A Professional Confessional With Jewel

Jewel uses honest songwriting to connect with audiences.

Jewel is a singer-songwriter who achieved radio prominence during a specific moment when listeners were hungry for something intimate, vulnerable, honest. Indeed, the title and chorus of her 1996 breakout hit, “Who Will Save Your Soul,” wasn’t a rhetorical question; she was seeking a genuine answer in a hollow world obsessed with, as she sings, another day, another dollar, another war.

But Jewel strives to connect rather than protest, and her follow-up smash, “You Were Meant for Me,” was our first introduction to her confessional songwriting. Now, 12 albums into a career that has dipped in and out of the dance and country genres, she continues to articulate personal trials in the form of country-tinged folk-pop that’s irresistible. Her 2015 disc Picking Up the Pieces (a hard-bitten follow-up to her 1996 full-length Pieces of You) is a postdivorce record that balances pain, guilt and confusion so heartbreakingly that you want to telepathically pass her a box of tissues and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

Indeed, you’d think at some point she’d question her tendency to overshare. Not so.

“I think sometimes we have a misconceived notion about how to stay safe,” she says during a recent phone call with Vegas Seven. “It’s been said that our brains can’t tell the difference between a broken leg and a broken heart. We’re really not taught how to process pain. I used to think that, in my own life, if I were vigilant and clever, I could avoid being a statistic. Now I realize life isn’t about avoiding pain. It’s about how to transmute pain into something useful and positive, and turn it into art.”

Jewel acknowledges that it can feel counterintuitive to open up and write songs about heartbreak. We worry removing part of the bandage—or the scab—might cause more agony. But she’s found it to be helpful to reveal emotional truths in order to avoid being bitter or broken.

“When I was young and homeless and lonely, I deserved to be lonely, because no one knew who I really was as an artist,” she says. “But I found that when I’d come offstage after sharing my more honest songs, I felt less lonely as people came up and said, ‘I didn’t know anyone else felt that way.’ There’s value in that kind of interaction. We don’t need permission to enter the human soul, and it’s incredible what can happen when we’re honest.”

The honesty can be overwhelming, almost brutal, but she insists she owes it to herself. Sure, she can write a rough song like the rebellious “Daddy,” which emerged from a place of pain. But she wasn’t struggling to get a rise out of people; she was just struggling. Jewel’s more recent material is unsparing, too. Her song “Love Used to Be,” for example, displays in its lyrics a religious intensity usually reserved for artists like the late Leonard Cohen: Love used to be a miracle/ The proof that God exists/ As it doubled our image/ Immortality delivered/ By the double helix. Then there’s the aggressive, harrowing kiss off “Carnivore,” which starkly equates betrayal with cannibalism: Never trust your pink fleshy heart/ To a carnivore. Such songs elicit a question: Does she have regrets in making a career out of bloodletting?

“My experience with the record business was good,” she says, pushing back against the implication that corporations exploited her crunchy granola appeal. “The more focused and clear your intentions are, the better it will go for you. Once you have clear intentions, you can turn things down. When I was approached to be on an early season of The Real World, it scared me. I saw it as a shortcut and said no. I went about [my career] the old-fashioned way. Ultimately, the label didn’t want me exploited. They protected and valued my mind because I valued it.”

Her records rarely earn bad reviews. No one resents her like they do, say, Coldplay. Her music, even when overtly commercial, doesn’t raise people’s ire. “Stronger Woman,” for example, is not every guy’s favorite Jewel tune. But we can appreciate its appeal. For Jewel, an explanation for her prolonged success is her focus on being first and foremost a good songwriter.

“It used to puzzle me that the best authors wrote their best work in their 50s,” she says. “Fame is prohibitive to prolonged prosperity. Hubris is counteractive to success as a writer, and songwriters don’t usually continue their intellectual curiosity. Novelists are expected to continue their education. That’s how they get better at writing. I knew I wanted to be a writer and not be famous.”

Tickets for “Jewel: Hits, Muses and Mentors” at Encore Theater at Wynn March 30–31 start at $49.50. For more info, visit wynnlasvegas.com/entertainment/jewel.