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Jewel on Coping With Heartache: ‘I Peel Off Every Scab and Stick My Finger in Them’

12 minute read

Jewel isn’t sure if her new album will get much radio play. At 41, the singer-songwriter has criss-crossed genres enough times to realize that in order to make something she could call art, she had to shed decades’ worth of music industry acumen. Rather than getting bogged down with distractions like crossover appeal and radio formats, she mined the emotional terrain of her last five years—heartbreak, divorce, motherhood—for something a little more raw. “I don’t think there was an area of my life that wasn’t touched,” she says.

Picking Up the Pieces (Sept. 11), a title that more than subtly invokes her 1995 debut album Pieces of You, could easily be described as a bookend, a return to roots or the end of a chapter. But Jewel doesn’t see it as any of these. It’s “just similar in spirit,” she says. So similar, in fact, that several of the songs on the album were written at the same time as the songs on Pieces of You, but endured two decades as grainy bootlegs, only now making their way from the live stage into the recording studio.

While she set out to capture, in the studio, the emotional intensity of songs previously performed only onstage, Jewel also wrote a host of new songs for the album, like its opening track “Love Used to Be.” A poetic rendering of the pain of divorce from her husband of six years, Ty Murray, the lyrics adhere to the kind of vulnerable self-reflection for which her fans know and love her—namely, peering deep into the bottom of a wound, then turning it inside out for the world to see: “Dig a six foot hole inside my chest,” she sings, “Heart like a gravestone lay it down to rest.”

While gearing up for the consecutive release of the album and her new memoir, Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story (Sept. 15), Jewel spoke to TIME about why she’s zig-zagged between genres, how she avoided becoming a teenybopper and why she idolized Dolly Parton from a young age.

TIME: Several of the songs on Picking Up the Pieces were written when you were 17 or 18. Had you been playing them consistently over the last two decades, or were you revisiting them for the first time in a long time?

Jewel: Some of them have been requested as much as any of my hits. They became these underground bootleg hits with my fanbase. I bet every single show for 20 years I’ve sung “Everything Breaks” and “Carnivore.”

Having accumulated so much life experience since you first wrote these songs, do you approach them differently than you did when you were 18?

These are songs that I had the ability to write quite young but never had the ability to produce in a way that didn’t diminish emotion. If you’ve heard me sing a song live, I think the reason people have loved it is because it’s very intense and emotional. Typically I’ve had difficulty in the studio. I don’t sing as raw, it’s just a bit more tame. I’m a live singer who’s always fed off the energy of the audience. In a studio, you’re just looking at a wall—it feels very odd to me. I’ve been a live performer since I was six years old.

The reason I recorded the album live with the band was so that I could play guitar, which I usually never do in the studio, while I sing at the same time. The band was accustomed to following singer-songwriters and feeling for me slowing down and speeding up. It has a real ebb and a flow and a naturalness that didn’t inhibit my singing or performance.

When you record these older songs, or when you go back and listen to Pieces of You, can you see how you’ve evolved as a musician and as a person?

There’s been evolution that’s good and evolution that I don’t perceive as valuable. On this record, it was really ridding myself of the evolution that covered me up. Twenty years later, you know too much about the industry, about what having a radio crossover means, what it means to say, “I spent the last 10 years building up a country fanbase, and I’m making a folk record, and I shouldn’t walk away from that, and I don’t even know what genre this record is, and oh my God, there’s no radio single!” You have to get all that out of your head and just be willing to make art. On top of that, I was going through a divorce, and looking at my entire person and saying, what is my essential self? I don’t think there was an area of my life that wasn’t touched.

Your memoir comes out just a few days after the album. Do you see them as companion pieces?

Yeah, I wanted them to come out at the same time. When I do live shows, I do a lot of storytelling and music, and it’s hard to get that all in one place unless you do some kind of TV special. They give you the whole story, if you put them together. My number one job was being a mom. My number two job was making sure I was giving enough time to transition Ty and I into a new phase of our relationship with the divorce, and it took a lot of energy to do that. And then my third job was writing the book and doing the record.

Some of your songs are autobiographical, and others read more like stories. Do you approach an autobiographical song differently from one that has a fictional premise?

I don’t. They all feel like me somehow. I feel emotion very intensely. I wrote “His Pleasure Is My Pain” when I was 17 or 18. It’s a very complex song about a woman who’s much older than me at age 17, but I felt all those feelings. I think it was just a lifetime of watching people and having pain myself. Any of my short stories or poems or songs, I run the emotion through my body. It feels very real to me.

