My name is Jewel. Jewel Kilcher. (Yes, Jewel is my real given name). I am 5'6”. I have green eyes, like my grandmother Ruth. Ruth was an aspiring opera singer who left pre-war Germany, got on a ship headed to Alaska to marry a man she hardly knew because she felt her future children must be born somewhere free.
She married Yule Kilcher, who was a young idealist who hiked across the Alaskan glaciers by foot, with a ladder on his back, which he used to bridge crevasses in the ice so he could walk over them. He was looking for adventure and new land, away from the Nazi movement. Alaska was still not a state in the late 40's, so he was given (as all takers were) 600 acres of land for free if he promised to homestead it. He sent word back to his homeland of Switzerland, where many friends expressed wanting to move, that he had found a good piece of land. But none came, except Ruth.
I got my love of language from Yule. He studied the origins of languages. Ruth taught all her 8 children (she gave birth to most of them alone in a dirt floored log cabin!) to sing and play instruments. I was raised outdoors on the same homestead my family settled around all the music of my family
We lived far from town. We had to walk 2 miles just to get to the saddle barn I was raised in... No running water, no heat- we had a coal stove and an outhouse and we mainly lived off of what we could kill or can. We picked berries and made jam. We caught fish to freeze and had gardens and cattle to live on. I rode horses every day in the summer beneath the Alaskan midnight sun. I loved it there.
My parents divorced when I was 8, and my dad (Atz Kilcher) and I became a duo. He trained me well and I practiced hard, for hours a day, to sing good harmony and learn his songs. I loved it. I loved everything about it. We sang at Veterans clubs and bank openings, and biker bars and honky-tonks all over the state. My dad is a good performer. He taught me not to use a set list, but instead just to read the crowd. He would joke and laugh with the audience. He stressed punctuality and being professional.
I moved out on my own when I was 15. I had a cabin not far from my dad’s. It had one room and no water, no plumbing, and I worked several jobs. I rode a horse 12 miles into town for work and left my horse at my aunt’s place (who lived close to town) then hitch-hiked the rest of the way in.
At 15 I applied to a fine arts school in Michigan, called Interlochen, and was accepted on a partial scholarship. I raised the rest of the money by doing my first solo show ever at the local high school in the auditorium. I had always backed my dad up, but this time I sang a variety of Cole Porter songs I loved, backed up by a friend who played piano. Local businesses donated items for me to auction off at intermission. My home town of Homer, Alaska raised $11,000 for me during that concert… all to help send me to school. I majored in classical voice and art and minored in dance and drama. I was 16 that year.
At spring break all kids had to leave the campus. But I couldn’t afford to get to Alaska, so I decided to learn 4 chords on the guitar (my dad had always played guitar, not me) and get on a train in Detroit to busk my way across the country. I made up lyrics about what I saw traveling. It took several days to sing my way across the country- earning my ticket money one street corner at a time when the train stopped.
I made it to San Diego and crossed the border into Tijuana and hitch-hiked to Cabo San Lucas. I carried a large skinning knife with me for protection in a scabbard on my belt. I earned enough money to get on a ferry and cross the Sea of Cortez and take trains through central Mexico. I stayed in youth hostels and ate by singing in restaurants in exchange for food. I ferried back to Cabo, and hitch hiked back to Tijuana, and trained back to Michigan to be back at school when it started up again. The whole time I wrote one song. A long song. My first song, about people I met and things I saw. The song was called “Who Will Save Your Soul”.
I was going to graduate high school a year early, because I was finished with my academics, but my senior year they gave me a full scholarship to return just to take all art classes- so I did! I fell in love with marble carving that year, and visual art became the focus of my senior year. I wrote songs in my free time.
I drifted after I graduated. No plans for college. Ended up in San Diego where I answered phones in a computer warehouse. My boss fired me because I wouldn’t sleep with him, and I ended up homeless for a year. I kept writing songs, and started singing in a local coffee shop called The Inner Change Cafe. I developed a loyal following. No one knew I was homeless. A radio station decided to put a bootleg of me on the air and a record label heard it. Soon after, a lot of limousines started pulling up and guys in suits came to watch me sing. There was a bidding war between several labels for me! I couldn’t believe it! I went with the label that didn’t want me to change and let me be a simple songwriter.
