Jewel, a Grammy-nominated artist, author, actress and business owner, has held many jobs over the years.
But her number one job has remained the same: to be what she calls a whole human.
Growing up in an abusive home, Jewel knew that she didn’t want to become what she saw, that she wanted to create a life that was beautiful to her. Over the years, through homelessness, divorce and a host of other hardships and many successes, she’s created that life.
She’s also been able to find healing and forgiveness within her family. Many may already be familiar with the Kilchers thanks to the Discovery Channel show “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” hosted in part by Jewel’s father, Atz Kilcher.
The Kilcher family still lives off the land in Alaska, which is the focus of the show. However, Atz Kilcher takes a bit of a break from the show to join Atz Lee Kilcher and Nikos Kilcher on Jewel’s Homemade Holiday Tour, which makes a stop at the Palace Theatre on Friday.
The tour is a combination of classic holiday songs and stories from the Kilcher family and gift-making. After each show the lobby of the venue turns into a holiday bazaar, with Jewel making jewelry, her dad making bracelets and her son making bath bombs.
Before Jewel reached Albany, the Gazette caught up with the artist to talk about how she went from being homeless to signing a record deal, how she has been able to stay grounded despite her fame and how she’s found healing with her family.
Q: You started performing at an incredibly young age. Can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of playing?
A: I grew up singing with my parents in hotels, doing shows for tourists in Alaska. When my mom left [when I was eight], my dad and I became a duet. I began singing in bars and restaurants with him, always just singing back-up, usually covers. Then, when I moved out at 15 I wrote [songs] probably starting at age 16 and then got discovered at 18. It [was a] bizarre thing.
Q: [Did] your dad teach you how to sing and write songs?
A: My dad never taught me guitar or writing, but music was a huge part of my family. My family were Swiss immigrants that left Germany just before the second World War to settle Alaska when it was still a territory. They were homesteaders. So my grandmother taught all of her children to sing, write poetry, to paint. They lived in the woods in the middle of nowhere with no roads, no electricity and making gifts for one another. Music was just in our house and at all of our family gatherings so we were just really steeped in it. I taught myself guitar when I was 16 because I wanted to hitchhike through Mexico for spring break like all parents want their children to do on break. So I learned to play guitar just so I could street sing and I just fell in love with writing and making up stories. I read a lot. I’d written a lot of poetry before then but I’d never written a song. [As] for singing, I just listened to great singers. I listened to a lot of Sarah Vaughn and a lot of Ella Fitzgerald. Lots of different singers to teach myself to sing and develop my own sense.
Q: Throughout your career you’ve been able to keep [sense] of self. [It’s] especially amazing because you were discovered at a young age.
A: You know, I had a really difficult childhood. The home I was raised in was abusive. I moved out at 15, I was getting myself through school and paying rent. I grew up singing in bars where I was being propositioned from literally age 8. I really had to learn at a young age that my value was inside of me, it wasn’t outside of me. My value would have to be my mind. I constantly tried to invest in my character and live my values. It’s really from studying nature and watching trees —I know that sounds odd—but hardwood trees grow slowly and softwood trees grow very quickly and they fall over. I wanted to be a hardwood tree. I wanted to have a shape at the end of my life that was beautiful to me and I realized the only way to really do that was by living by my values. So I started to write my values down and try act in alignment with them. It didn’t always work. When I was homeless, I was shoplifting a lot. That’s actually when I wrote the song ‘Hands.’ [I gave up] shoplifting and [realized that] my hands were mine and that nobody could make me a victim, nobody could make me shoplift, nobody could make me unhappy. It was up to me. It was a lesson I had to learn and teach myself over and over. I was homeless because I wouldn’t have sex with a boss. He propositioned me and wouldn’t bring me my paycheck and [then] I lived in my car and my car got stolen, but that was an investment in my character. I had no idea it would [pay] the dividends that it did, but I was willing to not compromise my sense of self. It left me destitute but it also made me dig in and start writing and really wrestle with concepts I really needed to wrestle with, like being honest. Not just being honest in a little notebook nobody read but talking honestly, which meant writing honestly, which got me writing songs honestly, which got me discovered. That wasn’t my plan, it was just trying to do the right thing and follow my heart. When I did get discovered, for me, the greatest treasure I had found was my authenticity and I didn’t want to compromise that. I knew kids with my background, typically, if they do get famous, implode. So when I signed my contract, I made a promise to myself that my number one job is to be a happy, whole human and my number two job was to be a musician. I’ve stayed true to that and that’s why I took years between records. I had to continue my education getting emotionally fit, [learning] mindful fitness, physical fitness . . . and really rewiring my brain. Then on top of that, my second job was music, and that went really well. But the thing I’m the most proud of is who I am. It hasn’t been a perfect journey but it’s a constant commitment for sure.
Q: I know you said you took longer breaks between albums. Did you find yourself saying no to [opportunities] that you knew [were] not going to be good for you to work on?
A: Yeah, one of the first decisions I made was when I was making our first record there was a brand new show out — it was The Real World: The San Francisco edition. My label was very excited. They were like ‘This is a chance to break nationally. The whole world can see you and your story.’ I was a folk artist at the height of grunge and it was just going to be impossible for me to break without a TV show. But [I turned it down]. It [wasn’t] how I wanted to be known. I wasn’t comfortable, I wasn’t psychologically sound enough to let people into my home and my bedroom . . . It just was creepy. I wanted to be known on my own terms even if it meant I was never known. Things like that. I did a movie and got really good reviews as an actress in a movie called “Ride with the Devil,” and after that I quit doing movies because having two careers meant working 365 days a year and it meant I’d probably never have a relationship. I quit touring Europe, Asia and Australia because I’d have to be gone for two years at a time. I’ve made a lot of decisions where I tried to really invest in what I hoped to have for a life in harmony.
