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Editor's note: This weekend, Alaska-grown musician Jewel will headline Salmonfest, a three-day music festival in Ninilchik. But in February 1996, Jewel was a 21-year-old whose star was on the rise. Her grueling tour schedule took her from bars to television appearances to an endless string of interviews.
Anchorage Daily News journalists Sandi McDaniel and Anne Raup documented the artist at the time, as she built on the success of songs "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "You Were Meant For Me." Originally published on Feb. 11, 1996, that story is below.
KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Beyond the gray lobby window of WNFZ radio, cars speed by on I-40, kicking up mist from a warm, soft rain washing over the Tennessee Blue Ridge. The station awaits its afternoon on-air interview. Who is it this time, a portly manager mumbles: Hootie and the Blowfish? Toad the Wet Sprocket?
But elevator doors yawn open on a waifish, young woman, guitar slung over her shoulder. She's dressed in crusty jeans and a scarred suede jacket of thrift-store quality. Locks of unwashed hair fall over an angelic face glancing up with an expression of uncertainty, maybe shyness. She actually shrugs as she shakes hands. And when she smiles, one tooth is either missing or askew, a flaw as endearing as all get-out.
East Tennessee is about to meet Alaska's Jewel Kilcher.
Road weary and missing sleep, Kilcher does not disappoint anyone, strumming her guitar and singing of love, then bantering with the station's disc jockey. While she's on the air, seven listeners rush to the station for a chance to meet her. Others will catch her act that night at a college bar called Flamingoes.
Barely old enough to order a beer in the joints she plays, Kilcher, 21, is a rising star in the record industry. Her first album, "Pieces of You, " has sold more than 200,000 copies. Kilcher can't read music and has never had voice lessons, yet she is a gifted singer and a prolific songwriter. Two originals — "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "You Were Meant for Me" — are frequently aired on alternative rock stations around the country. A spokesman for Atlantic called Kilcher a record company favorite.
Already she's made the talk show circuit — including "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." On Monday, she will appear on "Good Morning America." And she's in demand elsewhere. She was Dorothy in a TNT production of "The Wizard of Oz in Concert." She taped a VH1 edition of "Crossroads, " a nationwide music channel showcase. She wrote a song for the film "The Crossing Guard" and is working on a love song for a film adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet."
Kilcher's singing career began as a child, when she made up a fraction of the singing Kilcher family of Homer. After her parents, Atz and Nedra, divorced, Kilcher continued to appear with her father, who encouraged her to relax on stage by paying her $5 every time she moved. And when a teacher sent Kilcher home in third grade for yodeling during math, Atz couldn't say much; he'd taught her how.
Homerites are following Kilcher's career with pride. Watching Kilcher outsing big stars on the TNT special, Homer writer Tom Bodett says he couldn't help picturing the little Homer girl standing on a chair next to Atz, yodeling her heart out. "I puddled up and called her dad, " he says.
To Mary Epperson, a member of the Homer Council on the Arts, Kilcher's most impressive quality is perseverance: "She chased a star, caught it and she's going with it."
As a teen, Kilcher solicited money from Homer fans to send herself to an arts academy in Michigan. Later, she visited her mother in sunny San Diego and decided to stay. From there, hers becomes a Cinderella story that captivates fans and media. The oft-repeated tale goes that Kilcher was living in her van and learning to surf when she took the stage at a coffeehouse in Pacific Beach, California. Word got around about the little girl with the big voice who could yodel. Soon limousines were pulling up outside, and eventually Kilcher signed a contract with Atlantic.
Now in her second year of touring, Kilcher is earning fans one gritty bar at a time in towns like Danbury, Conn.; Boise, Idaho.; and Allentown, Pa. Two underage girls standing in line to see a rock band at a bar in Charlottesville, Va., reveal Kilcher's emerging status: "Who is Jewel?" one asks. Then, after thinking a few seconds: "Oh, I know! I know! I love her!"
