Photo: Steve Zak Photography
Jewel Talks 'Picking Up The Pieces,' Touring & Bob Dylan
Typically when a fan attends a concert, they are treated to a pre-constructed array of songs that an artist has planned ahead of time, give or take the occasional on-the-fly request. That is not the case with a live Jewel show. “I don’t do a set list,” she tells us. “I really prefer to feel out the crowd and see what mood they are in.” Such is the plan for the singer/songwriter’s Picking Up The Pieces tour, which kicks off today following the release of her twelfth studio album of the same name. Also on her agenda is promoting her newly released memoir, Never Broken – Songs Are Only Half the Story. In her self-penned “how to” book, Jewel shares her secrets living a creative life and successfully navigating the waters of the music business.
We caught up with the GRAMMY-nominated performer to hear about her very raw and impromptu stage show, what she learned about songwriting from Bob Dylan, and her plans to tackle yet another genre of music.
What can we expect from your Picking Up The Pieces tour?
Greatness! This is going to be a solo acoustic tour, just me and my guitar. I don’t have a set list and I take a lot of requests. I probably have over 500 songs that I’ve written and my fans know them all better than I do so they usually bring in chords and lyrics for me to learn the unusual ones. And then there will be some stuff off the record. I talk a fair amount because I kind of incorporate the book into the show.
With such a diverse catalog, what is it like putting a show like this together?
I think since all the songs are solo acoustic, they don’t sound all that different. It’s often the production that will take a song into a different genre. I’ve always had a lot of influences growing up. I listened to country as much as I did folk and pop. It’s very innate to what I do. And I don’t do a set list just because I really prefer to feel out the crowd and see what mood they are in. Sometimes people are tired and you have to start out with lighter material. Sometimes people come in and they want to be impressed. So it’s just better, I’ve noticed, to walk out on stage with no plan and feel out the audience.
So you don’t ever have a set list taped to the stage? Even as a backup plan?
No. That way it’s a different show every night. That way the fans that follow me on tour will eventually get all the songs from my catalogue if they stick around.
How do you decide the opening song to set the tone for the show?
I usually do it when I’m walking on stage. I’ve been into singing “Over The Rainbow” a cappella in a dark stage lately but it just kind of varies as I walk out there. I see what I feel like.
You’re such a great songwriter. What’s the secret to writing a good song?
I think just ingest great work. I don’t know how you can be a great writer without listening to great music. I think reading is more important for songwriting. And spending a lot of time by yourself and really really woodshedding. Otherwise, I think you become generic. And I think if you are trying to become a songwriter by listening to what’s on the radio, you’re always going to be a step behind. And it’s always going to be a bit generic. I think reading a lot is really important.
What do you do to get inspired? What is your process?
It’s a lot harder now that I’m a mom. I used to just write all the time and keep diaries and now my time is definitely very limited. I often will start little song ideas and I’ll put them on my phone recorder and I’ll never go back to them. At some point, I need to sit down and spend a half a day every day developing the songs. I’ve always been lucky to have so many songs in my back catalog that I’ve never had to really write a record. I’ve only written one or two. I’ve never been in this crunch where I’ll have to suddenly come up with a record. So it’s always brought me a lot of time. If I did that poetry spoken word record, it would be pretty easy. I’d go back through journals, go back through poems and pull lines out, develop tracks, and things like that.
What do you do if you are working on a song and you get stuck? What’s the secret to getting the creativity going again?
I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think that comes when you judge yourself. Creativity is sort of like a child. You have to create a sort of environment for it to show up and be playful in. And if you’re judging yourself while you’re writing, and you’re like, “This isn’t good enough,” you’ll just hit a roadblock. I think the key to writing is to give yourself permission to write anything. Not every song is going to be great. And there’s been a couple of songs – it’s pretty rare -- but a couple of songs have taken me a few years to write where I will just hit a wall and I will come back to it every few months or every year. It took some life experiences for me to figure out how to finish what I had to say. And being patient can pay off.
Throughout your career, you have crossed over from pop to a children’s lullaby album to a folk record. What is the secret to reinventing your sound over and over again?
I don’t really look at it as reinventing myself. I was really lucky to be mentored by Bob Dylan when I was about 20 and his advice was always, “You have to follow your muse. If you want to be a singer/songwriter, you have to go wherever that leads you.” It’s not about great career decisions or reinventing yourself for the media or anything. It’s literally saying, “What’s interesting me now as an artist?” I always felt like if I got pigeonholed, that would be my own fault. I have a lot of music in me and I have a lot of different aspects to my personality. And I think everybody does. I think it will take a lifetime for me to get out all the different types of music that I have in me. And after the success of that first record, I really didn’t have anything to lose by doing that. That record was so successful that I didn’t really have to have another hit. So I credit that and what Bob Dylan really ingrained in me, which was push yourself.
So you weren’t nervous about switching genres?
It was scary at first. “Who Will Save Your Soul” was the first song I ever wrote. I didn’t know how I did it. And then when I realized, “Wait a minute. I sold enough records; I don’t have to have another hit ever.” It was very liberating. So I chose liberation over stress.
What type of music would you like to take on next?
There are a couple of records that I’d really love to make. I have no idea what I’ll do first. There are some more folk songs that I’d really love to do. I’d really like to do a rock record that really sort of covers range. I had a lot of fun with Dave Grohl and some of the guys on the road this last year. It would be fun to write with Flea. He’s an old friend of mine. It would be fun to write some killer rock songs. But I’d also like to do a spoken word record where I take some EDM tracks and beats and put spoken word to it and create a tapestry sort of record that has spoken word centered around an electronic dance record. I think that would be really fun.