Q: This year and last year, have been busy years for you. You mentioned the TV show, there’s the Cirque du Soleil show, there’s the Holiday Show and Jewel Inc. Can you tell me a little bit about why you wanted to create[Jewel Inc.]?
A: As I got a divorce when I was 40, I suddenly was a single mom, and I didn’t want to have an income based solely on touring. So I looked at where culture was and what I had to offer, authentically. What I’ve always written about is ‘I’m in pain, but now what? What do I do about it?’ In the 90s, grunge was talking about ‘I’m in pain” and I was talking about ‘Now what?’ Suicide rates are at 70% higher than they were in 2006. Anxiety, depression are at an all time high. What the world needs is something I actually had to wrestle with and fight for my entire life, which was ‘how do I solve [my] anxiety?’ ‘how do I wake up today and do something different so I can have a better outcome tomorrow?’ I created a series of exercises that I used to rewire my habits. A neuroscientist named Doctor Judson Brewer [the Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at UMASS Medical School] came along and actually proved why they work. So I started to build little businesses out of that. The first was a nonprofit called jewelneverbroken.com and that’s where anybody can go and get these resources for free. I’ve done a lot of public speaking about mindfulness, that word wasn’t around when I was young but [it’s] how you can do workouts for your brain that builds your frontal lobes and shrinks your anxiety in really simple ways. Then [I built] a culture company with Zappos to help employers give their employees skills that help them solve for personal points, like anxiety, parenting fitness, relationship fitness. Then I developed a curriculum for middle schoolers that has mindfulness tools built in to help them gain some autonomy and helps them learn that they can be the driver of their own lives.
Q: Growing up, [family relationships weren’t healthy], you mentioned that your dad was abusive. Can you tell me about that healing or forgiving process?
A: When I moved away, I believed I was capable at that age of doing better at taking care of myself than the environment that I was in. I moved into a little cabin down the road. This is rural Alaska so it wasn’t like an urban environment or something like that. It was stressful and I was taking on paying rent and those things. But I didn’t really have anger toward my dad. Forgiveness is this needle that knows how to mend, and it’s the first step to really freeing yourself. So you have to forgive otherwise you become what you hate. But I knew the odds were against me at 15 and I had to get very, very serious [about] not being a statistic and not repeating the cycle I was raised by. So if I was raised with this emotional language in my house, my dad was raised with the same emotional language in his house. He was raised in an abusive household and I’m sure my grandfather was raised in an abusive household. So how would I be the person that stops that? It was up to me and that meant that I had to learn a new emotional language and that’s really what [got me] very curious and observant about how other people function. [That got me] curious about how I function, identifying things and patterns that weren’t working well for me and then trying to find others to substitute. That set me on this life long path where I tried to learn to be observant and curious, which is the hallmark of mindfulness. You learn to notice your thoughts in real time and you learn that you’re the observer of your thoughts, you’re not your thoughts. You can observe you’re sad, [but] you’re something other than sad, you’re the observer of it, which is trippy. Descartes said ‘I think therefore I am,’ it’s actually, ‘I perceive what I think, therefore I am.’ And that gives you a lot of power. [But] it was a long path to healing, [for me]. Your sense of self worth is certainly diminished when both parents are neglectful, when neither parent seems loving or nurturing, it’s difficult. So I had many, many years of peeling [back those layers]. My dad, separately, in his 60s, got sober and became very committed to looking at his own trauma. He had a lot of PTSD, from his own childhood, from Vietnam, and a lot of shame, becoming a kid who was abused to hitting his own kids. Facing that shame and trying to find love for himself, when nobody had shown it to him, that was very heroic. We have a great relationship now, it’s very authentic. My son gets to see this manly man who is also emotionally intelligent and vulnerable and capable of crying and saying when he’s scared and also how to provide for himself. It’s really extraordinary. My dad and I and my brothers had a really amazing experience and for me, touring with them has been really powerful because people get to see [that]. I don’t know a human or a family that doesn’t have some kind of dysfunction. It’s just nobody talks about their dysfunction and my family’s willing to talk about it. I’m glad because people don’t know how to do better or even that there’s a chance to do better if other people aren’t willing to be honest about what they went through and how they changed.
Q: Can you tell me about the line-up for the tour?
A: My family grew up singing and making presents for each other for the holidays because we didn’t have money. So I really wanted to share the best of how I was raised with people. So this really is an offering from my heart and my family’s heart to other people. My brothers and my dad start with a round, where they get up and they tell stories and sing songs that they wrote. Then I come out and sing holiday songs and I do an acoustic set and play requests. Then I end with more holiday songs. I love singing holiday songs because they let me showcase my vocals in a way that I don’t typically get to show people, like I sing arias like ‘Ave Maria,’ So for me it’s really fun. I think these are some of the best songs ever written. Then we all make gifts for everybody by hand.
Jewel's Homemade Holiday Tour
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Palace Theatre
MORE INFO: palacealbany.org