Suggest to a 20-year-old that she might be naive, and you’re likely to get your head chewed off. Ask Jewel Kilcher how she got signed to a major label and she answers, “I think angels, personally.” She’s not kidding, and she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her rainbows-and-unicorns attitude.
Apparently her attitude is going over well. Last month, San Diegans saw her on a bill that included the Rugburns and Bob Dylan. This Sunday, Sunfesters will see her at the Open Air Theater. The first time I see her, Jewel is backstage at the ornate Warfield Theater in San Francisco, about to open the show for one of her heroes, indie darling Liz Phair. Jewel is a slight figure with blonde hair parted exactly down the center, dressed in faded jeans, a black T-shirt, black pointy-toed boots. She frets endlessly about this outfit -- I've really got to get back to the hoteI and put something more glamorous on -- and then promptly changes her mind -- - "Oh, this'll be okay, don't you think? No one cares what I look like. They're here to see Liz."
She professes a bad case of nerves, moaning, "If Liz thinks she gets nervous, she should try opening for her!" By the time she takes the stage, however, Jewel is implausibly composed. Her aplomb may come from her long experience dealing with rough crowds -- she started playing to drunks when she was eight.
"Singing in the bars that early taught me so much," Jewel tells me before her set. We're in a bleak, fluorescent-lit cell the Warfield calls a dressing room. She is curled up in a corner of a ratty couch, clutching both knees to her chest. Her voice is so soft that it's nearly swallowed up by the bouncing acoustics of the high-ceilinged room.
"I used to get so bummed because people wouldn't listen; I'd pout on stage. The one time, a drunk came up. I leaned down and he says, 'Stop looking so goddamned depressed!'" She laughs. "It taught me that even if there's only three people in the bar, you've got to be professional. Still, there's things I wouldn't put up with. At a really young age, guys would come on to me, tell me 'Call when you're 16.' Yeah, right."
She clutches my hand for emphasis, wanting to be sure she's getting complete attention. "I'd see all these guys, and you're young so you think they're sincere -- you think they're really going to come through. So you sleep with them -- like this one friend of mine, with this club owner who came on to her. But then it gets really weird. Really bad.
"I always knew," she claims, "that it was just talk."
Sounds more tough cookie than rainbows and unicorns. Before our interview, she related a breakneck story about her recent vacation in Mexico that involved federales, mountains of other people's pot, driving down an airline runway, guns, language barriers, handcuffs. She speeds through what sounds like a B-movie script, screeching to the tale's happy ending before the tape recorder can be set in motion.
The tough cookie continues. "There was this guy that came in when we'd play, and every night he'd do the same thing. He'd lay his money out in piles: 20s, 10s, 1s, 5s, and two pitchers of beer. Every night he'd request the same three songs: 'Aint Gonna Study War No More,' 'Cotton Fields Back Home,' and "House of the Rising Sun.' Sad songs. He'd just sit there and drink. He'd get through one pitcher by the end of our first set, and then he'd call me over and tell me to pick any bill I wanted. I'd always take a 20 and get a Shirley Temple with it. And he'd get hammered." Her eyes are cloudy, fixed on a point somewhere below a peeling strip of paint on the wall.
"One day he didn't come in. . I guess he got really drunk one night and the bartender took him home; made him a pot of coffee, even tucked him into bed. Then when he left, the guy shot himself in the face. I found out he'd been a medic in 'Nam when he was 18, and he didn't know how to do surgery. So he basically killed people until he learned." She sighs. "He didn't have family, so we gave him a fundraiser to get him a coffin.
I remember thinking that I don't want to hide behind things. I decided right then and there that I never wanted to drink."
So who are you calling naive?
Jewel writes and performs with an assuredness to sweep away the most acerbity. She writes lilting songs and belts them so that the hokey phrase "old soul" come to mind. It's a bit spooky, in combisation with that face and unspoiled sparkle. Maybe there's a bit of dirt here somewhere.