Interview: Jewel Releases Soothing Seventh Studio Album

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Photo by Kurt Markus
Jewel is an artist whose insatiable curiosity has led her to thrive in many creative areas. Though her list of accomplishments is dizzying—multi-platinum recording artist, actress, New York Times bestselling author—she's refreshingly down to earth. She takes the time to give back and is active in many charities, including her own Project Clean Water, which she founded to provide villages around the world with safe drinking water.

This year has been a busy one for Jewel. She recently released her first independent album, Lullaby, which is an ethereal collection of three classic tracks and 10 originals. The self-penned material holds its own among the standards, and after listening to this disc, it's hard to imagine a voice better suited for lullabies than Jewel's. Last week, LAist spoke with her to learn why she hopes her new album appeals to adults and children alike, and what she has in store when she takes the stage at the Hollywood Bowl this Friday and Saturday.

LAist: Now that you've written so many of them, I was wondering—how should one approach writing a lullaby?

Jewel: For me it's just creating a mood, and the song can be about anything. It can be whimsical and I love the idea of making lullabies for adults. I think we use albums like that and we just don't realize it, such as Sade's albums or Enya's music. You come home, put it on and relax to it.

It's interesting because when you think of lullabies, you often think of dumb kids' songs, and that's tragic because I think they can also be intellectually driven, interesting and artistic.

I think the only approach I used was that when I was recording, I actually imagined a baby sleeping. I tried to sing in such a way that wouldn't wake the baby. When you have a song like "Over the Rainbow," it's especially important to keep that in mind, because that song can get so big that you may break the reverie if you're not careful.

You've been writing lullabies for most of your life. What led you to release this collection?

This project was a real passion project for me. I've been writing lullabies over the years as a way of comforting myself. I moved out on my own when I was 15 and it was really stressful. When I was 16, one of the first songs I wrote was "Raven," because singing and writing that style of song—the physical act of doing it—just calmed me down. It was like forced meditation.

When I was homeless, I was scared to fall asleep and I wrote "Angel Standing By." I liked feeling that maybe there was somebody watching over me. It just comforted me and I realized, "If I'm an adult and I enjoy these kinds of songs, there must be other people who enjoy them."

How did this fit into your schedule among all your other projects?

I've had it in mind to do this album forever and finally got a deal that when I went to my new label, I could do an independent release as long as it didn't compete with my country radio stuff. I knew it wasn't a commercial album because there aren't really any uptempo singles, but I felt there would be an audience for it if I could get it out there. This was the first album I produced by myself. It was really fun, and rather than thinking about hits or genre, I could just focus on creating a mood.

What was your favorite lullaby as you were growing up?

Hmm. I don't remember the name but there was this odd, comical song about a chicken who laid an egg. (laughs)

Was one of the tracks on your album, "Daydream Land," something you heard a lot as a kid?

Yeah, my aunt actually wrote it.

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Photo by Kurt Markus
Wasn't she only 13 when she wrote that?

Yeah, my family is so talented it's silly. Our family reunions are the best talent shows! My grandmother was an aspiring opera singer who left Germany during World War II and gave up her career to come to America and have kids in a free land.

She taught them all—home-schooled them—in the wilds of Alaska and taught them to sing. And it was such a pure environment. They just made up little songs in such an innocent way and my aunt's album is one of my favorites. It just continues to blow me away, because it's so pure and beautiful and unique.

I've heard that song since I was a kid. In fact, my dad and I incorporated it into our bar shows years ago. I've been singing it forever and was so glad to finally get it out there.

Do you think you could have made this same album if you'd had to record it in a recording studio rather than at your home studio?

I don't think so—but who knows? I was glad I got to do it at home. I don't know if I'm right, but I think I sing better on this album than any of my others because I got to be alone. Live performance has never been a problem, but when you go into the studio, you're watching all these people from the vocal booth and they're hurrying in and out. With this album, I was by myself and it was sheer joy and sheer art—just sitting there and getting to create a mood.

In your 2001 book Chasing Down the Dawn, you talked about how you are constantly learning new things about your voice. What did the recording process for "Gloria" reveal to you about your voice?

Over the years, I've tried to make sure that I'm pushing myself while also taking care of my voice, though not necessarily being precious with it. Singing is a great passion—a great love—of mine, and I wrote "Gloria" when I was pretty young. At the time, I didn't sing it all that well. I think I sing it better now—especially in the studio. I've learned how to sing better in the studio, which took me a long time to learn!

