Jewel reflects on her 1995 debut album, which sold 12 million copies and changed her life

Singer-songwriter Jewel.
“I expected people to listen to me, which was funny because I was nobody,” says Jewel, shown above in a recent photo, reflecting on her early days as a San Diego coffee shop troubadour. “But I always felt this energy of music coming out of my body, as much as the songs, and that you had to capture people.”
(Photo by West Kennerly)

San Diego brought the singer-songwriter homelessness, followed by fame, fortune and much more. Her 25-year-old debut album is now being released as a 4-CD box set


Who better than Bob Dylan and Neil Young to offer personal encouragement to a budding young singer-songwriter whose recently launched career was quickly — and almost excruciatingly — going nowhere?

The year was 1996 and Jewel’s professional music trajectory was on the verge of evaporating almost before it could begin. Her debut album, “Pieces of You,” had been released by Atlantic Records in February 1995 and seemed to be instantly invisible. She had signed with the label in December 1993, after executives from Atlantic heard the then-19-year-old folk troubadour perform at the Inner Change coffee house in Pacific Beach.

A raw, unapologetically earnest folk-music outing, “Pieces of You” featured five songs recorded at Neil Young’s home studio in Northern California and nine cut live at the Inner Change in late July 1994. Armed with just her acoustic guitar and her luminous voice, Jewel toured the nation relentlessly to promote the album.

As the opening act for everyone from the Ramones and Everclear to goth-rock favorite Peter Murphy, she won over concert audiences but was roundly ignored by record buyers. Radio programmers paid Jewel no mind, despite her two to three daily promotional visits to stations across the country while on the road. By the end of 1995, her debut album had sold barely 3,000 copies, the majority in San Diego.

“It was considered a failure,” Jewel said recently of “Pieces of You,” which went on to eventually sell 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. A 25th anniversary edition of the album is being released Nov. 20 as a four-CD box set and in two-CD and four-LP vinyl editions, featuring the original remastered album and a selection of outtakes, rarities and B-sides.

“I was tired,” Jewel continued, reflecting now on her early career struggles, “and I started to question myself.”

It was a period of self-doubt that Inner Change owner Nancy Porter and Steve Poltz, Jewel’s key early collaborator and mentor, both remember well.

‘She would break into tears’

“There were times where Jewel would call me from tour, crying, and wouldn’t even know what city she was in,” Porter said. “She asked if she could come back to the Inner Change and sing, and I said: ‘Of course. Any time’.”

“She was burned out and would break into tears from exhaustion,” Poltz agreed. “But she really grinded it out and stuck with it. The key was Jewel herself and how she connected with people, because her voice was crazy good. “

Pivotally, after more than a year of countless performances with almost no visible traction, Jewel was invited to open separate 1996 tour legs for Dylan and Young. Each of the rock legends offered her support and words of wisdom, although she had been warned that Dylan never saw or spoke to his opening acts.

“I started kicking people out of Bob’s shows because they were talking during my opening set,” Jewel recalled. “I’d do everything I could to get them to listen. But if they didn’t, I’d ask them to go out in the lobby. That apparently piqued Bob’s interest and I was invited into his dressing room. He’d go over my lyrics with me, and ask: ‘How did you write that song, and why?’ It was such a surreal experience! I was like: ‘What is happening?’ I thought I’d pass out.

“Bob encouraged me to keep touring as a solo acoustic act. Having him take an interest in me, like my lyrics and believe in me meant everything.”

Later that year, Jewel was anxiously pacing backstage at New York’s nearly 21,000-capacity Madison Square Garden, where she was about to open for Young and his high-decibel band, Crazy Horse. Sensing her discomfort, Young offered her some memorably sage advice: ‘This is just another hash house on the road to success. You show them no respect’.”

His encouragement came at a crucial moment.

“I had started making a second album for Atlantic,” said Jewel, now 46, speaking in late October from her Colorado mountain home in Telluride. “And I was making my songs a little more pop- and grunge-friendly because I didn’t want to have to live in my car again. Neil was like: ‘No, don’t compromise. F--- radio! F--- interviews! F--- all of it. You be a songwriter.’

“That was the boost I needed. Because in the music business, to try and get popular, you do whatever you can to make it work. Hearing Neil’s attitude of: ‘F--- everything but the songs’ was empowering. So was what Bob told me — that wherever your muse takes you, you owe it to being a singer-songwriter to have a fearlessness and believe in it, even if nobody else does.”