Prayers in the bathroom
Nearly every night until this nationwide saturation tour ends in March, Kilcher will sing an hourlong set, warming up for some alternative rockers, the Edwin McCain Band. In between, her time is filled with telephone and radio interviews and appearances on local TV. She races city to city in a dusty, gray van driven by her record company road manager, Keith Anderson, 37.
In Knoxville, as on most of the Southern leg of her tour, Kilcher's audience is campus age, mostly beer drinkers and mostly there to see McCain. But Kilcher attracts interest as she strums a guitar decorated with feathers and preens for intense young men who press against the stage, studying her face and body. The crowds soak in her love songs and laugh at the novelty of her yodeling.
Few pursuits invite such instant and fickle adoration, and if it all went bust tomorrow, Kilcher says, she might disappear in Paris, write poetry, study art, learn a foreign language and how to cook. But for now, she rides her momentum, working the media, gaining ground with each live appearance.
"You could burp, and I'd love it, " a DJ tells her in Knoxville.
"I like that about you, " Kilcher shoots back.
Backstage at a club just off the railroad tracks in Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, Kilcher shows up in retro clothes, ill-fitting men's pants and a synthetic shirt with pearl snap buttons. As she steps over stage cables in black platform shoes, her shoulders hunched, her arms held out at the elbows, she might be a 12-year-old learning to walk in her mom's high heels. She demands time alone before going on stage, saying she prays to steady herself before each performance. Not your kind of praying, she says.
Kilcher can be as sweet as moon pie one minute, as sour as lemon the next. She blames her moodiness on the pressures of touring and has taken to disappearing into bathrooms for precious minutes of privacy.
"The bathroom is like the last place in America you can go to be alone. It's where young women go to cry in restaurants. Where you go when you shoplift something. It's where I go to pray."
It isn't just the public attention, she explains. Interviews — about 20 the first week of the tour alone — are grinding and repetitive. Reporters are nice to you, she says, then trash you in print. Everybody wants something. A fawning interviewer asks her to personalize several autographs to friends, then mentions he, too, is a songwriter and maybe she wouldn't mind if he sent her some of his songs. Sure, says Kilcher.
"That happens 20 times a day, " she says later. "You just have to have a sense of humor about it."
Kilcher works harder than most, says road manager Anderson, a rail-thin Brit whose home base is New York City. It's up to the performer how many interviews to accept, he says, and he's advised Kilcher to slow her pace to avoid burnout. She is in control, though, using body language and a drop-dead look to inform reporters their interview is over.
"You don't have to be rude, but you just can't afford extra minutes when it comes down to extra minutes, " she says.
Kilcher acknowledges a soft underbelly. She has learned to ignore some questions and talk around others. A romantic link with actor Sean Penn is off limits. "I never talk about it, " she says when asked directly. But while shopping for honey-mustard dressing in a Charlottesville supermarket, she buys a pack of stationery stickers, saying she always likes to take something back to Sean's kids, ages 2 and 4.
On the road, she longs for home, peace and stillness.
"It's a sacrifice. That and losing your privacy to fame. That kind of thing is the worst. But because I get to do what I love, I'm just really thankful for it. You always have to keep adjusting your attitude. It's really easy to collapse into exhaustion. As soon as you do that, you're dead. Because the only thing that keeps you going is your energy. You know, you've got to keep positive."
She just couldn't do this, she says, if her heart wasn't in it.
Duffels and Dostoevsky
After the Charlottesville show, Anderson loads Kilcher's duffel into the van and the two head north to Alexandria. There's time for an antiques shop outside Stanardsville, where Kilcher tries on a Minnie Pearl hat and pries cash out of her pocket for an Oriental-style keepsake box and a deck of girlie playing cards. If she owned a house, she'd collect things, but for now she shares a small place with a friend. She doesn't say who.
"I don't have any friends, " she says later. "I'm a recluse. I don't talk to people. I have my mom, and I don't need anyone else, really."
