Jewel Kilcher has always found writing to be “incredibly healing.”
As a young girl growing up in Alaska, she kept a journal and began writing poems. Then came songwriting. In recent years, she’s been rather open on social media about the trials and tribulations of her life.
While her willingness to share seems to have come naturally, she said it was a “learned skill.”
In a candid conversation with The Tennessean, she recalled lying and stealing at a young age and how writing was a way to keep from “losing herself” in what she called the “unhappiness of it all.”
“I was becoming blind about what was real about me,” she said. “When you start to project and make yourself sound better than you are because you don’t feel good enough, you can get lost in that, too.
That felt dangerous to me.
“I tried to find one safe place to tell the truth and that was in my writing.”
The 41-year-old Nashville resident has penned a deeply personal memoir, “Never Broken,” that will be released Sept. 15 along with an accompanying album, “Picking Up the Pieces,” that drops on Sept. 11.
Choosing to write a memoir may not come as a surprise to fans of the folksy singer, who has sold more than 27 million albums worldwide. However, the soft-spoken songwriter with an angelic voice – known professionally by only her first name – reveals a cycle of struggles and abuse that, until now, she had kept private.
“I had a really specific purpose in writing a book,” Jewel said. “It really wasn’t that hard for me. I don’t know why. Very few people are truly honest about what is actually happening in our lives.
“My life has taught me the more transparent I am and the more vulnerable I am, the safer I am.”
Jewel reflects on an abusive upbringing and the highs and lows of her professional career, including discovering that she was broke at what should have been the pinnacle of success.
But, according to Jewel, at its core, the 400-page manuscript is a story of hope.
For instance, she shared the abusive stories involving her father as a way of creating a conversation “about what is abuse in today’s family system,” without shaming her father or her grandfather.
That particular story in “Never Broken” is an illustration of how a father and his daughter reconciled those early issues.
“I thought it was really generous of my father to give me permission to really tell some tough stories,” said Jewel. “That took tremendous courage on his part. He said, ‘Jewel, this is your life and your story and you tell it.’”
Like his famous daughter, Atz Kilcher is a public figure. He is featured on the reality series “Alaska: The Last Frontier” on the Discovery Channel.
Jewel today is a very different person from the 8-year-old who was “very private” about her early writings.
At 12, she began reading Greek classics. As a teen, she discovered Latin poet Pablo Neruda and American author Charles Bukowski, whose brutal honesty she hoped to emulate, and in spite of her youthfulness, her own writing became more about expressing herself “as a real human.”
“I felt seen for the first time,” Jewel said. “That’s what honesty does. Shame lives in silence and if you communicate you’ll instantly lose shame.
“I was in that much pain.”
One particular goal of hers is to deliver on the book’s subtitle: “Songs Are Only Half the Story.”
For her, it was important to show – with grace and dignity – how she’s handled a lifetime of turmoil that she so often had internalized.
In the book, she explores the fractured relationship with her now-estranged mother, Lenedra, who left the family when Jewel was young. The pair reconnected when Jewel was on the cusp of fame and fortune. She details how her mother mismanaged the singer’s money, leaving Jewel nearly broke at the height of her career.
“Personally, my life with my mom was my deepest, darkest struggle that I had been in,” said Jewel, who despite selling millions of albums and selling out concerts around the world, including a 1998 performance for Pope John Paul II, was “robbed of enjoying” her success.
“I do say in the book my greatest highs are simultaneously my greatest lows, but I’m ready for that to be done.”
The book is in no way an expose on her life. There is no malice nor are there stories of revenge. Jewel and her family are portrayed as human, flawed and courageous in their own ways. The stories, including her recent divorce from rodeo champion Ty Murray, are illustrations of what the human spirit can endure and the “hope for healing.”
Her new songs were just as emotionally intense to record.
Her first proper album in five years, “Picking Up the Pieces” comes 20 years after her landmark multi-platinum debut, “Pieces of You.”
She self-produced the project with several of Neil Young’s longtime band members backing her up, including Chad Cromwell, at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A.
“We did live performances,” said Jewel, who explained she sounds more like herself in the studio than she has on any of her 11 previous albums. “They’re whole takes. The feeling and the mood in the room reminded me of doing my first record.”
She added, “It was very special, very touching, and I think we got some really magical recordings out of it.”
The album features an autobiographical collaboration, “My Father’s Daughter,” with the legendary Dolly Parton.
“Everything Breaks” was written 20 years ago and “Nicotine Love” was penned before she was ever discovered performing in a San Diego coffee shop – “it’s funny looking back on what I wrote as a teenager” – but the heartache and reflection certainly works with where she’s at in her life today.
“If I have a daughter, I hope she writes songs like Taylor Swift,” Jewel said. “I hope she writes about crushes and things that children should write about. It makes me happy to see that, that was Taylor Swift’s life, but that wasn’t my life.”
Both projects overlapped and long before her “marriage crumbled,” Jewel knew she intended to release the book and album at the same time.
Looking back on 2014, she described it as “an intense and strange time.”
At one point, following the divorce, Jewel found herself writing about a time when she and Murray, 45, met, fell in love, eventually married and became parents of their son, Kase, 4.
“(The divorce) was so raw and then to sit down and have to time travel and go back to 25 when I met him,” she recalled. “That was real in my life. Falling in love with him was real. It was innocent and it was so sweet, and just because things don’t work out didn’t make that (not) real and it deserved to be seen in all the tenderness that I felt it with, but it was hard because Ty and I, at the time, weren’t particularly doing well. We were divorced and going through a difficult time, but it was strange to set that aside, walk into a coffee shop where I wrote and put everything down. It really felt like time travel.”
She added, “It was actually kind of healing for me. Again, nothing’s all good and nothing’s all bad. It just didn’t work out for us.”
She feels protective and maternal when it comes to what she writes and that not only would it have been selfish to allow any bitterness to seep into her portrayal of their marriage, but more importantly, she said, it also would have been inaccurate.
“I could have done without a few of these,” said Jewel, of the struggles she said shaped her heart and led to her writing. “There are a few that I just wish would have never happened, but I didn’t have that choice, so you deal with what you have. It exhausted me.”
“Here I am peeling scabs off old wounds,” she said, laughing. “It’s just classic me.”