Jewel Will Still Save Your Soul (2024)

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Artifice is out, mental health is in, and Jewel’s been ready for this moment her entire life.

By Melissa Giannini

Jewel Will Still Save Your Soul (1)

Jewel and a raven named Shadow, filming a hologram in Los Angeles in February.

At age 15, Jewel moved out of her turbulent home in rural Alaska and hitchhiked several hundred miles to attend a powwow. Sitting in a large circle, she froze when a talking stick was passed to her. Later, she was taken aside by two “uncles,” who told her the future of her life would depend upon learning to speak from her heart. It was there that she also heard the story of the raven, which she recites to me from memory.

“There was a gathering every full moon of all the creatures of every kind,” she says. “One day, the two-leggeds [humans] didn’t show up, so Great Spirit sent out the raven, which was then a beautiful white bird, to look for them. The raven flew for days and found the two-leggeds wandering lost on the edges of the wilderness. The raven called to them, but they could no longer understand the language, and the raven turned black with grief. The raven flew back to the fire and said, ‘The two-leggeds have lost the language of knowing how to speak to all of us, to nature.’ ”

Today, in a nondescript cinder block building behind a Food 4 Less shopping center in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles, a raven named Shadow is biting Jewel’s index finger. She gracefully extends her hand so as not to drip blood onto the ivory folds of a borrowed gown, grimacing ever so slightly as a turntable spins her like a life-size music box dancer.

“Cut!” yells creative director Matthew Rolston, one of the multiplatinum recording artist’s longtime collaborators, whom she’s called upon to help her shoot a hologram of herself for The Portal: An Art Experience by Jewel, opening on May 4 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.

If all goes as planned, a hologram of Jewel with Shadow perched on her hand will greet visitors at the start of the 90-minute immersive experience. Its centerpiece is a reflective art walk through the museum’s contemporary wing, narrated by Jewel, featuring 10 pieces she’s selected from the museum’s collection that represent what she calls the “three spheres” of existence (more on that later), as well as two of her own artworks: a stunning portrait of her 12-year-old son, Kase, that she made after taking a two-week oil painting clinic last spring in Rome, and a sculpture. There’s also a nightly outdoor choreographed 200-piece drone light show, during which visitors will be invited to wear headphones to listen to a conceptual song written and recorded by Jewel.

The crew assembled today might be tasked with creating an apparition, but the bird and the blood are very real. Shadow’s handler suggests increasing the speed of the turntable to minimize the length of time between treats. Meanwhile, a hairstylist has procured a leaf blower to provide a gentler wind effect than the industrial fan currently blasting Jewel’s face, making her eyes water and her strawberry blonde bangs stick straight up on either side of her forehead. Rolston shouts, “Action,” and filming resumes.

Born Jewel Kilcher, the nearly 50-year-old singer-songwriter is no stranger to working with animals, having spent much of her childhood on a 600-acre homestead with no running water in Homer, Alaska (population: roughly 6,000). Perhaps you’ve caught one of her cameos on Alaska: The Last Frontier, a reality series following the hardscrabble life of her extended family, which has aired on the Discovery Channel for 11 seasons. For a time, she also lived on a working Texas ranch with her now ex-husband, former rodeo cowboy Ty Murray (Kase’s dad).

Still, working with Shadow was “intimidating,” she admits the following morning over avocado toast and bacon. Apparently, the handler had asked her to feed the bird so it would feel rewarded being around her, “and it just fricking went for me,” she says. “Luckily I didn’t bleed on the dress—that was an archival Valentino piece.”

There is little risk of a bird attack this morning, but she’s still opted for something more casual: a studded leather jacket, jeans, and white tee. “I’ve always been intrigued by ravens,” she explains, recalling the anecdote from the powwow. “I liked the idea of the raven being the animal that brings humans back into harmony with our surroundings.”

Jewel Will Still Save Your Soul (2)

Jewel at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.

Fame is like engaging with a very dangerous substance. If you don’t have a plan, it’s very toxic, like handling uranium.

