Glittering girl

 

When Jewel says "I love Ireland" she means it. Indeed, she kicks off a phone conversation by saying just that; and when you respond "really?" in an almost cynical tone of voice, she jokes, "hey, would I lie to you already? We're only getting to know each other!" Her fondness for this country, it transpires, is rooted not just in the "great response" she got when she played for the first time here earlier this year but also the fact that her parents were "folkies". The latter is an influence that permeates Jewel's music, from the timbre of her voice to the voicings she uses on the guitar and her lyrics.

"My dad was really into Irish folk music when I was a child; that's what I was raised listening to, those beautiful harmonies," she recalls. Her parents, Atz and Nedra Kilcher, were an Alaskan folk-singing duo with whom Jewel made her professional debut at the age of six. When she was eight, however, her parents parted. For several years Jewel lived the life of a travelling troubadour with her father before returning to her mother Nedra and bouts of poverty that involved living in Volkswagen vans and using public lavatories to wash. Many of the tracks on her debut album were written at that time, though she rejects claims that they are either "dark" or less than profound.

"I did write a lot of the songs between the ages of 16 and 19, and I'm proud of those lyrics. I took a lot more risks and used a lot of unusual imagery that most people in pop or rock don't. Compare that album to most songs you hear on the radio and it definitely holds its own!" she says, laughing just a little self-consciously.

"Some songs are dark, some aren't. Some songs are both, within the same lyric or in terms of even the way I sing them. Yet at that time of my life I was trying to figure out questions like why you are allowed to be born but not allowed to be taken care of. And could starve and be homeless. Like when I wrote Who Will Save Your Soul? I was travelling through Mexico, watching them look at American television and believe America was utopia. The song is about people looking to something else to save them, looking for beauty outside themselves."

At that point Jewel was suffering from a kidney disorder which led to hospitalisation, but not until after many hospitals had turned her away because of her lack of cash, an experience which, surely, must have affected her? "It touched me very deeply," she says. "But instead of making me more cynical it made me more convinced that things have to change. It probably made me more compassionate, too. You can't fight the enemy with despair. I'm not an optimist who is out of touch with how the world works but I really believe you have to look confidently for wherever change is possible. And the writers I have always respected have been mercilessly focused on where is change possible, such as Charles Bukowski. Despite the darkness in his work he always kept his little poetic voice."

So, too, did folk-based singers such as Nanci Griffith who "always amazed" Jewel, particularly in relation to the way "she could sing about such dark things as a sister sleeping with her whole fraternity in the back seat of a car, yet sing it in such a sweet voice you didn't realise what she was singing about!" Hearing this made her realise "the meaning of irony" and directly influences the way she sings lines like "do you want to bash in his brain?" in the song Pieces Of You. The latter she describes as "a plea for tolerance" not just in terms of the "faggot" in question but, a la Nanci Griffith, the "pretty girl" of whom it is asked "did she sleep with your whole town?" She says that she inherited this campaigning tolerance from her father, who, she relates without irony, "cried with joy" when she brought home her first boyfriend and he was black. Subsequent boyfriends ranged from Thai to Sri Lankan, but she has also dated at least one plain old American: Sean Penn.

"My father never limited my mind," she says. "He always allowed me to make my own decisions and trusted that about me, which is something that has led me through life in a good way. That open-ness. Both my parents are wonderful in that sense. Growing up, we all go through a certain amount of pain but my parents gave me the tools to deal with that, as in an open mind. And music, creativity, passion for living, tenacity. "

Level-headedness is also a feature that defines this particular Jewel, who has always insisted she doesn't want fans to put her on a pedestal. However, when she reflects on the journey that took her from sleeping in a van to opening gigs for Dylan or, indeed, dating Sean Penn, doesn't Jewel see that, to many, this could seem like the great rock'n'roll dream come true? "It is my dream coming true. I don't know what the rock'n'roll dream is," she says, softly. "But the journey, for me, is coming from living my life with no passion to living my life with passion. And, now, doing something that I love and feeeling fulfilled as a person. That's the dream. The rest, the fame and the money is like a side-effect, it comes and goes. But, yeah, after sharing a microphone with Bob Dylan I could have died the next day and gone happy!"

So, when did Jewel live without passion? "It all came to a head when I was 18, y'know, that point where you have to decide whether to stay at school, or get a job," says Jewel, admitting that, yes, the impoverished circumstances of her life at that point also added to her state of emotional inertia. "It sucked, for sure," she continues. "But at least I wasn't 40, hadn't a family, was on my own and could live in a car. And, as I said, I learned to believe that things must change for the better. The world becomes what you believe, in so many ways. If you believe in how bad things are, that's how they remain. And I did participate in darkness, but I got sick of it. And began to believe in hope, though I do slip back into that darkness, particularly when you tour so much and see the way people are living, treat each other, it isn't pretty. As in the way people worship stars, so many things that can get to a sensitive person and make you feel the weight of it all. I definitely need plenty of antidotes, so that I don't become totally disillusioned." So who saves Jewel's soul at the moment - apart, presumably, from her French-Canadian model boyfriend, Michel Francoeur and the fact that she is allowed to make music?

"My mom. And praying a lot keeps me in line," she asserts. "And definitely being able to make music helps me a great deal. Musically I've been able, of late, to articulate my thoughts better than I did on the first album. I'd only been playing guitar for a year and a half so what I could do was very limited. So when you hear my second album or see me in Ireland you'll see what I do is musically more diverse. I'm able to express myself better. You may say (in an Irish Times review) that the songs are more aspirational than inspirational but my goal always has been to be a good writer, a good communicator and it would be very foolhardy of me to say that, at 19, I had achieved that. I doubt if, at 50, I will have achieved that! Perfecting your art is a constant goal, it's never something you arrive at. "

Even so, for Jewel there must have been a moment where all the pain of attempting to perfect her art seemed worthwhile, where she had to sigh, even silently, to herself and say "My God, this is it, this is what it's all about!" When was she taken furthest from her memory of unpassionate living, spiritual death?

"Well, at the moment I'm tired from touring because I've been on the road for four years but I'm having a great time because I never thought the world would respond to my little album or that I'd get to affect so many people, travel the world and get paid to do it!" she says, laughing. "But playing in Madison Square Garden, acoustic, and getting everybody to be drop-dead-quiet and playing with Bob Dylan was something really special. I've really been very, very blessed in my short life and I look forward to repaying that, in some way. That's what I love about playing in Ireland, where audiences really seem to love lyrics. And listen."

Fact File

Cultural Origins: Born in 1974 in Homer, Alaska, she grew up in a log cabin, which had no TV, no heat except for a coal stove and no running water. "It was not a hippie thing," Jewel has said, "it was like pioneers, when people moved West." Debut: Discovered singing in a coffee-house in San Diego, while she was living in a Volkswagen van. Her album Pieces of You was released in February 1995 and remained a "sleeper" for two years, basically because enlightened souls in the music industry wondered who'd want to listen to songs by a "folk singer from Alaska?" The album has since gone on to be nominated for a Grammy, sell more than six million copies and produced two top five singles You Were Meant For Me and Who Will Save Your Soul? She has also since been asked to sing at a Clinton Inaugural ball and to open gigs for Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

Irish gig: November 11th, Olymmia Theatre, Dublin.