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’90s folk star Jewel is finally happy

Jewel performs with, from left, her brothers Atz Lee Kilcher and Nikos Kilcher and her father, Atz Kilcher, in Hershey, Penn.

EILEEN BLASS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Now she wants to know: Are you?

By CAITLIN GIBSON | The Washington Post | Published: January 21, 2018

HERSHEY, Pa. -- She has sung for a pope and a president, but tonight, Jewel will style her own hair and sing Christmas carols with her dad at a cozy theater in small-town Pennsylvania.

It is a dramatic drop in altitude for a folk singer-turned-megastar whose debut album went platinum 15 times over back in the ’90s, when she posed for the cover of Time magazine and sang duets with Bob Dylan. But Jewel Kilcher -- who became first-name famous -- says this is exactly the life she hoped for, the outcome of a promise she made to herself long ago.

"Fame doesn’t always happen at a human pace," she says, her lips curving into the enigmatic half-smile immortalized on the cover of her 1995 debut, "Pieces of You."

"Fame happens sometimes at a pace that causes a lot of psychological problems," she continues. "So my mission, No. 1, was to be a happy, whole human, and No. 2 was to be a musician. And that’s what I’ve been doing my whole career, and that’s where I am today."

At 43, Jewel is a prolific songwriter, a best-selling poet and occasional actress -- along with other roles, she stars in the Hallmark Channel’s "Fixer Upper" mystery movie series. She’s also a single mom to a 6-year-old boy who lives with her in Nashville.

In song, she can summon many voices -- deep and powerful, girlish and sweet, piercing and agile -- but in conversation, she speaks in a soft alto, absent-mindedly twisting golden strands of hair around her fingers. She exudes a thoughtful warmth, calling to mind the word so often assigned to her by fans and critics alike since the start of her career: earnest.

Fortunately, she doesn’t mind it.

"I never saw that as an insult -- ’Oh, she’s so earnest.’ I always clung to that," she says. "I think there’s a danger in all of our jobs when we become too proficient at them. There’s something very, very special about the beginning of anyone’s career, when it’s raw talent, when it’s raw will, when it’s raw drive. Because that’s when you’re innovative, because no one has told you the rules or the parameters that you have to operate by."

So, yes, she thinks she sounds an awful lot like Kermit the Frog on "Pieces of You," a record she described in her 2015 memoir, "Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story," as "imperfect, full of mistakes and guitar flubs" but also "honest." And she’ll allow that her best-selling book of poetry - 1998’s "A Night Without Armor" - is filled with all the unfiltered, vaguely purple-hued angst you might expect from an expressive soul fumbling through the turbulent teen and early 20-something years, because that’s who she was when she wrote it.

"I have no regrets. I never liked art as propaganda, where people make themselves seem more perfect or more polished or more educated or more mature than they are," she says. "It’s Photoshop for poetry and music. It’s not fair. It doesn’t give you a clear image of who you are as a human."

Her unabashed sincerity resonates, even against the odds. Marilyn Manson - the infamous goth rocker and self-titled Antichrist Superstar - once pulled Jewel aside to tell her that his favorite song of hers was the tender ditty "I’m Sensitive":

"Your words can crush things that are unseen
"So please be careful with me, I’m sensitive
"And I’d like to stay that way."

In an era still gripped by grunge, Jewel climbed to the top of the pop charts with sweet, simple folk tunes. Her poetry collection sold over 2 million copies, becoming one of the top-selling volumes of poetry in American history.

Maybe the success of her early, imperfect art isn’t so surprising. In moments of despair or disillusionment, Jewel has found that people gravitate toward the heartfelt vibes that have always been her hallmark: "You can only feel crappy for so long and then you go, ’Now what?’ " she says.

So she has always tried to offer answers, through song, poetry, prose and, now, as an entrepreneur. Last year, she launched Jewel Inc., a parent company encompassing every aspect of her essential Jewel-ness. It includes "Whole Human" -- a mindfulness-focused program that markets training resources to companies and school districts -- and JewelNeverBroken.com, a nonprofit website that bills itself as an "emotional fitness destination" for those seeking more balance and happiness in their lives.

