The singer-songwriter went from rags to riches but never lost
sight of her roots in untamed Alaska.
By Allan Richter
It is a Wednesday just after 9 a.m. in a cavernous Las Vegas resort conference hall, and Jewel sees her opportunity. The singer-songwriter has always played her concerts in the evening, during her young son Kase’s bedtime hours. But on this particular day, Jewel is appearing before a morning gathering of spa business owners, so she lets three-year-old Kase peek from behind a corner of a curtain and, for the first time, he can size up the audience that had come to see his mom perform.
But Jewel’s appearance at the International Spa Association’s (ISPA) annual conference last fall was about more than her music. A conference devoted to the business of therapeutic herbs and minerals, and holistic health, was a fitting venue for this particular singer, who grew up in one of the planet’s most pristine environments, in the wilds of Alaska. Jewel was raised along the banks of Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, near the western end of the Kenai Peninsula and today a major tourist destination for its captivating beauty and wildlife habitats. The work ethic and other lessons Jewel learned there, in both music and wellness, served her well—especially through a year of homelessness on the streets of San Diego, where she moved after leaving Alaska.
THE STREETS OF SAN DIEGO
Jewel was working in sales at a computer warehouse in San Diego, and acknowledges that she wasn’t very good at the job. “So my boss took me aside,” she told the ISPA audience. “I thought he was going to reprimand me but it turned out he propositioned me…I turned him down. I laughed it off, and I didn’t think a lot about it. My rent was due the next day. I was just barely making ends meet. All my money was going to rent. When my paycheck was due I went into my boss’s office…and he wouldn’t talk to me. He acted like I was a ghost. I would say, ‘Hey, my paycheck,’ and he would just look at his desk and he never looked up. I was like, ‘Hey, I need my paycheck.’
“I left there without a paycheck,” she said, “and got kicked out of where I was living.” She didn’t worry too much about her eviction because she knew she could live in her car. She was used to cramped conditions when she grew up in living quarters in Alaska—a saddle barn—with her two brothers and father. “So living alone in your car wasn’t actually that bad of a proposition,” she said. “And in San Diego it was warmer. I figured I’ll get another job and save up for a deposit on an apartment.”
But life on the streets was tough, and it was difficult for Jewel to maintain her health. “I had really bad kidneys, and I kept getting sick a lot,” the singer told the ISPA audience. “I couldn’t afford antibiotics, and I actually almost died in a parking lot of an emergency room. When your kidneys aren’t working well, you don’t filter well so you get blood poisoning. So I almost died of blood poisoning in the parking lot in my car.” A doctor saw the ailing 18-year-old in her car and treated her gratis.
At the ISPA conference, Jewel was awarded the group’s 2014 ISPA Alex Szekely Humanitarian Award, named for a late spa pioneer, for her work with her charity Project Clean Water, which raises funds to help provide global access to clean water. She formed the charity out of the appreciation she developed during her year of homelessness for access to clean water.
Jewel, wearing a simple short black dress, and standing in front of a projected Alaskan mountainscape, said the turning point in her rags-to-riches story came during that period. She was shoplifting and eyeing a sundress in a boutique shop window in San Diego’s Pacific Beach neighborhood. When she took the garment into a dressing room to steal it, she noticed the $39.99 price tag. “And I paused. I don’t know what it was. It was really strange. It was like a lightning bolt struck me, and I thought, ‘Why can’t I just pay for this myself? When did I stop thinking that I couldn’t earn $40 for myself?’
“I was starting to get insulted by myself,” Jewel continued to the ISPA audience. “I realized I wasn’t cheating anybody; I was really cheating myself. So I decided not to steal anymore. I knew my faults. I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t really get a grip around my thoughts, but I could watch what my hands were doing. Our hands are really servants of our thoughts, so if you want to [understand] what you’re thinking, watch what your hands are doing. So I started to do that. I started to trace my actions back to my thoughts, and I started learning how to control my thoughts.”
The singer’s study of the correlation between her thoughts and the actions of her hands would later end up in her song “Hands,” which provided the soundtrack to Jewel’s life at a particularly somber moment. She and her husband had been camping for two weeks in the Northern California mountains. When the trip ended, and the couple was working their way off the mountain, they began to see American flags at half-mast. When they were able to get radio reception in their truck, they had learned about 9/11.
“We were in complete shock along with the rest of the country, and the DJ came on, and he played this song that I had written when I was 18 about my hands, and he dedicated it to America,” she recalled. “It was such a dark time in America’s life, and it was such a surreal moment.”
During the year that she was homeless, Jewel—Jewel is her given first name; professionally, she dropped her last name, Kilcher—began to write about her thoughts and feelings, about change and secrets, and put them in song. “I just turned to music as an outlet for myself. I was quite frightened. I had a lot of emotional problems, very agorophobic, which is difficult when you’re living in a car and when you’re homeless.”
Soon after she decided not to steal the sundress in the boutique shop, Jewel began to sing those songs in a small coffee shop. “First there were two people, then there were four, then there were seven,” she recounted. The more her audience grew, the more comfortable she became dropping the shield around her emotions.