And since that song is in another language, it really helps the listener focus on the melody and your voice…

I love singing in other languages for exactly that reason. It almost helps you transcend and not get caught up in anything but the spirit of the song and the voice.

In an earlier interview you said that a lot of what a song is, is how you end up coloring it. What did you have in mind when you revisited "Angel Standing By"?

I love that song just because of what it means to me and my history and having written it when I was homeless. I've seen such a longing in audiences as I've traveled these last 15 years. People are just desperate to feel that they're OK and that there's somebody watching over them—they need to feel soothed.

I wanted to revisit it for this album and do a slightly different take on it. It's really an acoustic song but the strings are actually kind of a Philadelphia Soul Town string arrangement because the melody takes a slight gospel turn. It's sort of an odd mixture. My string player and arranger picked up on that and I thought it complemented it nicely.

Did you set out to write a waltz when you and Patrick Davis first started writing "Sweet Dreams"?

You know, oddly enough, I write in waltz time 80 percent of the time! (laughs) In fact, at my home studio, I just went in and recorded 60 songs that I've written throughout the years. It was just time to catalog a bunch of material I've never recorded. I'd say most of them were waltzes and I had to take them out of waltz time. It's so soothing to play in waltz time and to listen to it, and it was perfect for a lullaby album. I love standard songwriting and that song seemed to hearken back to a very classic style.

Speaking of standards, will Friday night's gig at the Hollywood Bowl be your first time performing there?

Yeah, I think it is!

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Can you give some hints as to what you'll be singing?

Sure! It's going to cover the gamut. I'm going to do "Over the Rainbow" and a song called "Satellite" that's on the Alice in Wonderland album. I'm also going to do "Intuition" with an orchestra, which should be interesting. I'm going to do a fan favorite called "I'm Sensitive" from my first album. I never sing that one, but I've had a lot of fans clamoring for it. I'll also do Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" then a couple acoustic songs, maybe "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games." Plus I'll be singing with Michael Feinstein at the end of the concert.

You've said in the past that you'd someday like to release a standards album with everything from Gershwin to Disney tunes. Might this Hollywood Bowl show be a preview of that?

Maybe the Cole Porter song. I've also written a lot—and would love to write more—in that style. I have a few songs that are straight up American Songbook style, sort of a throwback to Broadway-ish stuff. I'd love to get those recorded one day and do an album.

And you're working on a country album right now?

Yeah, I'm not sure which way it'll go. It's either going to be really raw acoustic-driven songs or a little more rocking like my album This Way. We'll see!

I know you have a ton of projects going on, but is there any chance you may release another book in the next year or two?

I would like to because I've been writing a lot. I probably have two books of poetry ready to go—none of it's edited but it's written. And I've also been working on short story fiction. I wouldn't say I have a whole book together yet, but I'm finally starting to stretch my attention span and I'm writing ones that are probably 20-25 pages.

I've worked in the short-form medium with poems and songs, but I'm such a fan of novels. I've never had the patience to write one but I'm starting to increase my tolerance.

You're working your way up. You're doing 20 now…

Then 200 pretty soon! (laughs)

Would you ever like to write a children's book?

First, I'd love to do a children's album. I have one percolating. I was an art major in school, so I would also love to draw and write a children's book, but I don't have a theme or a storyline yet. It'd be fun.

You seem to be one of the most active musicians on Twitter (@jeweljk). Have you found it to be a great way to connect with your fans?

Totally, and I love it. It's really been a key to my longevity, just having a great relationship with my fans. The music business can be disheartening and complicated, but whenever you get to interact with your fans it's like, "They get it, they like music, this is gonna work!"

Now that you're back in LA for a few days, what are some of your favorite places to visit when you're in town?

There are so many places! Let's see, while Ty [Jewel's husband Ty Murray] and I were at Dancing With the Stars, Ty and I would kind of camp out at Toast. And when it comes to shopping, there's a store called Madison on Third Street that has clothing I really like.

I think the Will Rogers Park is great. A lot of people don't even know about it and it's right off of Sunset. There are some great hiking trails and it's absolutely beautiful.

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Jewel!

Jewel will perform during "The Art of Song" at the Hollywood Bowl this Friday and Saturday, July 24 at 25, at 8:30 p.m. To listen to Lullaby and to learn more about Jewel's music, visit www.jeweljk.com.