When you’re writing a song that’s very personal, like “Love Used to Be,” is there fear in putting it out in the world or in sitting down to write it?

I don’t experience fear in that way. I don’t know a single person that hasn’t been through some sort of heartbreak, whether they were married or it was a break-up or they lost somebody they loved to death. The disillusionment of innocence and first love is pretty universal. I’ve always found music really healing. I talk in my book about this moment when I was homeless and didn’t have anything left to lose, and I was like, “I’m going to start saying my worst fears, my deepest hopes, the things that I think make me unlovable.” I started writing songs and was really shocked that I wasn’t rebuked or shut down. I was seen for the first time. Oddly, people in the audience felt seen for the first time, and we all felt less alone.

It’s counterintuitive that the more transparent you are, the safer you are. I think it’s what helped me in my career with fame. I’m a pretty introverted person. When I was looking at getting signed, I felt very uncomfortable at the prospect of being idolized, because I was so deeply flawed. I had a very abusive background and I was homeless, so the idea of having to be perfect was horrifying. The only thing that gave me comfort was if I could lead with my flaws and say, “Hey, let me keep myself off of any pedestal anybody ever might consider putting me on.” That allowed me, at age 18, to never be considered a teenybopper act that had to transition into being an adult.

You’ve said that your fans had a fair amount of influence on the songs you included in the album, and even, on “Carnivore,” which bridge you chose to go with. Have you always been that deferential to your fans?

Honestly, I forget my music. I have hundreds of songs, and they have bootlegged and catalogued all of them. I get complete amnesia about many of my songs. Fans bring lyrics to shows because they know I’m going to forget something. So it’s not necessarily that I defer, but I use them as a valuable resource. I forgot I wrote that bridge to “Carnivore.” Quite a few years ago, some fans said, “Hey do you remember this bridge?” And I clicked the link and said, “Oh, that’s actually better.”

When you started making country albums, did your fan base come with you, or did you pick up a new one?

My hardcore fans stay with me. The formats were shifting dramatically in radio. Where “You Were Meant For Me” snuck into the alternative movement in the ‘90s, today if that came out, that’d be too country for country. I can’t tell you it’d make it on pop radio or country, frankly. I’ve always been in between worlds, and you’ve got to figure out where your best shot is. When I was looking at the shift, I was looking at pop music going very different from the kind I was interested in making, and if I wanted to be a singer-songwriter and tell stories, it became obvious the place for that was country radio. Now country radio has shifted again. It’s become much more pop. [The new record] is an Americana folk record, and I can’t say that it’ll get played on any radio station.

When you think about future projects, do you think in terms of genre?

The onus of a singer-songwriter is to follow your heart, and it’s a pain in the butt. It’d be a lot less draining to know what target you’re hitting and just hit it. That isn’t how I approach things, and it creates a lot more work, but that’s the privilege and burden of being a singer-songwriter. I don’t know what’ll come out of me next. I’d like to do some spoken-word poetry set to music. A standards record is something I’d enjoy. I’m a much better singer than the melodies I write for my own music, because I’m so interested in telling the story that I try to sing just enough to tell the story. The standards really let you sing. They’re what I cut my teeth on, so I’d love to pay homage to that.

One of the tracks on the album, “My Father’s Daughter,” is a duet with Dolly Parton. It’s a very personal song. How did you decide that it should be a duet, and that it should be with her?

When you grow up as a girl on a homestead with an outhouse, you don’t have many heroes in the public eye. Dolly and Loretta [Lynn] were them, because they had outhouses and they had a similar lifestyle to me. I loved their audacity. They were women who were so outspoken and they had no shame in being who they were. They were so ahead of their time, and I always thought it was quite heroic. So I asked her to sing on the song, and I was pretty surprised she said yes. I’m tremendously honored. We got in the studio, she started at 8 a.m. and was 10 minutes early and well-prepared and looked amazing and was sarcastic and witty and everything you would hope Dolly Parton would be.

Reflecting on the process of making this album, did you come out on the other side seeing yourself more clearly than you did before you started?

The birth of my son really inspired me to make sure I’m the kind of woman I want my son to know, and looking at the places I’ve been stagnant, looking for things that were lost and reclaiming them. The process of making this record and writing this book really helped facilitate that for me. It’s funny, most people go through a divorce and are like, why didn’t I just get drunk and have meaningless sex? And I write a memoir and a heartbreaking record, peel off every scab I’ve ever healed and stick my finger in them and write about it. That’s how I dealt with it. But I think it was the best thing I could have done.

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Write to Eliza Berman at eliza.berman@time.com