"If I can help people with any shortcuts, so it doesn’t take them as long as it took me, I’m happy to share those tips I’ve learned along the way," she says. "These lessons took me 40 years to figure out, and it was a messy journey for me."

With the introduction of Jewel Inc., the pop star has joined the growing ranks of celebrities who have made a personal brand their second act. Reese Witherspoon created the Southern-inspired lifestyle brand "Draper James," which markets whimsical Dixie charm and flirty $250 dresses. Tiffani Thiessen of "Beverly Hills, 90210" fame fills her sleek, Pinterest-worthy blog with favorite recipes and design ideas for your child’s playroom (with links to the products you’ll need to attain the look, of course.) And then there’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, a newsletter that grew into a veritable lifestyle empire, complete with cookbooks, a top-dollar "wellness summit" and a following of more than 1 million subscribers.

Like plenty of her celebrity compatriots, Jewel sprinkles her blog and website with a few favorite buzzwords: mindfulness, self-agency, creativity. Thiessen wants you to make handmade Valentines; Jewel’s holiday tour incorporated a craft fair, offering the opportunity to create a handmade gift. Paltrow famously dubbed her separation from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin a "conscious uncoupling;" Jewel chose the phrase "tender undoing" to describe her 2014 divorce from retired rodeo star Ty Murray, the father of her son, Kase.

But lexicon aside, Jewel’s approach -- and the path that led her to this new chapter -- is decidedly unique.

To be clear: Jewel doesn’t want to be your guru, your idol or your personal stylist. She won’t try to sell you a $500 organic buckwheat meditation cushion, a la Goop. She has no plans to design a clothing line inspired by the rustic style of the Alaskan frontier where she grew up. And she certainly doesn’t claim to be the answer to the question posed by her career-launching hit single, "Who Will Save Your Soul."

She is, as she puts it, "just a fellow traveler on a road. I’m much more into helping people find their own internal compass."

Her idea is to bring mindfulness and balance to the corporate workplace, school classrooms and beyond. So far, Jewel Inc. has partnered with online retailer Zappos to create the pilot program, which will offer a digital tool kit to Zappos employees -- "like a whole university," Jewel says -- with the goal to ultimately make them "more resilient, more creative, less risk-averse, less anxious, more entrepreneurial." With the help of education experts, she’s also creating a similar curriculum for public school districts.

"I’m planning a mindfulness cartoon for toddlers, too," she says.

Her underlying message, she says, is the phrase she set to music in her 1998 hit single, "Hands":

"If I could tell the world just one thing
"It would be that we’re all OK."

If that comes off as a touch naive or overly optimistic, consider the facts of her personal history.

She grew up in a log cabin with no running water or heat outside Homer, Alaska, the daughter of a family filled with passionate artists and musicians who survived largely on animals they hunted and produce they could grow and can.

At 5, she began performing as a singer in local hotels and restaurants with her family. Three years later, her parents divorced, and Jewel and her two brothers stayed with their father, Atz, a Vietnam veteran who struggled with alcoholism and repeated his own father’s abusive behavior. Jewel described one especially harrowing episode in her memoir, when Atz struck her and her brother: "He kept yelling, spittle flying in my face," she wrote of her father. "I thought I was going to die."

Jewel moved out on her own at 15 and won a scholarship to Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts a year later. At 18, she followed her mother’s advice and moved to San Diego to pursue her music career; after she was fired from a day job at a computer warehouse, she became homeless -- living out of a battered van, shoplifting food and clothing and struggling with chronic kidney infections as she slowly built a local fan base by performing in bars.

About a year later, Jewel finally got her break: Atlantic Records wanted to sign her. She almost didn’t do it.

"I was like, oh my gosh, you just can’t take somebody with my background and put fame in the mix. That’s just massive self-destruction," she says. "That’s when I was like, I really have to make being a happy, whole person my priority. And if that’s my priority in music, and my career is second, then I would be willing to do it."

