"I was never the kid who looked in the mirror ... dancing around the house thinking about being famous," she said. "I didn't even have a mirror growing up."
Jewel Kilcher isn't ashamed of her humble beginnings. Instead, the singer-songwriter embraces these experiences and uses them to fuel her insightful and soulful lyrics. A successful artist in her own right as well as a multiple Grammy nominee, Jewel would be the first to say she's found herself taking the road less traveled, literally, to stardom.
Growing up in Alaska, Jewel began singing duets with her father at the age of 8. The two played a variety of gigs ranging from local honky-tonks to bank openings and children's birthday parties. "It's just how we made a living," she said during a recent visit to CMT's offices in Nashville. "That was our job."
After college and a short time in California, Jewel found herself struggling, penniless and living out of her van. She immediately turned to her childhood instincts. "When I ended up homeless, the reason I started singing locally was because that's how I knew how to make cash," she explained. "It's just the quickest way I knew how [to do]. It's the only thing I knew."
Inevitably, Jewel was soon discovered by Atlantic Records and signed in 1995. Her debut album, Pieces of You, featuring smash hits such as "Who Will Save Your Soul" and "Foolish Games," helped launch her to platinum success a dozen times over.
But Jewel's music hasn't always been so easily accepted or marketed. Her music has floated from genre to genre on the Billboard charts, landing in the hot dance and club charts as well as adult contemporary. Despite this genre-jumping career, Jewel's pure and chilling vocals mixed with her sincere and poignant lyrics remained a constant, ultimately making country music an undeniable fit.
"I grew up in the country format, a real fan," she said. "A lot of my heroes were great storytellers like Loretta Lynn and Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard. That's something I've always tried -- to stay true in my writing. It's just being honest about what I am and where I'm from."
Now, after a decade of writing and recording music, Jewel has finally found her home in country music. Her first country album, Perfectly Clear, recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country chart. Released on the Nashville-based Valory Music label, she co-produced it with singer-songwriter John Rich.
In addition, Jewel's distinct sound and prevailing passion has never been more evident. "This country record isn't like I woke up and became somebody else," she laughed. "It's still me being a storyteller."
The album's first single, "Stronger Woman," reached No. 13 on Billboard's country chart. Inspired by a friend whose relationships are continually a string of bad experiences, Jewel notes the song was written with a deeper message.
"I wrote it for a lot of women and for myself," she said. "When I was homeless, I didn't think it was ever OK to be a victim. If something's wrong with my life, I need to fix it. You don't wait around. Nobody owes you anything. It's up to you."
This same zeal can be heard throughout Perfectly Clear. Songs such as her new single, "I Do," along with "Love Is a Garden," "Thump, Thump," "Rosey and Mick" and "Everything Reminds Me of You," are simple melodies with deep-rooted undertones, certainly relatable to anyone who's ever been involved in a relationship.
One of her sexier tunes, "'Til It Feels Like Cheating," portrays two lovers caught in the thrill of inventing a forbidden love affair. Lyrics like "kiss me hard like we're about to sin" helps paint this playful picture. The piercing lyrics of "Anyone but You" show the suffering of a recovering heart. Her unwavering skill of being able to zone in on a certain moment in time is never more apparent than the title track which closes the album. She leaves the listener with a fiery song depicting the moment a person realizes her five-year relationship is over: "The doorway frames you/A picture perfect silhouette/Blue sky of regret/Enough to hang you."
Noting that she has been playing several of the songs during her concerts, she said, "They've [the fans] heard them live for so long. They've been dying to get them on a record, so I think they're excited, too."
What's more, Jewel finds comfort in Music City. She also recorded her first album in Nashville and enjoys the wealth of talent dispersed throughout the city. "You can throw a rock and hit somebody more talented than you," she explained. "I love that. I love collaboration. I love being in a community of great artists."
Nevertheless, for those who may still have remaining doubts of her country belonging, one can simply listen to "Loved by You (Cowboy Waltz)," a song written for her father, featuring her unique ability to yodel. She also re-recorded "Two Become One," featured on her pop album, 0304, explaining, "At its core, it's a country song."
Jewel is featured on Brad Paisley's summer tour that also includes Julianne Hough and Chuck Wicks. The exposure should help strengthen her country credentials.
"I've felt so strongly that this is a home for me," she said. "I feel like the future for me and my songwriting is here because I don't have to change who I am or be something different and have beat-driven music. I can just be a real simple storyteller and do what I do."
Thinking over her career and the various transitions she's encountered in her life, Jewel said in her soft voice, "I mean, I went from being homeless to selling 30 million records." Smiling she added, "So, it worked out better than it should for a little singer-songwriter."
View Jewel's live performance on CMT's Unplugged at Studio 330.