Against all odds my simple album went on to sell 12 million copies!
My grandmother Ruth was alive to see me succeed. She called me to her one day, and with a shaky voice she told me that she gave up all her dreams of being an opera singer, and a poet, because she believed if her future family had any chance of success, it would be in a free country. She had a high German-Swiss accent and looking into her green eyes was like looking into a mirror. We looked so similar. She patted my leg with her delicate fingers, and said that it was worth giving up her artistic dreams, to see the dreams for her family come true. The fact that I made it as a writer and a singer meant so much to her.
So, this is me. I have been blessed to experience some amazing things in my life. I sang at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. I toured and got to sing with Bob Dylan. I sang with BB King in England, and again in the White House for President Clinton. I got to be on Merle Haggard's album of #1 Hits. I have sold more records than a songwriter ought to.
But these are just things, (exciting things!) because more than anything, I am my father's daughter. He taught me to love horses and hard work and music. I am the beneficiary of my grandparents’ pioneer spirit and vision. I still work every day to maintain the things I believe in and care about and to uphold the proud pioneer spirit of my family.
My life has exceeded any expectation I ever held for myself. I never thought a storyteller in today’s day and age would be able to go so far. It is because I have had passionate fans that demanded and let labels and stations know they care about my kind of music. You have all helped make my dream come true. And the dreams of Ruth and Yule Kilcher.
Jewels personal odyssey, partly chronicled on her eleven-time platinum debut album, Pieces of You, comes to full flower in her new release, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland (Atlantic), slated for release on May 2. Marking her first album in three years, her sixth all told, Alice is her most autobiographical work in more than a decade, tracing her path from the extreme solitude of Alaska to the extreme joys and pitfalls of fame. Its title also alludes to other fantasies: the fairy tales we are told in youth about life, love and friendship versus the more complex, and often disheartening, truth. With some songs freshly written, others drawn from her astounding catalog of nearly 500 original works, she explains, gI spent a lot of time sequencing this album so each song sets up the next, like a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Alice leads with the mid-tempo Again and Again, a paean to the challenges and compromises of romantic love, which serves as the albums first single, set to hit the airwaves February 27. From the achingly poignant Long Slow Slide, listeners are led further down a universal rabbit hole with the title track, Goodbye Alice in Wonderland (for which Jewel shot an impromptu, highly personal video that premiered and had a limited run on her website.)
Accelerating into third gear, Jewel makes the most of her lyrical skills and malleable voice on Alice's middle group of songs: optimism trumping late-night worry on Good Day, the satiric machinations of Satellite (written at age 18 when she first visited Hollywood), the hook-driven pop anthem Only One Too, the equally danceable Words Get in the Way (with its subversive plea Tell your boss you're dead / Lets get back in bed), and, taking her foot off the gas a bit, the plaintive on-the-road rumination, Drive to You.
Jewel recollects her youth singing in seedy Alaskan bars, and the free-flowing style of her early, short story/poet years in Last Dance Rodeo, segueing into Fragile Heart, a more up-tempo version of a song from her recent album, 0304. Stephenville, TX, like Alice's title track, is at once an ode to hindsight reality and a Dylanesque diatribe on modern culture. In denouement, Jewel offers the quiet angst of Where You Are (Im a princess and Im locked inside a stone tower of song / Im tryin' to write messages on the window / How I just want to be long) and the live-show favorite 1,000 Miles Away.
Helping to make the recording process transparent, letting the emotion of each song shine purely, Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls) shared a producers role with Jewel, who credited him with giving her what she needed to carve Goodbye Alice in Wonderland like a master sculptor. We both saw the same figure inside the stone and Im grateful that he knew how to get it out, she says.
A native of Payson, Utah, raised in Homer and Anchorage, Alaska, Jewel (born Jewel Kilcher) was the descendent of homesteaders: her mothers family old-guard Mormon, her fathers side Swiss futurists who immigrated before World War II. Both of her parents, Atz and Nedra, enjoyed making local records and performing and, along with her brothers, Jewel (a moniker taken from her mothers family name) accompanied her parents on tours through native villages. At six I remember singing for Eskimos and Aleuts in remote places, taking dog sled rides through frozen tundra, she says.
