‘It was nasty, what was happening to girls in the ’90s’

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Jewel in 2021. (Photo: Dana Trippe)

“You know, Sia has life figured out,” Jewel jokes, speaking to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume the day after winning The Masked Singer disguised as the Queen of Hearts. “Being able to put on a wig and not deal with hair and makeup is a pretty great thing. So, I loved that aspect of [the show], actually, of just being able to put my hair in a ponytail and do my job.”

Jewel became the sixth Masked Singer champion after a stunning run of performances — including the above-mentioned Sia’s “Bird Set Free” — that the judges heralded as some of the best in the series’ history. Studio recordings of those songs are now available on Jewel’s new Queen of Hearts EP, and Jewel is proud that the show put the spotlight on “something I’ve never focused on in my entire career, which is just my technical ability as a singer. … It was actually a goal of mine with the show. I’ve never written for my voice, which is weird. I write my own songs; you think I would write a song that showed off my singing! But I only cared about the story. So, if you think of ‘You Were Meant for Me,’ it was a massive hit, but it was not a difficult song to sing. Same with ‘Who Will Save Your Soul.’ They were more idiosyncratic vocally, but not demanding vocally. And so for this show, actually something I wanted to really focus on was to show my range and technical ability.”

Jewel recalls the overwhelming attention she received for her looks, not her vocals or songcraft, when her debut album Pieces of You came out more than 25 years ago. “I was made fun of in the press — and you know, shock jocks were everywhere because of [the popularity of] Howard Stern. So, I’d go live on the radio and they’d go, ‘You may have heard me describe my next guest as a large-breasted woman from Alaska. Jewel, how are you?’” she says. “But I was raised in Alaska in bars, so I’d learned to stick up for myself. So, when the guy said that on radio, I went, ‘Oh, you must be that small-penis man I’ve heard so much about from South Carolina!’ And I got kicked off the radio, out of the station. You know, people would on radio would be like, ‘How do you give a BJ with those teeth?’ It was nasty, what was happening to girls in the ‘90s. Oh my God, it was rough.”

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Jewel was “getting beat down” in the press all the time in those early days, but then touring with an iconic singer-songwriter helped her out of that dark place. “On a personal level, what gave me the courage to keep going was Bob Dylan,” she says. “I don’t think it made a big difference in the public or on radio, but he liked me. He mentored me. He listened to my shows. He brought me down to his dressing room after every show. And he’d go over my lyrics with me. And that blew my mind. I was tired, I was exhausted, and the record was going nowhere, but Dylan really believed in me. He was like, ‘Keep going. It doesn’t matter if you’re successful on radio. Keep going. You’re good.’ So, that gave me the strength.”

Jewel contended with critics for much of her career because, as she sees it, she never quite fit in. She recalls a time when Pieces of You, which took nearly two years to break through to the mainstream, received a rave review from an important music journalist (“The review was crazy-good, like, ‘one of the most sparkling singer songwriters since Joni Mitchell,’ like that type of good”), but once her album was a smash hit, “the exact same journalist murdered the record. Isn’t that interesting? I don’t know, I got too popular, maybe. Some critics like you to be the underdog, and they don’t like if you’re a populist. … But I think it’s because I was blatantly, unapologetically earnest at the height of grunge, a cynical and very male-dominated music business, and nobody could understand why a folk singer that was blonde was talking about being sensitive. It was just so earnest and so sincere. Nothing was like that. And it really struck a mean nerve in some people.”

And then, she recalls, when she took a major creative turn in 2003 with her fourth album, the pop/dance-leaning 0304, she struck a nerve again. “It’s a tough business on women. You’re supposed to be polite and keep your mouth shut and be the perfect little girl — that’s also sexy, but not slutty,” she muses. “When I did my pop album, you would’ve thought I’d murdered somebody! No one wanted a ‘credible singer-songwriter’ to make pop music. You weren’t allowed to be sexy and smart. It was a contradiction to people. … And nobody had done it out of the ‘90s, and credibility for women was very hard-earned. Remember, the ‘90s was all about credibility, and nobody had ever been a singer-songwriter and gone pop. And the amount of suspicion it was met with was really interesting. It was met with incredible animosity. The video [for the 0304 single “Intuition”] was so obviously cheeky and it was still a really smart record, but it was either Clive Davis or David Geffen who took me aside and cussed me out! He was like, ‘Nobody wants to see this generation’s Joni Mitchell wear a mini-skirt. You better knock it the F off!’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that is really being him angry!’”