Striving for harmony has been a recurring theme in Jewel’s life, as has a near-constant oscillation between adversity and almost uncanny good fortune. When she was eight, her mother left the family, and her dad moved Jewel and her two brothers to the homestead in Homer. The stress of single parenthood and his own abusive childhood led her father to self-medicate with alcohol and repeat the cycle of abuse, she says—hence her decision to move out at 15. Around this time, she received a partial scholarship to attend the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She raised half of the remaining tuition at a benefit concert, using the skills she’d learned yodeling and performing in hotels and bars with her father as a child. A generous donation from Homer celebrity Tom Bodett (of Motel 6’s “We’ll leave the light on for you” fame) made up the difference.

After graduation, she wandered a bit, eventually landing in San Diego to live with her mom, who was having health issues and could no longer work. They both wound up homeless when a boss refused to pay Jewel after she refused his sexual proposition. Jewel was living in her car and playing coffeehouses when she was discovered at age 19, eventually going on to sell over 30 million albums, with her mom serving as her manager. By 29, as she writes in her 2015 memoir Never Broken, she came to the realization that her wealth had been mismanaged to a degree that she was left millions of dollars in debt.

Jewel says she has since made critical changes to her business operations and is in a much better place. She’s even begun the difficult work of repairing her relationship with her father, who made the decision to get sober in his sixties. “Learning about my dad’s childhood, I could not believe how well he raised us,” she says. Things were so bad for him, she adds, that arriving for his tour of duty in Vietnam “was the first time he felt safe.”

She also has compassion for her mother, but they are, for now, estranged. “I don’t have a relationship with her. I don’t think I ever will. But I know I can heal anyway,” she says. “I don’t need the movie moment where she comes back and apologizes. I still get to live the life that I want to live. My happiness is mine. I think the real abuse is what we do to ourselves when the decisions we make are based on our trauma. The real freedom we give ourselves is being able to make decisions not based on that trauma.”

Which brings us back to The Portal’s “three spheres,” a philosophy Jewel has developed over the past 20 years working in mental health with two groups she cofounded: the Inspiring Children Foundation, which helps underprivileged youth and families through leadership development and mentorship programs, and Innerworld, a virtual community where members can address mental health challenges anonymously with the help of tools and guides trained in cognitive behavioral immersion.

“Each of us navigate these three spheres every day, often without knowing it,” she explains. “There’s your inner world, the seen sphere—the outer world—and then there’s the unseen world, which is just anything that gives you a sense of awe or wonder. I think mental health is a result of our three spheres being in alignment. So if my job is also my passion, or if I think my partner knows my secret self, or if I find a way to act on my spiritual practice in the real world, I’m much happier.”

Coming from anyone else, this all might sound a little woo-woo, but with Jewel, you can tell she is following the Native elders’ advice and speaking from her heart, as well as from a place of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness honed out of necessity in the wilds of Alaska and on the streets of San Diego. This life directive is on literal display in everything she does, from her triumphant run as the Queen of Hearts on the sixth season of The Masked Singer to her semi-frequent TikToks, in which she shares snippets of life from her rustic home in the Colorado Rockies.

Jewel Will Still Save Your Soul (3)

Following her art museum debut, Jewel will co-headline a tour with Melissa Etheridge.

Her generosity feels bottomless. By the end of our two-hour-plus brunch, I have concrete action plans in place for reimagining my writing career and strengthening my seven-year-old’s sense of self-esteem. And at no point does it feel as though she’s feigning an interest in my personal life to deflect questions about her own. She’s an open book, even divulging her thoughts on rumored beau and Yellowstone star Kevin Costner: “He’s a great person,” she says, blushing, adding that “the public fascination is intense for sure.”

“Jewel has a magnetic personality,” says Crystal Bridges executive director and chief diversity and inclusion officer Rod Bigelow. “She just invites you in. She is very cognizant that she has been a high-profile individual for a long time, but she’s a person who just has this overwhelmingly welcoming spirit, and the museum is founded with the idea of welcoming all, so it was a match right away.”

