No Turning Back
Suzzane Chazin
Readers Digest

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 her energy?

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 her mother.

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 veterans?

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 difference.

"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.