In interviews from town to town, Kilcher launches into the same observations she had 200 miles back. That she believes in angels. That we are each other's angels. That people should do what they love. That we're trained to make money but not to be happy. After a while, it sounds like recitation.
She spouts off so many lines, it's easy to doubt her sincerity. Likely, the talented ingenue is still inventing herself, not only as a woman but as an emerging artist. She adopts personas with chameleon ease. One minute she's a giggling teen among a pack of giggling teens huddled around her after a show. Minutes later, back on the band bus, she talks thoughtfully with Anderson about education in America.
Kilcher has neglected her own formal education, but she has a keen curiosity and a desire to learn. The duffel Anderson lugs around for her is laden with books. Under an appaloosa sky, driving past towns like Ruckersville and Culpeper, Kilcher curls up on the van seat with a blanket and "Crime and Punishment."
"It's hard to be a sensitive chick in a dive bar, " she says of herself.
On tour, Kilcher and Anderson stay in high-end hotels like the Hyatt and the Regency — places they can check in and out of smoothly. Anderson carries a portable computer and makes notes in his "book of lies." He requires fax access and continually checks in via e-mail with Atlantic regarding the day's activities.
The smoky clubs Kilcher plays are a long way from Alaska's meadows, and she replaces fresh air and sunshine with assorted vitamins. For her vocal cords, she drinks bottled water and herbal tea and tells herself birds don't get sore throats.
"I used to feel like I was holding my breath on the road, " she says. Only on the rare day off could she exhale. Now, she finds ways to entertain herself. One notion is to learn photography, to document the grimy backstage lounges where she spends so much of her time.
During radio interviews, Kilcher takes advantage of station flunkies, handing them lists of items to pick up for her, like tampons, fruit and cottage cheese. Yeah, it feels weird, but there's hardly time to do it herself. She swears she travels with four shirts and four pairs of pants and that's all. Laundry day is any time she can get her clothes washed in the basement of one of the hotels.
For Kilcher, tour dates and locations are a blur. Maps, clubs, hotels and assorted static are left to Anderson. When the two get lost minutes before an appearance in Alexandria, Kilcher comes undone, reaching her "freak-out zone" and exercising the F-word. Anderson, taking one wrong turn after another, stays calm, eventually delivering Kilcher to the show with seconds to spare.
'I know where I'm from'
On stage, Kilcher weaves humor into her act, talking to the crowd, telling stories, hamming her way through practiced bits. She sometimes speaks her lyrics instead of singing them. Often, she seems amateurish. When the crowd isn't with her, she sinks into the stage.
"I can't talk, " she says later. "There's nothing to go into… When you try to talk, you sound like an idiot."
Indifferent audiences make her feel awkward, like when the popular girl in school doesn't like you, she says. Yet above and beyond her rawness and immaturity, Kilcher's promise is a voice as creamy and pure as alpine lilies.
She pierces the chalky smoke of nightclubs with this voice, at once powerful, evocative and ethereal. She closes her eyes when she sings like this. Her face beams. She raises her arms, wrinkles her nose and steadies herself with one leg behind her, as if to let her whole body release the words.
A reviewer for The Washington Post credited Kilcher for this seraphic voice but labeled her phrasing "diary-like pronouncements." Her album, he wrote, "exposes an unfortunate tendency to present trite, hackneyed sentiments as if they were oracular visions from a young prophet to a jaded world."
Kilcher's hometown newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, also has given her mixed reviews, concluding: "When Jewel's words catch up with the rest of her, the full picture could be blinding."
Talent, says Kilcher, is like newly seeded grass. If it gets walked on or if it isn't nurtured, it dies. Too often, fans, producers and the media recognize her gift but expect her to spring forth fully formed. That can't happen, she says, adding: "Hard wood does grow slowly."