When her parents divorced, she spent more than a half-dozen years with her father touring as a duet act, starting at the age of eight. We sang in biker bars and lumberjack joints. If the cops were ever called, Id hide in the bathroom till they were gone, she says. At fifteen she went her own way, performing solo for the first time and earning a vocal scholarship to Interlochen, a private arts school in Michigan, where she also majored in visual art. It was here she learned guitar and began writing songs, inspired by a love of reading at a young age. Reading made me feel connected to the world, she explains. The writers I returned to again and again were the ones that were brutally honest, willing to show themselves as heroic at times, grotesque at others. Anais Nin, Charles Bukowski, these were heroes to me.
Heartfelt songwriting became not only an emotional outlet, but a means of survival. During Spring Break one year she took a train and hitchhiked in Mexico, earning money as a street-corner minstrel. I made up lyrics everywhere I went and eventually it turned into a very long song about what I saw around me, she recalls. I made it back to school two weeks later with an unformed song called Who Will Save Your Soul. She was sixteen at the time and had no idea that that song would, a mere three years later, become the first single from her first album, offering not just a days meal ticket, but meteoric success.
Moving to San Diego, a series of unfortunate events led to living in her car and, after it was stolen, borrowing $1,000 from a friend to buy a van to live in. She got her first regular gig at a coffeehouse in Pacific Beach, where fans soon multiplied like rabbits, building a local cult following. Label A&R guys started coming as well, and Jewel was signed to Atlantic Records close to her 19th birthday. Her first record, a deeply introspective, live, voice-and-acoustic-guitar, modern folk collection called Pieces of You, sold about 3000 copies, nearly all in San Diego, in the nine months after its February 1995 debut. So Jewel hit the road with a vengeance, playing four shows a day in 40 cities. A folk singer at the height of grunge, she was encouraged by two acts she opened for: Bob Dylan, who actively listened to her songs and discussed lyrics with her, and Neil Young, who gave the nervous solo artist a piece of advice at Madison Square Garden: Its just another hash-house on the road to success. Show em no respect!
Hard work and heartfelt songwriting not to mention an exquisitely expressive voice paid off. After a year on the road, Who Will Save Your Soul became a major hit. And with the release of two other hit singles, You Were Meant for Me and Foolish Games, album sales went through the roof, as Blender magazine writes: With considerably less fuss, [Pieces of You] went on to exceed the sales of Nirvanas Nevermind, moving a phenomenal 11 million units.
Jewels subsequent albums steadily built her reputation and fan base. In November 1998 came Spirit, a collection of inspirational ballads aided by sparse, supportive instrumentation. The next November she offered up Joy: A Holiday Collection, blending well-loved Christmas carols with traditional spirituals and other songs, followed in Fall 2001 by the best-selling album This Way. In June 2003, her fifth work, 0304, premiered at #2 on the Billboard 200 chart, marking both the highest-debuting and highest-charting album of her career to date. Describing it as a modern take on 40s dance hall music, Jewel brought dance beats, synthesizer flavors and layered vocal overdubs to the album, which included the Top Five hit single Intuition.
Touring remains part of Jewels essence and, through her U.S. and world tours, she has forged a powerful, intimate bond with audiences around the globe. Her extraordinary voice and engaging stage presence have earned her acclaim throughout North America, Asia, Australia and Europe.
Among her many accolades are three Grammy Award nominations, an American Music Award and an MTV Video Music Award. In 1999 she was presented the prestigious Governors Award from the Los Angeles chapter of the Recording Academy (NARAS). The award recognizes those whose creative talents and accomplishments have crossed all musical boundaries and have been recognized as an asset to our music community.
He trick-or-treated at Liberace’s house, planned a two-day stay in Amsterdam that ended a month later with him escaping the city under the cover of darkness, and was Bob Hope’s favorite altar boy. Alone, these anecdotes go well with a fistful of peanuts at a cocktail party. But on top of these add that this person also co-wrote the longest-running song on the Billboard Top 100, had a debut solo album that earned three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, and was awarded the title of “San Diego’s Most Influential Artist of the Decade” at the San Diego Music Awards. What you end up with is one of the most engaging, twisted, and prolific songwriters of our time - Steve Poltz.
