. The country-tinged  This Way (2001 Atlantic), produced by Jewel with Dann Huff and John Kurzweg, became a Billboard 200 number nine, and the single “Standing Still” hit number three on Adult Top 40 chart.


In 2002, the buxom blond was ranked number 92 on Stuff magazine’s “102 Sexiest Women In The World” list. Also that year, she broke her collarbone and rib after being thrown from a colt while she was riding on the ranch of her boyfriend, seven-time world title holding bull-rider Ty Murray, in Stephenville, Texas. In June of 2003, her fifth album, 0304 (2003 Atlantic), debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 – an all-time high for Jewel. She and producer Lester Mendez added dance beats, synths, and trancy vocals to the album. The album hit number two on the Billboard 200. However, Jewel had to cancel several dates of the album’s tour after her bassist Terome “T-Bone” Hannon died.


Jewel returned to form in 2006 with Goodbye Alice in Wonderland (2006 Atlantic). The single “Again and Again” has her singing over acoustic guitar, while the inspirational power ballad “Good Day” helped the album hit number eight on the Billboard 200. In 2007, she parted ways with Atlantic. 2008’s Perfectly Clear (2008 Valory) appeared on the new Nashville label Valory, and is produced by Jewel and John Rich of Big and Rich fame. The album received mixed reviews but was a Country Albums Chart number one and Billboard 200 number eight, fueled by single “Stronger Woman.” 


In 2007, Jewel sang with Merle Haggard on his album of hits and presented the Country Music Association Awards show with her boyfriend Ty Murray. The two married in 2008 and live on a large ranch in Texas. Jewel’s first independent album, Lullaby (2009 Fisher Price), was self-produced and recorded at the singer’s home studio in Stephenville, Texas. It features ten original songs and five covers of nursery rhymes and standards, and was released by Fisher Price Records.


Jewel’s music has appeared in the films Clueless (1995), Phenomenon (1996), and Batman & Robin (1997). She also acts, starring in Ang Lee civil war drama Ride with the Devil in 1999 with Tobey Maguire and Skeet Ulrich. In 2007, she appeared as herself in the comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

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