Following her art museum debut, Jewel will co-headline two legs of a tour with Melissa Etheridge (another leg features the Indigo Girls, who’ve been enjoying their own renaissance thanks to a memorable moment on the Barbie soundtrack). The entire shebang should scratch the itch for unadulterated singer-songwriter sublimity sparked by Tracy Chapman’s duet with Luke Combs at the Grammys this past February. “That was a healing moment for the world,” Jewel says of the performance. “People don’t give sincerity enough credit for how powerful it can be.”

She should know, having endured more than her fair share of criticism, whether for earnest lyrics like “In the end, only kindness matters” or her 1998 poetry book, A Night Without Armor. Take, for instance, the book’s featured review on, which includes backhanded compliments like, “Solid by celeb-poet standards, and a fair bit of it is actually sort of readable.” But the thing a lot of people are coming around to realize, it seems, is that Jewel’s not wrong. In the end, many of society’s current ills stem from a lack of kindness.

When I bring up her upcoming tour, Jewel points out that Etheridge was one of the first musicians to give her a break, having invited her to perform in 1995 on her VH1 series Duets. “She was a brand-new, sweet thing,” Etheridge says, pointing out that the appearance aired before Pieces of You, Jewel’s debut album, had taken off. “John Sykes, who was running VH1 at the time, played me some of her music, and I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It was a great time for women in music.” Despite the undeniable success of Lilith Fair, which pulled in $60 million in ticket sales during its three-year run in the late ’90s, promoters have been reluctant to try something similar in the decades since, Etheridge says. “I’ve been telling people for years it’s okay to put two women on a bill.”

Since having Kase—and especially since her 2014 divorce—Jewel has taken a more strategic approach to her music career. “Realizing I was going to be a single mom at 40, and that the music job is just moving 24/7, I knew I had a big decision to make,” she says. “It reminded me of being 18 and homeless; my whole life got disrupted. Divorce is obviously super painful, and you have to redefine everything. I wanted to make a living, but I wanted to do it authentically. Given my upbringing, I shouldn’t mother well or be a natural parent. So that meant I had to take it very, very seriously. For me, motherhood inspired a whole new level of healing, a new set of behavioral tools, and required creating a different life that had more stability because the music industry is just incredibly unstable. Creating a different income source and building a wellness company was really interesting to me, and creatively and intellectually stimulating.”

Taking a break from touring made perfect sense, but since the beginning of her career, she has prioritized her own happiness and mental health. “I remember the moment [I was discovered],” she says. “All my hair stood up. It felt that scary. Fame is like engaging with a very dangerous substance. If you don’t have a plan, it’s very toxic, like handling uranium. I knew that with my background and my trauma, it would be bad. I’ve seen enough biopics of musicians to know my movie doesn’t end well. So I made a promise to myself that my number one job was to learn to be happy. I never had a need to be known or applauded. I really had a need to express myself and to connect. That’s just how I’m wired. Knowing that really helped me navigate and make what I hope are really good choices.”

She recalls being offered a spot on MTV’s The Real World shortly after getting signed. “My label was like, ‘There’s this new thing called reality TV. You’ll live in a house’—and at this point I’m still in my car—‘and you’ll have roommates and be filmed 24 hours a day.’ They were like, ‘The whole world is going to watch you go from being homeless to making an album.’ I would’ve been famous by the time it was launched, but I just knew it would be bad for me, so I said no.”

She’s less distrustful of social media, drones, even AI. “It’s trained on preexisting things, so it’s always going to be somewhat derivative,” she says, pouring more tea into her cup. “I think what’s interesting is that we didn’t figure out how to program the heart. We’ve figured out how to program the mind. And that’s what my art is about: How do you get into the heart? To me, whether it’s with drones or holograms, technology just helps you find different ways of telling a story.”

To her point, a couple of days after we meet, Jewel posts a TikTok offering $100 to whoever can guess what caused the cut on her index finger. The guesses range from “freak flossing accident” to “Kevin Costner wrangled ya!” but no one offers up “raven bite.” Nearly three decades in, Jewel is still keeping us guessing.

This article appears in the May 2024 issue of ELLE.


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