She resolved to avoid alcohol and drugs, and to continue diligently writing in her journal, where she kept a confessional record of her thoughts and behaviors. "I call it being your own silent witness," she says.

When her stardom grew overwhelming -- she could no longer grocery shop without people gawking at her in the aisles or peering into her cart to see what she was buying -- she stepped back from her career. She took a two-year break after her sophomore record, 1998’s "Spirit," and turned down tours and acting jobs.

"I didn’t like that level of fame," she says. "That’s a strange thing to say, maybe, but I slowed it down. And I realized I had the power to do that; I never had to give up my authenticity."

The exercises she taught herself as a girl evolved into the lessons that are now the foundation of her personal brand. Among them: learning to reflect on the emotional dynamics you were raised with, practicing gratitude and helping others. She encourages time spent in silence, through meditation or prolonged prayer.

Those lessons were further refined as she endured new challenges -- the heartbreak of failed romances, the divorce from Murray. In 2003, Jewel faced a particularly bitter betrayal when she learned that her mother, Nedra -- who had acted as Jewel’s business manager since the start of her career -- had mismanaged her daughter’s finances, leaving the star singer millions of dollars in debt. Devastated, Jewel knew she needed a legal separation from Nedra. The two have been estranged ever since.

Jewel’s struggles have only made her more resilient, she says, and she has never hesitated to share them openly -- in her music, and her writing, and soon on a stage in Las Vegas: She is working with Cirque du Soleil to present a biographical one-night show in March, based on the highs and lows of her life story, with proceeds benefiting a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing access to safe water.

"I gained a skill set where no matter what I was faced with, I realized I can overcome it, and I can pick myself up, and I can figure out what I can do better and I can forgive and move on and go back to the drawing board and never felt like a victim," Jewel says. "I just didn’t know that it would lead me to a second phase in my career."

Her ability to forgive also led her back to her father, Atz, who has become a very different man from the one depicted in the darkest chapters of Jewel’s memoir.

This is the first time Jewel’s family -- her son, her father and her brothers Atz Lee and Nikos Kilcher -- have all joined her for a full tour. Her father is sober now and a celebrity in his own right, starring with his sons on the Discovery Channel reality show "Alaska: The Last Frontier." The show, which profiles the lives of the family on their remote homestead, is in its seventh season.

"My dad’s a miracle. He changed in his 60s. And for anybody out there struggling with shame or addiction or the fear that so much of their life has gone in a certain direction and it’s too late to change it, my dad is proof that that isn’t the case," she says. "We are able to have a really honest and authentic relationship that I never thought we’d have."

Standing onstage together in Hershey, surrounded by twinkling Christmas lights, yodeling in harmony like they did in bars and hotel lobbies 30 years ago, father and daughter embody the sort of redemption that Jewel hopes to inspire in others.

It’s not her style to tout her brand or business, but Jewel peppers her performance with pearls of wisdom: "I think the point of life isn’t avoiding pain, but figuring out what to do with it, how to turn it into something beautiful," she says to the crowd. She spends most of the two-hour show dazzling her audience with a vast range of impressive vocal calisthenics, moving from traditional carols to her biggest hits and back again.

During her solo set, her proud father watches from behind the curtains, entranced as her crystalline voice soars to the highest register: "She’s always pushing herself to the edge," he gushes. "She’s going farther than she’s ever gone!"

All night, Jewel’s life story flashes across a massive screen behind her, in grainy photographs and archival footage of her childhood in Alaska. When she sings the songs that launched her career -- "Who Will Save Your Soul," "You Were Meant for Me," "Hands" -- her fans whoop and whistle.

It’s not the Vatican, or the White House, or a stadium-size crowd at the Grammys. There are no A-list superstars sharing her stage; she is surrounded by her band and her family.

"I feel so far from where I’ve been," she sings, and she is exactly where she wants to be.

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