Never Broken: songs are only half the story — Jewel
To start talking about Jewel Kilcher’s 2015 autobiography Never Broken: songs are only half the story I first need take it back to 1998, to my Writing304 class at University, and to the haters contained therein.
By nature, writing is a competitive endeavour—if someone is reading your shit, it means they’re not reading mine. And worse, if they’re buying your shit…that’s $$$ I ain’t getting. Now, writers will rarely admit this, and those university workshops were mostly supportive and (on the surface at least) friendly.
Unless you were Jewel Kilcher. To be clear, Jewel was not in my writing class—by 1998 the singer/songwriter had already seen her first album go twelve-times platinum and had just released her follow-up. A bit of an oddity on the music landscape of the era, Jewel’s stripped-down, lyrically driven style of folk rock managed to thrive in the post-grunge, peak RnB, early mainstream hiphop soundscape of the time.
And she had a book out. A book of poems. And the bitches in my writing class weren’t having it.
“As if…” I recall one writer-to-be saying. “Who puts a giant picture of themselves on the cover of their book?”
Let the record show, not everyone in my writing class was a “bitch” (and dudes can be bitches too, so calm down) but there were a gaggle of them over in the corner talking shit—and while this was a fiction workshop, these were the writers most interested in poetry. And they seemed convinced that Jewel was using her physical “hotness” to sell a book of mediocre poetry, and it just wasn’t fair damnit!
It goes without saying none of them had read, or even held the book. So I went out and bought it, and brought it to class with me every day, proudly displayed on the table in front of me (writing workshops topped out at about 15 kids and we sat in a semi-circle all facing each other in order to “critique” each other’s shit). I will admit it was probably more to piss off the mean girls than as an act of artistic solidarity with a filthy rich (at the time) nascent poetess, but it still felt good.
But were Jewel’s poems any good? Some were, as far as I could tell (I dropped out of poetry after the mandatory first year classes). Did Jewel look hot on the cover? Most certainly. Did someone at the publisher decide to use that photo to help sell books by a writer who had just sold 12 million albums and was a mainstay on the visually-driven MTV? Likely. Have generations of patriarchy programmed most women to be overly antagonistic to each other because if they actually teamed up and worked together they could probably rule the world and all the asshole dudes out there wouldn’t be able to such assholes anymore? I think so.
And it wasn’t just the (jealous?) young women in my class. The (mostly male) gatekeepers of popular culture at the time were also not-so-subtly shitting on Jewel over her writing. Maybe because they felt she was veering out of her acceptable lane? Or maybe because she was popular? Or who knows why, but it’s not hard to see the animosity in action in this 1998 clip featuring MTV correspondent Kurt Loder.
(The video of Kurt’s actual full interview with Jewel no longer seems to exist but there is a transcript here and Caitlin Cowan digs into this issue on her substack.)
Jewel (who has dyslexia and struggles to type so she wrote the whole book by hand) was 24 years old at the time.
Fast forward to 2015—Jewel has already published an (absolutely kickass) collection of stories/anecdotes called Chasing Down the Dawn: Tales from the Road back in 2000 (update: I’ve since purchased this book and the free-form essays from the life of a rising star who retains her connection to eart/home/reality is some of Jewel’s best writing), plus two children’s books, and is now ready to give us the whole shebang with Never Broken, an autobiographical retelling of her unique life and hard-earned success, but also an investigation into more universal themes of struggle, hardship, heartbreak, and resilience.
Even if you maybe knew Jewel grew up homesteading in Alaska, did you know she started performing with her family (yodelling, singing) on stage in local bars as early as age 5? Or that she left home at age 15? Or got a scholarship to study “operatic voice” at a fancy arts school in Michigan but that’s also where she learned guitar and spent spring break hitchhiking, bussing, and riding trains from Detroit to Chicago to San Diego to Tijuana to Cabo—just “A girl, a backpack, and a guitar. And my skinning knife.”
It was on this voyage (aged 16) that Jewel, armed with the only four guitar chords she knew, put together the lyrics for what would become her first song and (much later) her first big hit— “Who Will Save Your Soul?”
Living in a car, health failing, surfing, busking and playing San Diego coffee shops for money, Jewel was finally “discovered” in 1993, with her debut album Pieces of You released in 1995.
At the centre of a bidding war with a number of record labels, Jewel read a book about the music business and learned that the promised advances are really just loans on future profits so she turned down a million-dollar signing “bonus” and opted for the largest back-end deal any artist had ever gotten at the time. “Hard wood grows slowly,” she writes, “I knew what music was played on the radio and it sounded nothing like mine. I knew my music was a long shot, and that if I cost the label a lot it would drop me if I didn’t make the label that money back quickly. By turning down the advance I was betting on myself, and taking the pressure off my music.”
And it’s in lessons and insights like this, where this book punches the hardest. Incredibly self-aware and attuned to the frontier attitude of working hard, learning what’s needed, and doing things right, Jewel is able to connect her life—in and out of the spotlight—to the rest of us. Even if we’ve never owned a Jewel album.
Life is, as John Lennon famously said, what happens when you are busy making other plans, and the final chapters of Never Broken do carry a tinge of new-age, mindfulness-y self-helpism as Jewel explains her personal techniques for overcoming the litany of challenges she’s faced on her journey. But here’s the thing, it all makes sense and Jewel’s living proof that her system works—hard wood grows slowly.
Of course, if you hate reading, Jewel dishes up the (3+ hour) Coles notes of her story on the Joe Rogan podcast (including that time her mother stole 100 million dollars from her) and she doesn’t go light on wisdom in that conversation either. Jewel wants to change the way kids learn, grow, and thrive in the world based on her own lived experiences, the expertise of others, and—importantly—what kids are going through right now. To this end, she’s a co-founder founder of The Inspiring Children Foundation, which provides restorative mental health and wellness programs for underprivileged youth through programs like JewelNeverBroken. Thank you Jewel!
Bonus: Click the link above for the full Jewel/Rogen chat.
Extra Bonus: Listen to Jewel talk about the time she opened for (and hung out with) Bob Dylan. (There is a tonne of awesome stuff on this history/timeline link.)
I get all my books from my local shop, Armchair Books. My friend Sarah is the owner and her favourite pie is “probably bumbleberry.” I have no idea what Jewel’s favourite pie is but i did write and ask her so watch this space.