Jewel Kilcher outdoor portrait
Jewel is shown in Hillcrest in early February 1994, two months after she signed an album contract with Atlantic Records.
(Sean M. Haffey/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘I had a lot of courage’

Jewel’s fearlessness was as palpable as her powerful voice when this writer first met her at the 1993 edition of the San Diego Independent Music Seminar. She was a last-minute addition to a singer-songwriters panel I hosted that also featured Gregory Page, Cindy Lee Berryhill, John Katchur and Sven-Erik Seaholm.

The other four musicians had all recorded and were established attractions in this city’s vibrant music scene. But it was the unknown Jewel whose soaring voice and unpolished but powerful songs instantly captivated the seminar audience.

“I remember the looks on people’s faces and you could tell they had never heard or seen anyone like Jewel before,” said Page, whose latest album, “One Hell of a Memory,” will be released Friday.

“Hearing Jewel for the first time was almost as if you were the first person to hear Dolly Parton — a moment where you were hearing somebody who was ahead of their time with their voice, even though she was still just a teenager.”

Equally notable was the poise displayed that day by Jewel, who was only 6 when she began performing with the family band led by her parents in Alaska, where she grew up. She commanded the songwriting seminar stage with absolute confidence.

“I had a lot of courage,” agreed Jewel, whose revealing memoir, “Never Broken — Songs Are Only Half the Story,” was published in 2015.

“I expected people to listen to me, which was funny because I was nobody. But I always felt this energy of music coming out of my body, as much as the songs, and that you had to capture people. That energy had to go out and I liked it that way. Performing was as much an art to me as writing. I remember Poltz saying that a lot.”

By late summer of 1996, Jewel’s tireless work ethic began to pay off and her music began to resonate nationally and then abroad. Atlantic Records, she and Poltz agree, stuck with her, in part because the label believed in her talents and because she soldiered on with such unwavering tenacity.

Buoyed by belated airplay for its leadoff single, “Who Will Save Your Soul,” Jewel’s “Pieces of You” album was certified platinum for sales of 1 million on Aug. 6 of that year. Her next single, “You Were Meant for Me” — one of two songs on the album co-written with Poltz — topped the national Billboard charts in 1997. So did “Foolish Games,” another song from the album, which was featured in the movie “Batman & Robin.”

After two years, Jewel was an overnight success. She appeared on the cover of Time, Rolling Stone and other magazines, earned a 1997 Best New Artist Grammy nomination and teamed with Mike Myers to present an award at the 1998 Grammys telecast. She has yet to win a Grammy, despite four nominations so far, but won Favorite New Pop/Rock Artist honors at the 24th annual American Music Awards in 1997.

Her American Music Award win came the same month Jewel performed in Bill Clinton’s honor at the joint Arkansas and New Hampshire Presidential Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C. She was the youngest artist in a lineup that also included Sheryl Crow, Michael Bolton, Trisha Yearwood, Julio Iglesias and Kenny G.

“It’s amazing,” Jewel told the inaugural ball audience, “going from being an Alaskan farm girl to singing for the president of the United States.”

Jewel performs at KAABOO Del Mar on Sunday, September 16, 2018.
Jewel performs at KAABOO Del Mar on Sunday, September 16, 2018.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Woodstock and the pope

The ball still stands out for her 23 years later. So does her performance at the 1999 Woodstock festival, where she, Poltz and her band performed in between Elvis Costello and Red Hot Chili Peppers (whose bassist, Flea, had played on “You Were Meant for Me”).

There was also her December 1998 performance in Rome. She sang there at the sixth annual Concert for the Vatican, which had been headlined the year before by Bob Dylan. It capped a year that saw her “A Night Without Armor” become the top-selling poetry book in U.S. history, with sales of 2 million.

“Singing in the Vatican for Pope John Paul with the Vatican Orchestra took my breath away. I had to shut my eyes tight through that performance,” Jewel said. “I sang ‘Hands,’ which I wrote a lot of the lyrics for after a shoplifting incident. That incident made me realize I owed myself a lot more and that only kindness matters.”

