No Turning Back
Jewel Kilcher was just 18, fresh out of high school and completely unsure of
what to do with her life. She had moved from Michigan to San Diego to be
with her divorced mother and was working at a series of disappointing,
low-paying jobs--waiting tables and punching cash registers. There was
little time or money for exploring careers. In fact she was barely scrapingby.
Things only worsened when a burning began in the willowy teenager's back and
traveled all the way down her groin. Her long blond hair was damp with fever
the day she mutely followed her mother into a hospital emergency room.
It was the eighth medical facility mother and daughter had visited that hazy
spring afternoon in 1993. Three hospitals and four clinics had already
refused to treat the girl's raging kidney infection because she was broke and
lacked medical insurance.
Finally they found a doctor who would attend to her, but it was a physical
and spiritual low point. In the weeks that followed, Jewel poured out her
anxieties to her mother, Nedra Carroll. What should she do? She loved the
arts--literature, drawing, dance, music. But how could she possibly pursue
any of these demanding careers when just surviving was claiming so much of
Nedra, in tough financial straits herself, came up with a novel solution:
they'd give up their shared apartment and move into vans near the beach.
Without the pressure to meet their rent, Jewel could focus on her life goal
and make it happen.
After searching her soul, Jewel decided that singing and songwriting meant
the most to her. But Nedra probed further, asking why.
Jewel thought about her reasons. Money? She'd always had so little; she'd
even grown accustomed to living on what she could carry in a knapsack. Fame?
She'd always felt like an outsider, so that didn't matter. The one thing
that she really cared about was her songs--inspiring people with her words
and voice. "I want to sing to remind people to live their dreams," she told
Still, she couldn't help feeling a flicker of fear. Friends were skeptical
of her plans, and their doubts were contagious. What if she failed at the
one thing she wanted to do? Perhaps she should look for a safer way to use
her talent--singing on tour boats, for instance, or teaching grade school
music, like her dad in Alaska.
"Maybe I should have a fallback plan," she suggested to her mother.
Nedra shook her head. "If you have a fallback plan, you will fall back. You
are young. Be brave. Have faith in yourself."
So the decision was made: the two would live like frontier women on the
beach with the sound of the Pacific surf rolling in their ears. And Jewel
would put her talents and ambitions to the test.
It was not the first time either had lived such a spartan life. Nedra and
Jewel's father, Atz Kilcher, a social worker, were raised on the Alaskan
frontier. Though the Kilchers moved often when Jewel and her two brothers
were small, she spent a good part of her formative years on her Swiss
grandparents' 640-acre homestead, 225 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Frontier Child:The homestead was a place of rugged beauty, surrounded by soaring
tree-covered canyons and snow-capped mountains. But it was also isolated and
harsh, with only a coal stove for warmth and an outhouse for plumbing.
There, learning to do tough, physically demanding work, Jewel honed a spirit
of determination. Even before the move, she had shown a single-mindedmess
that impressed her family. In third grade, for instance, she was diagnosed
with dyslexia, a disability that affected her reading and coordination.
Later that year she was rejected from an after-school gymnastics program she
desperately wanted to join, because she couldn't do somersaults andcartwheels.
"That doesn't mean you can't do gymnastics," her mother told her. "It just
means you'll have to work harder."
So Jewel began practicing three hours a night until she could do the
maneuvers as well as the natural atheletes in her grade. She was accepted
into the program.
Jewel showed the same determination singing. Watching her folk-singing
parents perform, Jewel delighted in her father's yodeling and wanted to learn
how to do it herself. But her parents, fearing it would strain her
six-year-old vocal cords, were reluctant to teach her. So she practiced
relentlessly on her own until she could do it with ease.
But the young girl with the golden voice couldn't will away the most
devastating event of her childhood. When Jewel was eight, her parents
divorced. Nedra remained in Anchorage, and Atz moved to his parents'
homestead. The children spent time with both parents, but lived mainly with
their father. They took over the barn at the homestead and lived simply off
the land--bleeding birch trees to make syrup, canning vegetables, smoking and
drying salmon they caught themselves. Atz even taught the children to weave
baskets from willow roots.
He and Jewel became a singing duo. But unlike her parents' singing
engagements, some of these were in seedy taverns and veteran halls, often
reeking of smoke and spilled beer. The patrons included tattooed bikers,
drifters and women past their prime still trying to squeeze into skintight
jeans. At a biker bar in Anchorage, Jewel watched a man collapse in the
parking lot from a drug overdose. "What I saw in those places turned me off
drugs, drinking and smoking for life," she says.
She also observed firsthand what happens to people who lose their passion for
life and end up merely existing. And she vowed it would never happen to her.