Jewel continues, “There is really an incredible double-standard women are held up against, especially when we’re considered ‘credible.’ You’re not allowed to be creatively free. And I just always made whatever record I wanted, whenever I wanted. Or, I didn’t — I took years between records, which is a huge no-no for fame, but a big yes for mental health. And people acted as if it was shameful, like, ‘Where did Jewel go?’ — when what I was doing is making sure I didn’t have a nervous breakdown. The press would rather somebody have a nervous breakdown and then make fun of them, but they also want you to keep going. And if you step off that merry-go-round, because it’s an empowered decision, people act like it’s so shameful. Like, ‘Oh, she’s not as famous now!’ But for me, my No. 1 job was like, I have to figure out how to be happy. My number two job is to be a musician. That’s why I took years between records. I turned down hosting Saturday Night Live because I was so exhausted! I knew I was headed near a breakdown. And so I turned down one of the biggest career opportunities to this day. I can’t believe I turned that down, but I had hit the wall. I just couldn’t do it.”

But years later, when The Masked Singer came calling, Jewel, now age 47, enthusiastically said yes. A visual artist in her spare time, she even designed her beautiful costume based on one of her poems with the key line: “All of our hearts are destined to be broken, but it’s what we do with the pieces that make us extraordinary.” And this time, all the earnestness that had brought her such derision in the ‘90s worked in her favor, and no one seemed to think going on a bonkers singing competition like The Masked Singer was damaging to her credibility.

“Yes, it’s a totally wacky show, a totally campy show, but the thing I was surprised by was how sincere and authentic I was able to be within a really wacky environment,” says Jewel. “I have a youth foundation, and I often tell my kids that your self-worth has to be intrinsic. If your identity is tied up into your name or your job title or how much money you make, all those things can be taken away, basically. And who are you inside? So, this show oddly is based on that premise. I really got to show my heart, who I am, my essence.”

And now Jewel, who has dabbled in everything from dance-pop to country to spoken-word, is once again making whatever record she wants to make: Freewheelin’ Woman, out in spring 2022, is a “soul-pop” album that she says will showcase the sort of epic, soaring vocals she delivered on The Masked Singer.

“I don’t ever like to do the same thing twice. I just get really bored musically. I feel like it’s cheating doing the same thing you already figured out. And Bob Dylan and Neil Young really sort of instilled in me that idea of following your muse,” says Jewel. “So for this album, it took me a long time. I bet I wrote 200 songs to find the 12 or 13 that I like for this album, and to write something that felt new and fresh, that wasn’t repetitive, but also wasn’t contrived. I definitely see why middle-aged artists do a lot of drugs to find a new style or a new sound, because doing it the old-fashioned way, sober, was pretty hard! It took a lot of psychological digging to get at something I felt like was fresh. I’m definitely singing in a way I’ve never sung before. I’m writing in a way that I hadn’t written before, not just lyrically, but for my range. I’m really excited about it.”

Interestingly, despite having such an incredible career that included early tours with not just Bob Dylan and Neil Young but also the Ramones, Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy, and of course Lilith Fair, Jewel confessed on The Masked Singer that she never thought she was “cool,” and neither did her critics. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume, she repeats that statement, actually quite proudly.

“I remember watching MTV when my first song was out, and it was all these really cool kids and my music was not like anything else. But I’ve never focused on being the pretty one or the cool one or the slick one. I’ve just tried to be really sincere and really authentic. And I was earnest at the height of grunge, right? I was just a big bleeding heart. I was emotional and sincere and earnest at the height of none of those things. And that’s what I’ve always focused on. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I would encourage anybody: Don’t try to be like other people. There’s no way to do it. The privilege of a lifetime is to be yourself — and with time, that becomes cool.”

The above interview is taken from Jewel’s two appearances on the SiriusXM show “Volume West. Full audio of those conversations are available on the SiriusXM app.

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The above interview is taken from Jewel’s two appearances on the SiriusXM show “Volume West. Full audio of those conversations are available on the SiriusXM app.

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