Hippie Chic

Life has been nothing short of bohemian for singer/songwriter Jewel Kilcher. Yet, while many are quick to label the 21-year-old artist a neo-hippie, she'd rather think of herself as just a spiritual gal who's trying to make her life worth living. Much of that spiritualism is a result of her upbringing: she was raised on an 800-acre homestead outside of Homer, Alaska, where she baled hay, rode horses and drove tractors on land settled by her immigrant Swiss grandfather. Jewel also received a rich musical background courtesy of her parents, a singer/songwriter duo. At the age of six, she began performing alongside them, and later, after their divorce, with just her father.

As a teen, Jewel attended Michigan's Interlochen Fine Arts Academy, where she learned guitar and began writing songs. With little inclination toward college, she moved to San Diego following graduation. After several dead-end jobs, she decided to devote herself full-time to her music and, in true neo-hippie fashion, her place of residence became a '79 Volkswagen van.

"It was very freeing," Jewel recalls. "I never thought my life would have any ease in it; I thought I'd always be stealing food from where I worked, stealing toilet paper from fast-food restaurants and worrying about rent. So many people live hand to mouth, when we have skills that make us capable of so much more than survival. I got to live my passion, [and] usually passion is just one's hobby."

That passion took Jewel a step closer to her current career when she landed a weekly gig at a coffeehouse near San Diego's Pacific Beach. Performing to sold-out crowds, she soon drew the attention of local music critics and eventually caught the attention of Atlantic Records, who teamed her with producer Ben Keith -- whose credits include Neil Young's Harvest and Harvest Moon -- to work on her 1995 debut, Pieces of You.

"Simple" is how Jewel describes the production of her first release, most of which was recorded at her home away from van, the Innerchange Coffeehouse. "I didn't want someone to really bring a sound to me," Jewel explains. "I just wanted [Pieces] to be a time capsule of where I was -- which was a girl who had been playing songs for a year and a half in a coffee shop."

Pieces of You is a remarkable showcase for Jewel's captivating vocals, which can range from near-waiflike softness to a bold, full-throated authority. While most of the songwriting is fairly straightforward relationship fodder, the CD is not without its lyrical gems. "Be Near You Always," "I'm Sensitive" and "I Was Meant for You" are so endearingly sweet that they're almost impossible to resist, and "Pieces of You" is a definite attention-getter, with Jewel's lovely voice wrapped around the song's ugly topic of the roots of hate. "Who Will Save Your Soul," the first single and the second tune Jewel ever wrote, is one of the few songs on Pieces that isn't a solo acoustic performance; it'll do in a pinch, but it's not nearly as moving as the just-girl-and-guitar numbers.

It's easy to get the impression from the writing on Pieces of You that Jewel is drawing upon personal experience. But she claims that the lyrics on Pieces are "actually kind of made-up things. I wasn't actually heartbroken when I wrote 'You Were Meant for Me.' " An aspiring poet as well as a songwriter, Jewel explains that her poetry is where she's more likely to be autobiographical. A few of her poems appear on the CD's liner notes, and she's currently preparing a collection of her work for publication.

When not working on her poetry, Jewel has been busy touring the country, opening for Liz Phair and Peter Murphy, among others. She's done the nighttime TV talk show circuit; when she needed a backup band for her recent Tonight Show performance, her friend Adam Duritz kindly offered his own group, Counting Crows. Apparently, Duritz isn't the only one impressed by Jewel: she appeared on VH-1's Duets special with Melissa Etheridge, at Etheridge's request, and actor Sean Penn directed Jewel's second video, "You Were Meant for Me." (Jewel recorded a song for his recent film, The Crossing Guard.) In a rather unusual turn, Jewel played the part of Dorothy in an updated televised performance of The Wizard of Oz at New York's Lincoln Center last November, starring alongside Roger Daltrey, Jackson Browne, Natalie Cole and Debra Winger.

Another of Jewel's many talents is yodeling, though nary a trace of it can be heard on Pieces. "I'm sick of it -- not sick of it, [but] it's just something that I've done since I was a kid," Jewel says. "It's such a gimmick, almost; it's not the most vocally expressive thing. The only time I'd use it in a song is if I really felt it expressed or enhanced the emotion of what I was writing about, and that isn't very often gained by yodeling."

Wrapping up her relentless touring schedule for Pieces of You this month, Jewel says she expects to go into the studio in late March to work on a follow-up. And while things have been hectic, she hasn't exactly exploded on the scene, which is just fine with her.

"It's been real slow," says Jewel. "MTV never picked me up; radio stations are doing that just now. I wasn't 'the kid that got a hit,' but it's happened much quicker for me than for other people. This is my life; this is my purpose; this is what I'm here to do. I like working hard for it, and I feel good when it pays off."

Jewel performs at noon Saturday, March 9, at the Rhino Room, 2126 Portsmouth. Free. For info, call 266-1000.

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Joe Hon