Musician talks being an outsider, queer cowboys and her unusual encounter with gay bestie
Jewel’s life is the best kind of It Gets Better story. Even though the famed music-maker recorded a video to offer hope to struggling teens, she didn’t need to; to be inspired, one only has to look at how she went from living out of her car – and almost dying – to being a Grammy-nominated, chart-topping singer-songwriter. Jewel became so unbelievably successful, in fact, that she recently released a Greatest Hits, a collection of songs going back to her first mega 1996 single “Who Will Save Your Soul” and spanning her entire multi-genre career.
We caught up with Jewel to chat about the queer-cowboy reality show she wants to make, how she threatened to kill the man who became her gay “manny” and the time she performed a not-so-conservative song for a group of Republicans.
Pieces of You was released 18 years ago. Do you relate to that album anymore, or does it feel like a stranger to you?
I never go back and listen to any of my albums ever. Once they were mixed and mastered, I’ve never gone back. But it feels like yesterday. I remember it so vividly. It’s such a big part of my heart.
And a big part of your career.
A huge part of my career. Having moved out at 15, and being homeless at 18, I should’ve been a statistic. The fame should’ve just fueled every insecurity I had. Thankfully I was aware of that, and I worked really hard at trying to manage my neuroses and my insecurities so that fame didn’t completely act like fuel to the flame.
That (album) really is just an honest portrayal of who I am and was at that time. I was accepted for who I was for the first time, and it was on a mass level. What a strange thing to go from being an outsider your whole life to suddenly having the whole world say, “We value your thoughts.” It wasn’t that people thought I was pretty, it wasn’t that people thought I was clever or cool; people actually valued what I was thinking and they valued my emotions and they valued my earnestness, and that was pretty remarkable. It was actually very healing and it changed my life. I can’t even tell you in how many ways: not just psychologically and emotionally, but financially. It changed everything for me.
Your entire life really is an It Gets Better story.
Aww. Yeah, it’s really true. You can’t live without hope. You can live without money, you can live without so many things, but you really can’t live without hope. It’s so hard to be able to look down the road and see that there are possibilities. As long as you feel like there’s a possibility, there is hope. It’s important for people to feel that.
I know what it’s like to get stuck in those moments, but sometimes it’s the littlest things. For me, sometimes it was somebody smiling at me kindly for no reason when people usually just looked at me like I was a leper because I was homeless. You never know what will touch somebody and give them that little something to keep going and keep fighting for what’s unique about them.
What in your life made you feel less like an outsider? Was it music?
It was writing. Reading authors that were really honest and didn’t use art as propaganda to make themselves seem more perfect; they showed their flaws. At age 14, to hear somebody talk about being less than perfect made me feel a lot less alone. You do find people you feel accepted around, and then you get out of high school and life goes on and the weirdos are always the ones who end up influencing pop culture – so god bless us! (Laughs)
Who was your first gay friend?
Doug. I think we were in eighth grade. I was so terribly in love with him. He was the only guy who smelled nice and dressed good and was actually kind. I kept trying to turn him straight but it never worked. (Laughs) Doug’s parents kicked him out when he came out and I had one friend – this black guy – and he hated gays. He said, “I’m not gonna let you be friends with Doug.” I saw Arthur, the black kid, years later walking on the beach – holding hands with a guy! Isn’t that typical?
“Pieces of You” really resonated with the gay community – especially the line, “You say he’s a faggot, are you afraid you’re just the same?” – but some people missed the point of that song.
I can’t tell you how many people walked out of a room for, like, a political abstaining without getting the freaking lyrics. (Laughs)
Well, the word “faggot” carries a lot of weight. People really thought you were homophobic then, didn’t they?
It’s hard to think that anybody earnestly thought it, but I was written up during New York Fashion Week. When I sang “Pieces of You,” you could hear forks dropping. Half the audience was gay and the other half was Jewish – and then there were pretty girls there. Nobody actually listened to the lyrics, and I was written about the next day as homophobic. It’s just so funny to me. But for the most part, I think people really got it. I wrote it from a very personal standpoint.
What inspired the “faggot” line?
All of my gay friends. Not anyone in particular. It just made me look at the nature of hate. It was a personal exploration of trying to figure out the root of my own insecurities – and, actually, that was right around the time my friend Arthur walked down the beach.
Would you ever write a song as socially charged?
I had a song called “Jesus Loves You” that was kind of like that. I had just written it and I had a private gig where I was hired, but I forgot it was a very Republican room that I was in. I was in Austin and I sang that song not thinking it was that political and then I realized it was a Jesus song that’s completely offending everybody there and I was never asked back again. (Laughs) And so there was that!
