Jewel Kilcher is a go-with-the-flow kind of girl. If you happen to get disconnected in the middle of a phone interview, for example, she'll call you back from her tour bus -- twice -- and pick up right where she left off, almost to the word.
Alaska's most famous expatriate (who performs using only her first name) returned to the state this week to play her first Alaska concerts in more than a decade. While Jewel now makes her home on a ranch in Texas with her rodeo-champion husband, Ty Murray, it's clear she continues to identify with her northern roots.
"I really miss the land," she said. "I think the land's just galvanized my sense of creativity. I miss it a lot. There's nothing subtle about the landscape. It really makes me come alive. It's so rugged and beautiful."
Jewel's singing career started at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, where her parents did a dinner show for tourists. She started getting in on the act at a young age.
"That's when I kind of started getting up and yodeling," Jewel said. "I don't think we had stars in our eyes or anything, that I was going to go on and make records and things like that -- it was just a really great job."
When she went back to performing as a teenager, it was because she needed to eat, not because she wanted to be a superstar.
"I wasn't trying to get discovered, I wasn't trying to build a music career," she said. "I had just gone back to singing because I was down and out and that seemed like the quickest way that maybe I could make some money. I was really shocked when the first label came to me and wanted to sign me."
They did sign her though, and Jewel's 1995 album "Pieces of You," became one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. In the 14 years since then, Jewel has released seven more albums and sold more than 27 million records worldwide. Over the years, she's strayed from her folk roots, releasing country and dance-pop records and, most recently, a collection of lullabies.
Rather than a series of calculated reinventions, however, Jewel's shifts in style and sound appear to be reflective of an ever-evolving creative mindset.
"You know, when I was signed I was homeless and I had nothing to lose, and so I just made the record I wanted. And that record, shockingly, sold 12 million copies," she said. "I was in a position where I was like, 'Huh! I have nothing to lose again!' I kind of just got to have a real freedom of, like, what interested me."
Jewel can rattle off a diverse list of influences including Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and the Replacements.
"I see music like my closet, where, you know, some days you feel like wearing a dress, other days you feel like sweatpants," she said. "It doesn't make you a different person; it just means that you're wearing something different that day. I hate repeating myself. My goal in my career has been to try and write better and sing better as I get older, which sounds simplistic, but it's something amazing that very few people really pull off."
Over the years, Jewel has attracted some derision from critics for her precious, confessional, and at times childish and naïve lyrics, but she speaks earnestly and sincerely about her music, and it appears that, if her lyrics sound overly idealistic, that's because that's who Jewel is.
"Pieces of You" was recorded when Jewel, now 35, was only 19, but she said she still relates to that early material.
"The same thing that inspires me to write -- how much I care for people, how much I care that people are OK and that I'm OK -- those are still some of the same things that I write about," Jewel said. "I have five or 600 songs in my catalog, and so every album I just sort of go through my catalog for the songs I wasn't able to get on records yet that I've always loved. I just went in the studio and cut 60 songs, and there's a bunch of them I wrote when I was 16, 17, 18, 20."
Jewel credits some of her adaptability and continued success to her homestead upbringing.
"I think that being raised in Alaska gave me a real head start in this field," she said. "(It) gave me this sort of an instant groundedness, good work ethic -- I don't really feel like I've ever really gotten caught up in celebrity or going to big parties or trying to be popular or any of that stuff. I just always was able to make it about music and working hard, and I think that work ethic was what made me successful and what's given me longevity."
It hasn't escaped her notice that her concerts are scheduled during the year of Alaska's 50th anniversary of statehood.
Jewel's grandfather, Yule Kilcher, was a delegate to the Alaska constitutional convention, and her family has a long history in the state.
"It's just amazing to be part of Alaska's legacy," she said. "I'm so proud of the state and the type of people it produces."
Jewel has no plans to relocate to Alaska anytime soon, although she wouldn't mind spending more time in the state.
"I'd love to get some land up there," she said. "I don't know if I'd be able to live up there full time, but hey, I could be a summer bird. I just feel really grateful that I got to be raised in such a special place. I feel like I really got to be a part of history, being one of the last pioneering families in America. It's always really with me."
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By Maia Nolan
Daily News correspondent