“Paying dues” is certainly not a foreign concept to most successful musicians, but Steve seems to have single handedly redefined what that phrase means. Born among the hearty, seafaring folk of Halifax, Nova Scotia, his parents up and moved him to Palm Springs, where he was raised. After a rather liberal approach to the liberal arts at the University of San Diego, Poltz began his colorful musical career selling pipe nipples. Let us forego the fact that pipe nipples exist, let alone the fact that an entire industry seems to be devoted to their commerce. No, we need to confront how it is that a pipe nipple guy from Palm Springs ended up flying around the world in a private jet, playing songs like “SkyfuckinglineofToronto” to stadiums full of rabid, screaming fans.
OK, here’s the thing- like the question of what Richard Nixon ever saw in Pat, there are no easy answers. What we do know is that at some point, Steve decided to bid the pipe nipple industry sweet adieu, and became a full time musician. He started out playing bars and coffee houses around San Diego, eventually forming the college radio favorite band, The Rugburns. The Rugburns are well-known and appreciated by DJs all over the country, due in no small part to the fact that the anthemic “Dick’s Automotive” was long enough to afford them the opportunity to relieve themselves and then some during their shows. The Rugburns blended punk, pop, folk, and if you listen close enough, you might just hear the slightest hint of a whisper of the possibility of Swedish Christian Death Metal. They were so freaking good that they found themselves in a crappy old van 300+ days a year, playing packed and sold out clubs and bars all over the country. The weird thing is that with a catalogue of literally hundreds of songs and three albums behind them, they developed a fan base that put the “U” in cult-like. Steve would write a song onstage in one city, and two nights and two time zones later, there would be people screaming for that very song at another show.
So there he is, more prolific than two rabbits on E, traveling the country playing songs about truckers feeding strychnine-laced granola to deer, and he starts writing songs like “Lockjaw,” an achingly sweet and sincere love song. What do you do with that? What happens when you’re in this wildly popular band, rocking your mojo coast to coast, and you find yourself coming out with gorgeous heartbreaking acoustic tapestries? You go with it.
Hey- here’s a good time to mention that Steve Poltz is the guy who stumbled upon Jewel. Yes, Jewel Kilcher. By “stumbled upon” we’re saying that he beckoned this plucky Alaskan waitress in a San Diego coffee house- “hey, come up on stage with me and sing a song.” A few months later, there are limos pulling up in front of said coffee house, ferrying in record company moguls who have come to hear the babe in swaddling tube tops. Around that time, Poltz thought it a capital idea if he and Jewel absconded to the Yucatan peninsula for a bit of creative R&R, as they say. Whilst on a beach in Mexico, the two of them sat over a guitar and wrote “You Were Meant Form Me,” which, as referenced earlier, ambled its way on to becoming the longest running song on the Billboard Top 100.
It is entirely appropriate to ask oneself at this point how it is that someone who wrote the catchy, goofy, infectious “YWMFM” could also write a song like “I Killed Walter Matthau.” The creative contrasts run deep, wide, and sometimes they call each other in the middle of the night, and Poltz Steve wakes up with a beautiful piece like “10 Chances” (on his new album; we’ll get to that soon).
YWMFM took Poltz farther than any pipe nipple ever could. He soon found himself touring the world with Jewel, pulling double duty as her opening act, and then playing as a member of her band. Ever hear of a folk musician play a stadium show solo, armed only with his acoustic guitar? Indeed, the list is short. But he pulled it off, and ended up with a fervent, near-maniacal fan base stretching all over the world. Want proof? Check out his web site (http://www.poltz.com), where you’ll not only read the pained applications of American fans, clamoring for the next tour and the next album, but Australians, French, English, and Irish people posting for information on when they can get their next fix.
This all landed Poltz a deal with Mercury Records, for whom he recorded his first solo effort, “One Left Shoe.” Rolling Stone gave it high marks for its clever lyrics and contagious melodies, and the single “Silver Lining,” saw considerable airplay. Songs like “Kicking Distance From Your Heart,” and “I Thought I Saw You Last Night” showcase the depth of his songwriting talent, and particularly his knack for layering lyrics of vivid images between his inimitable acoustic melodies. He then found himself trapped in his obligation with Mercury, where they found themselves utterly incapable of finding their own direction, let alone nurturing the talent of the man who won San Diego’s “Most Influential Artist of the Decade.”