“The amazing thing about it was the more I revealed about myself, the more honestly I did it,” Jewel says. “I wasn’t ostracized. It’s funny, you think if you share your worst secrets you think people are going to shame you somehow, but … the antithesis of shame is actually communication. So if you just say your worst secrets, the chances are we all have the same emotions and are all living the same things. People actually related to me instead of making me feel ostracized.
“And more people came, and more people came, and pretty soon people were standing outside the windows to watch me sing through the glass. They would bring me food and books to read. I became very prolific; I was writing a lot of songs, and I ended up getting discovered. It was a surreal experience. It was like being Cinderella.
These executives would show up and take me out to a dinner that cost more than I made in my whole life. They were like, ‘So where can we drop you off?’ And I would be like, ‘Here.’” She was referring to wherever they happened to be at the time since she had no place to live. Before meeting some music executives once, she remembers washing her hair in a Denny’s bathroom sink. “And I signed a record deal.”
SEARCH FOR FREEDOM
Jewel’s grandparents, Yule and Ruth Kilcher, left Switzerland and Germany, respectively, and settled in an Alaska homestead to escape the reach of Nazism through Europe. Jewel describes Yule Kilcher as a young idealist who hiked across the Alaskan glaciers by foot; he carried a ladder on his back to bridge crevasses in the ice so he could continue his search for new land. Because Alaska was not a state in the 1940’s, he was given 600 acres of land if he promised to homestead it. Jewel was raised on the same homestead her grandparents settled.
While Jewel credits Yule with instilling within her a love of language, her musical DNA comes from her grandmother, Ruth, an aspiring opera singer who taught all eight of her children, most of whom she gave birth to alone in a dirt-floored log cabin, to sing and play instruments. Among those children was Atz Kilcher, Jewel’s father.
When Jewel was six, she began to accompany her father Atz and mother Lenedra, also a musician, to their performances at area hotels; Jewel would yodel. Two years later Jewel’s parents divorced, and she and her father became a duo. “I was probably the only fourth grader who went from elementary school right to a bar,” she says at the ISPA event, drawing one of a number of rounds of audience laughter with her lighthearted self-deprecating humor.
Under her father’s direction, Jewel practiced singing harmonies to his songs for hours each day. They sang at bank openings, biker bars and honky-tonks all over Alaska. Jewel credits her father, who stressed professionalism, with teaching her not to use a set list, but to read a crowd and choose material based on the vibe in the room.
“My childhood prepared me in nearly every way to be a musician and performer,” Jewel writes in Chasing Down the Dawn (HarperEntertainment), a collection of her writing. “From the time I could stand on a stage, everything was about the gig: how to handle the club owners and the crowds…how to write and perform music that created a sense of connection when you sang it…and most of all, how to be a professional. Even if you were a gawky grade-school kid. No excuses.”
While nurturing her soul with music, the young Jewel nourished her body with foods that couldn’t have been fresher. “On the homestead we ate what we raised. Potatoes. Lots of potatoes. Endless fields of them we planted and weeded by hand, then stored beneath our house just before the first freeze,” Jewel says in Chasing Down the Dawn.
“Every manner of vegetable,” she continues. “Rose hips and raspberries for jam. Fresh milk and cream we turned into butter, cottage cheese and yogurt. Occasionally we’d make whipped cream to put on fruit or pancakes.”
Once, her grandfather grew a small crop of wheat that supplied the family for years. “I’d blow the husks off of a handful of golden berries, then grind them into flour using an old-fashioned grinder we had. We’d cook pancakes and bake fresh bread from scratch, made from fresh eggs, fresh milk, and fresh flour.”
The family gathered salmon and butchered a few cattle, selling some of the meat and saving the rest for winter. “We were always careful to use every part of the animal,” Jewel writes.
Treatments for afflictions were homegrown, too. Jewel’s grandfather was an herbalist, and the singer told the ISPA group that when someone in the family would get a cut, they knew what to apply to help the blood coagulate, or which herbs to use to combat inflammation.
Today, Jewel steers clear of processed foods, recognizing the consequences of doing so from her time in boarding school at age 16. She gained 15 pounds by eating the processed foods in the cafeteria, she told The Los Angeles Times this year, though she hadn’t increased the amount of food she ate. “I never did get into white carbs,” she told the newspaper. As for her son Kase’s diet, “I’ve tried to make sure he has a taste for healthy food…He’s never had processed sugar, never tasted ice cream yet.”
As for fitness, the singer prefers hiking over treadmills, and has made her exercise regimen more rigorous by hiking with her son on her back.
Meditation and reflection shape Jewel’s approach to overall wellness. As she says in Chasing Down the Dawn, “Everything changes, but as it changes there is one immutable thing and that is the larger rhythm. The rhythm of all that is. It is a rhythm I sense when I turn inward to wonder, or when I lie beneath a tree to watch the leaves sway to the silent music of the wind. The greatest peace I know is in that rhythm. Not fighting it. Listening for what time it is now and knowing that what is empty will be full again.”