Inside of three years, Kilcher has gone from a teenager who never so much as paid a light bill to a young woman making crucial business decisions for herself and her "team, " which includes her mother and mentor, Nedra Carroll. The two keep coast-to-coast phone lines hot.
"I help her break down the information coming into her life, " says Carroll. "Most 21-year-olds have time to discover themselves in certain ways. Their emotional side can develop over time. With Jewel, that's all accelerated."
If Kilcher is spinning, who wouldn't be a little crazed with the unnatural necessity of repeating one's life facts to dozens of slick-talking DJs and prying reporters? All in search of a peg, a means to label and define her. Is she a female Bob Dylan? A Joni Mitchell revivalist? The next Tori Amos? The next Tracy Chapman? Does she really, as her record company flier claims, have "the wisdom of an 80-year-old, the hope of a 4-year-old, the compelling voice of a 20-year-old?"
And for the hundredth time — is Jewel her real name?
Yes. And yes, she really is from Alaska, she informs each audience, sometimes revealing how she grew up using an outhouse or how, as a child, she visited an Eskimo village where people had never seen blond hair. She describes herself as an Alaska farm girl, so raw starting out that she had to follow written instructions on how to apply makeup.
Kilcher says she tells people about her Alaska background because it is a place that speaks to people's spirits. Whether or not she's working an angle, Alaska roots do set Kilcher apart and give interviewers a hook.
Most of Kilcher's family still live near Homer. When she's homesick, she says, it is for the pristine landscape of her childhood. She carries Alaska rocks with her and reveals she has special-ordered a guitar to be inlaid with a map of Alaska and a girl riding a horse on a beach like Kachemak Bay's. She hopes to visit family here in spring.
"When I think of myself, I see myself there on those meadows, and that's what I consider beauty and godliness, " she says. "I know where I'm from. I know what beauty is. I know I'm part of it."
Yodeling in Manhattan
Storming out of a show in Alexandria, Virginia, Kilcher climbs on the McCain band's bus and slams the door. High school kids had talked over her songs, someone had shouted a lewd comment and someone else had thrown a penny at her.
If they failed to grasp Kilcher's talent in Virginia, she is adored in New York City. In an unmarked studio on 52nd Street a few days later, staff at VH1 prepare for Kilcher with fresh tulips, trays of fruit and two dozen bottles of Evian.
A producer with a pierced eyebrow paces the hallways, expressing concern when Kilcher is late. A schedule taped to the studio wall has "Jewel" marked off in unforgiving time blocks. When the record company does deliver Kilcher, she is escorted to makeup, then into the cool, cavernous studio.
No smoke here. A cellist, violinist and pianist are warming up. As a handful of onlookers stand in the shadows, Kilcher takes her place before the cameras, a stopwatch in one hand to time herself. When she throws her arms back in song, her belly button shows. Looks great, someone tells her. Do it again.
Cameras roam the stage and Kilcher is poised and professional, delivering her lyrics with such richness, no one could guess how little sleep she's working on. Her camera charisma sends the VH1 people into whispered conferences and someone says the control room guys are in love.
After a "live" interview that will air several days later, and a quick review of the taping, Kilcher is whisked away for an afternoon of appointments. Late that night, hundreds of 20-somethings pack shoulder to shoulder into Irving Plaza, a club near Union Square. This time Kilcher — uptown in black leather pants and a blue metallic shirt — is the main attraction, playing after McCain, not before.
She sings the same songs as in the South, but here, fans drape over the balconies to catch the lyrics. She seems more at ease with this crowd, even choosing to sing an intensely personal song about the emotional desolation of divorce on her family.
Fans hand her notes and flowers. Someone holds up a lighter.
In New York, Kilcher is a star. But a truer portrait of her life now may be 800 miles back in Knoxville, where after her show, she unceremoniously squeezed out a side door of the noisy campus bar.
Fatigued, another hardscrabble hopeful with a guitar, she walked through the rain, then, sinking into the rented van with New York plates, made ready to roll with the promise of morning.