So in typical Steve Poltz fashion, he recorded an album on his own. But of course, not any measure of a normal album. He followed up his major label debut with “Answering Machine,” which is an album of 56 songs (plus several hidden tracks to afford the proverbial buck a bit more bang), all of which were outgoing messages on his answering machine while he was out on the road. So each song is 45 seconds long, with titles like “Sugar Boogers,” “Ken Follett Stole My Wallet,” and “Dog Doo Blues .48.” It was later reported to him that Neil Young was quite an enthusiastic fan of “Answering Machine.” Poltz did meet Young sometime thereafter at a wedding reception, but rather than engage Neil in a musical discussion, Poltz he chose to approach the legend thusly, when they met at the buffet table: "[w]ow, these quesadillas are great. The tortillas taste real homemadey.” Young allegedly arched a confused and alarmed eyebrow and beat a hasty retreat.
Eventually Poltz was forced to extend his hoary, weathered middle finger at Mercury and take his leave of their services. Of the many lessons that he learned from all those years and miles out on the road, most important was that no one knows Poltz like Poltz. So he started his own label over the past year, called “98 Pounder Records.” 98 pounds is the weight at which he wrestled in high school and is approximately 50 pounds lighter than his current fighting weight. Not that that has anything to do with it, except to note that he’s freakishly skinny and fit. Which is curious, when one considers that his body has survived the onslaught of myriad allergies, sprains, twists, and an impressive collection of lung collapses. Many people who have shared a lager or two with him into the wee hours might be surprised to learn that he has developed a rather advanced yoga addiction. But no worry- you haven’t figured him out yet, because this very summer he was seen playing an acoustic show for a yoga class, doing poses while he played guitar, and somehow managing to drink a beer in the process.
This brings us to the present. Steve has taken his talent, his sincerity, and a well-honed work ethic, and put together his latest solo album, “Chinese Vacation.” This album is a tribute not just to his gift for songwriting, but also to the blood, sweat, and tears that run through each song. He began recording the album only two days after the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Itself a heady source of inspiration and contemplation, those days also found Steve in a courtroom each day, watching the trial of the people convicted of the violent and senseless killing of his closest friend. He completed the album, but the perfectionist within was not entirely satisfied. Another seeming contrast- the witty, charming, and self-deprecating artist who has spellbound talk show audiences around the globe is also an unapologetic perfectionist- which is allowed when you own the record label. Poltz decided that this initial rendering of the album did not truly reflect the place in life where he found himself, so he changed venue and moved to Austin, where his energies and spirits were reinvigorated, and where he re-recorded the entire “Chinese Vacation” album.
The title “Chinese Vacation” is the product of a songwriting game that Steve played while on the road with musicians Bob Schneider and Glenn Tillbrook. One person would introduce a theme, such as “Friendly Fire,” and everyone would have 24 hours to come up with a song involving that theme. So from this game came the titular track as well as “Friendly Fire,” which opens the album. The first single, “You Remind Me (Who I Am)” is a driving, immediately hummable tune that shows Poltz’ own unique take on the love song- not a sappy, cliché-ridden ballad, but a crisp and catchy ode to the ups, downs, and ups of love. Each song on “Chinese Vacation” is a fascinating, achingly sweet postcard to the world, and in each one can see his unique gift for considering what’s happening around him, and presenting it in ways one could never expect. In “California,” he rewrites a modern day take on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” confronting the isolation of mental illness in terms of warm days and palm trees, under light a light crisp acoustic medley. “Chinese Vacation” also features the aforementioned “I Killed Walter Matthau,” which is paralyzing in its beauty, and which is guaranteed take the listener far, far away from wherever they find themselves listening.
This album has already garnered considerable attention from his legions of devoted fans, and it is sure to reach a whole new audience with its warm and hopelessly melodic pieces. This album is worth your undivided time and attention, if for no other reason than to see what happens when a pipe nipple guy from Palm Springs decides to follow his dream.