I don’t know. I’ll just have to see. But that song is definitely probably the most shocking of mine, and it’s probably harder to get away with that nowadays.
It was hard then, though, right?
Yeah. I was just fascinatingly too ignorant to know better. (Laughs)
When you look back on your hits, some of these probably feel like old friends. Any particular memories that returned to you while putting together this Greatest Hits collection?
All of them have such a story. I was hitchhiking to Mexico when I was 16, when I wrote “Who Will Save Your Soul,” and I ended up on a Mexican drug bust by accident when I was 18 and wrote “You Were Meant For Me.” All of them are really like having a yearbook.
Did you always have Kelly Clarkson in mind for “Foolish Games”? How did that come to be?
Yeah, I really wanted to recut some of these songs, and some artists have been so sweet about saying that my music’s influenced them – something you don’t think about when you’re making music. It was sweet to hear stories of Kelly saying she sang “Foolish Games” at talent shows when she was a kid. She’s a really cool chick with a killer voice.
You started out at biker bars, where you performed for lots of lesbians. Are there a lot of lesbians in your life now?
You know, I don’t have any lesbians right now. I used to when I lived in San Diego, but in Texas, it’s been a little bit slim on the lesbian front. (Laughs) But what’s really cool is, I have to do a reality show about the gays in Texas, because there’s this whole gay culture in this really cowboy town that I live in that when guys break up, it’s like, “I’m gonna come get my cows off your place!” “Well, I’m gonna take down the fence I built!” “You better come get your mineral feeders!”
You’re living Brokeback Mountain down there.
It really is like that. And thank god for Grindr, otherwise they could never find each other! When I was 14 and hitchhiking in Alaska, this guy picked me up and he said, “You’re really pretty; you shouldn’t be hitchhiking.” And I was like, “Thanks; I hear that a lot.” And he said, “No, you’re really beautiful.” He kept saying I was beautiful over and over, and I was getting really freaked out. I had a knife in my boot and I pulled it out and I stuck it under his chin and said, “Are you gonna fuck with me?” And he laughed! And I realized the second he laughed that he was just the nicest gay guy on the planet earth, and we’ve been friends ever since. He lives with me in Texas now and he helps me take care of my baby. We call him the “manny.” He’s amazing. He’s just a treasure in my life and I don’t know what I’d do without him.
Do you always carry a knife in your boot?
Not anymore! (Laughs)
When you made the shift to country music, did you feel like the odd one out because your politics on gay issues don’t generally align with what is thought of as “conservative values”?
No. I have one friend who definitely had a problem with gays, but I like to say that I’m so open-minded that I’m open-minded enough to have friends like that. You can’t control what other people think. All you can do is live your own life and see what makes life worth living. See what you believe in and what you think is right. I try to live my life according to that.
You were part of a wave of female singer-songwriters – Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco – who really owned the mid-’90s, from record sales to tours like Lilith Fair. Do you miss that time in music when you could sell millions of records and just write really good songs?
Yeah, everything has changed. Music is like that. Everything is cyclical. I was almost embarrassed when they were making such a big deal out of us because of Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell – and even before them, there were these amazing artists. It’s always cyclical and I feel so fortunate that I was able to sell the records in the time that I did, because those days are gone. We’ll never sell records like that again.
My whole goal is to have a long career. I never thought I’d get as popular as I did; I hoped to have a career like John Prine or something like that. I knew when I got as big as I did that it wouldn’t last forever. I grew up in nature; there’s nothing that’s immortal.
Would you ever return to the dance genre you explored on 2003’s 0304? The gays gotta know.
Yes, I want to service my gays. (Laughs) I’m doing a bunch of remixes for this Greatest Hits. A lot of them are club remixes. “Standing Still,” “Two Hearts Breaking” and one of “Foolish Games.” But it’s been so hard to get the label to value my remixes. I think they don’t really look at it as sales, but to me, it’s so important. I love reinventing the songs; it’s such a creative outlet.
What’s the status on the The June Carter Cash Story you shot for Lifetime?
It hasn’t released. It’s out this summer sometime.
I know you’ve acted before but never in a lead role of this caliber. What was the most challenging part for you?
It was a big part. And I tried to tell them I wasn’t an actor! (Laughs) It was scary. Acting is scary. It’s hard, because it’s not my first craft. But I really got the bug this time. It felt creative for the first time instead of just terrifying. I hope to honor her memory and give John Carter (June’s son) something I didn’t completely mess up.
I imagine it’s a difficult transformation. You’re not creating the character.
Yeah – and playing the part that Reese (Witherspoon) won an Oscar for! The odds are already stacked against me. (Laughs)
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.