Singing to the clink of shot glasses and the chatter of bar crowds taught
Jewel something she might never have learned any other way. One night,
shortly before one of their performances, she and her father got into an
argument. Already upset, Jewel broke into tears when her father reminded her
to leave her personal life behind when she went onstage. What did it matter,
she thought, since the audience consisted of just a few grizzled, drunked
Then a man in the crowd scolded her. "Stop looking so depressed," he called
out. The words had a humbling effect. Jewel suddenly understood that her
job was to please the audience, not herself. She stopped crying and finished
the set flawlessly. And she determined never to take an audience for granted
again.By age 13, restless and wanting to spend more time with her mother, Jewel
packed up and moved in with Nedra in Anchorage. But she was no longer the
child her mother tucked into bed each night five years earlier. "I was
bitter about the divorce, angry and mistrustful when I first moved in with my
mom," explains Jewel. She developed friendships with members of street
gangs. She dated older guys. She even shoplifted a few times.
But Jewel's life took yet another new turn when a teacher from the
Interlochen Arts Academy heard her sing at a summer music festival.
Impressed by her voice, he encouranged her to apply for the prestigious arts
school. Jewel did, and won a voice scholarship. Interlochen gave Jewel
formal training in dance, writing and theater and broadened her artistic
horizons.On The Beach:
Growing up without running water water turned out to be good preparation for
living in a van beside the Pacific. Used to quick scrubdowns in Alaska's
subzero temperatures, Jewel was expert at washing her hair efficiently in
public restrooms at Kmart and Denny's. She was comfortable with thrift-shop
clothes and could get by on little more than carrots and peanut butter while
looking for work.
Eventually she found a regular spot performing at a Pacific Beach coffeehouse
called The Inner Change. While there, she wrote a song entitled "Who Will
Save Your Soul?" about those who lead lives of physical comfort but spiritual
emptiness.By the middle of 1993 Jewel was attracting overflowing crowds to the
coffeehouse and drawing the attention of record-industry talent scouts. Then
in December 1993 her shimmering voice and folk-style acoustic songs landed
her a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
Jewel might have hoped that the worst of her struggles were behind her. But
yet another round was beginning. When her first album, Pieces Of You, was
released in February 1995, it sold fewer than 500 copies a week. Her sweetly
innocent voice and uplifting songs were met with derision by the
often-cynical entertainment industry. Undeterred, Jewel traveled the country
alone, usually with only a road manager to keep her company. Back in San
Diego, her mother helped to manage her career. Jewel played mostly small
clubs, sometimes 40 concerts in 30 days, never staying more than a couple of
nights in any one city.
Worse still were some of her bookings. She would occasionally open for
heavy-metal bands with screaming electric guitars and fans wearing garish
clothes and makeup.
Once, Jewel was booked to play a black high school in Detroit. She peeked
through the curtain before the show, delighted to see a full auditorium of
excited students. But their noisy exuberance turned to boos and catcalls
when the curtain went up. They had expected a rap singer called Jewell, and
a young woman with an acoustic guitar didn't turn them on. Many of the
students walked out. Still, recalling her father's admonition years earlier,
Jewel realized it was her job to give a good show. So she sang with
undiminished passion for those who stayed.
Radio stations refused to play her. Music critics scoffed at her lack of
hipness. She was derided for everything from her crooked teeth to her
constant encoragement that fans follow their dreams. But Jewel stayed on the
road, playing coffeehouses, signing CDs in suburban stores and thanking
everyone who came to her performances.
Despite the carping of critics, more and more people took note of her talent
and charisma, and word spread about her riveting live performances. As her
fan base grew by word of mouth, the critics counted for less. By appealing
directly to those who mattered to her--those for whom she wrote the
music--Jewel ignited her career.
The decisive breakthrough came in mid-1996 when Pieces of You went gold more
than a year after its release, selling 500,000 copies. With radio stations
responding at last to her fans, the single "Who Will Save Your Soul?" climbed
the charts until it was a top-ten hit.
By the time her second CD, Spirit, was released in late 1998, Jewel had an
international following. Spirit went on to sell three million copies, and
her admirers still couldn't get enough. Soon Jewel will apear in her first
movie, a Civil War drama called Ride With the Devil. Film can only extend
her reach as a star.
All of which is a stunning journey for a young woman who was virtually
homeless just six years ago. But Jewel Kilcher understands how it happened.
In fact, she relives the converstaion with her mother that made all the
"If she'd encouraged me to have a fallback plan, I'd have made one. I was
scared. But being safe didn't mean being happy." Nedra understood this, and
so eventually did Jewel. Happiness came instead from following her
passion--and realizing there could be no turning back.