Jewel had moved to San Diego in 1993, at the age of 18, and got a job working at a computer warehouse. She says she was fired after refusing to sleep with her boss. Unable to pay rent, she began living in her car. Jewel then worked briefly as a barista in Poway at the original Java Joe’s, whose namesake owner — as urban legend has long had it — fired her after telling her she was a better singer than she was a barista.

“Gosh, I don’t recall that,” Jewel said. “I got fired from Java Joe’s because I stuck up for a girl there who was approached about doing a nude calendar. I was a decent barista, a better barista than I was answering phones at a computer warehouse.”

“She had way too much talent to just be a barista,” Poltz said. “She was destined to go on to greater things. The first time I heard her sing was at an open mic night at Java Joe’s. She had such a powerful voice that, at first, I didn’t believe what a crazy range she had. She would hit these really high notes, like an opera singer, then could go down really deep. Some of her songs were 10 minutes long, without a chorus.

“She was a diamond in the rough, and it was meant to happen for her. It was like lightning striking. Anybody who thinks her success wasn’t all due to Jewel is nuts. It was all her and we were just lucky to be around at the time.”

Before lightning struck, Jewel approached Inner Change owner Porter and asked if she could do a weekly Thursday night gig there. Porter, well-liked by local musicians for both paying and feeding them, had never heard Jewel before but readily agreed.

“She had an amazing voice and presence,” Porter said. “Her poetry just spoke to people, and she had this charisma about her. When she sang, you got goosebumps.”

Porter laughed.

“Jewel was learning to surf and would hand out flyers at the beach. So, at first, the audience at the Inner Change was all guys who wanted to date her. We called them ‘The Dog Pound.’ After they realized she wouldn’t date them, they started to bring their girlfriends and you could hear a pin drop when she sang.”

Over a period of months, Jewel slowly built up a following that grew from a few people to lines out the door. Those lines soon included the woman who would become her first manager, Inga Vainshtein, later supplanted by Jewel’s now-estranged mother, Lenedra Carroll.

Then came an array of record company executives from Los Angeles. The ensuing bidding war saw Jewel turn down a million-dollar signing bonus in order to retain more long-term control over her music. That she was an acoustic solo artist at a time when the San Diego indie-rock scene was exploding — thank to such bands as Rocket From The Crypt, Unwritten Law, rust (which shared the same manager as Jewel) and the Poltz-led Rugburns (which later backed Jewel on at least one national tour) — proved to be an advantage for her.

“Grunge was everything at the time, so I was definitely an anomaly as a folk-music artist,” she said.

Recording the majority of “Pieces of You” at the Inner Change was a sound move, both because Jewel was in her element there and because she was not yet comfortable in a recording studio, let alone being accompanied by Neil Young’s ace band, The Stray Gators.

Moreover, Jewel had honed many of the songs on her first album at the Inner Change. Accordingly, one of the CDs in the upcoming “Pieces of You” box set consists entirely of live solo recordings she made at the now-long-defunct Pacific Beach venue.

“I had written a lot of journals that no one had seen and I pretended I was OK when I was not OK,” recalled Jewel, who will be joined by Poltz for a Nov. 20 “Pieces of You” live 25th anniversary virtual concert from the Telluride Opera House. It will be the first time Jewel, now at work on a new album, has ever performed all the songs from “Pieces of You” live.

Proceeds from the Nov. 20 virtual concert will go to the Inspiring Children Foundation, her partner in Jewel Never Broken, a nonprofit that helps at-risk youths and families in need. That Jewel was herself an at-risk youth not long after moving to San Diego is a key part of her story.

“Living in my car was transformational,” she said.

“I went from having manic attacks and agoraphobia to this strange excitement, for no reason. So, I made a really conscious choice to be honest and vulnerable as a singer and songwriter. There were just two people at my first Inner Change gig, but I did open up a vein on stage and it did bleed. I felt good, because it was visceral, and I was able to make those two people viscerally feel what I was feeling. ...

“You invest in your humanity and trust things will work out. They always have for me.”

Jewel, “Pieces of You” live 25th anniversary virtual concert

When: Livestream performance at 5 p.m. PST Nov. 20, followed by 72-hour on-demand viewing


Tickets: $25-$150 (higher price includes additional songs and a Jewel Q&A, with proceeds going to the Inspiring Children Foundation and Voices of Hwǫłdzil (Resilience) — Adabi Healing Center