“I went from being homeless to being famous,” says Jewel Kilcher. (You know her better as, simply, Jewel.) She’s recalling the time 17 years ago when she was discovered singing in San Diego coffee shops. After months spent living out of her van, she was signed to Atlantic Records and achieved near instant renown with her album Pieces of You.
Since then, however, the forces that catapulted her to fame have shifted, changing the course of Jewel’s career as well. She’s not the same Jewel that she was before.
Her new album, Sweet and Wild, is appearing on a modest Nashville-based label, and it doesn’t come as part of a massive marketing blitz. Instead, it’s something much more direct and intimate — a product for fans that can include everything up to an autographed package with a bonus disc, a coffee-table book, and even a guitar.
“We’re learning, as the industry changes, that we as artists can take a lot of power into our own hands,” she says.
“I did something unusual. I signed with my little indie label. As part of my [recording] deal, I was able to release a completely independent album between my last album, Perfectly Clear, and this one. It was an album called Lullaby, which had no radio songs on it — nothing up-tempo — and was basically a mood album for adults. I also included some classic lullabies on it for children.
“It’s outsold many of my other records, and it was an amazing project for me because it was so purely creative. I didn’t have to think about commerciality or how to write a hit, and I was still able to market it and get it out there to my fans.”
As the mega-labels struggle to shore up their crumbling business model, it’s the fans, as Jewel points out, who are the one clear constant amid the larger industry shifts.
“Whether you have a label or don’t have a label, whether you have a hit or don’t have a hit,” she says, “those are the people you need to stay connected to so that you can release albums independently. Super-serving the 15th percentile of your super-fans is important, because that’s your core."
Those fans have followed her as her career has dipped into other forays — like her 2008 shift toward country music. Perfectly Clear, her first disc for the Valory label, marked a full-fledged transition into country music. It was something she’d been hinting at for awhile: The hit “You Were Meant for Me” features pedal steel and a countrified shuffle. Sweet and Wild exposes her roots in ranching and rodeo, sprinkling down-home fiddlin’ songs like “No Good in Goodbye” among poppier material.
“It’s been a big part of who I am,” she says. “I grew up listening to a lot of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Gram Parsons. I’ve tried to get on country radio my whole career. Somebody like me that’s a very earnest, lyric-driven singer/songwriter — I think it’s a great fit for where country radio is now, because it’s opened up as pop has narrowed in. I’m able to be myself.
“The country world is a fantastic community.The fans are amazing, very loyal. Everybody’s nice. There’s not a lot of attitude.”
For just those reasons, Jewel felt that she could renounce the ostensible glamour of the pop world. It’s the sort of thinking that’s reflected throughout Sweet and Wild.
“As divergent as the songs are,” she says, “for me, the central theme was finding out what’s important in your life and trying to defend it. Each song deals with that in its own way.”
Jewel at the Knitting Factory on Thursday, June 24, at 8 pm. Tickets: $56. All-ages. Visit ticketfly. com or call (877) 435-9849.