Jewel has never had a case of writer’s block; if need be, she can write on command. “I’m lucky for that,” the singer-songwriter says with a laugh, playing down the fact that over the past few decades she’s penned hundreds of poignant songs, many of which she’s been performing in concert for over two decades but has chosen not to record. Jewel knows that at this point in her life – after selling millions of albums and establishing herself as one of the most successful musicians of her generation – she could take many routes: she could wait on releasing a new album for years at a time, strictly choosing to perform live instead; or perhaps she’d focus on her memoir, Never Broken; or be satisfied she wrote two children’s books and a pair of successful children’s albums. That’s not Jewel though. Jewel remains a storyteller. The itches are ever-present to document her thoughts and perceptions in musical form.
“It was the time in my life to do this,” the Alaskan-born music icon says bluntly, reflecting on her decision to record, produce and release Picking Up the Pieces, her first “proper” album of new studio material in five years and a self-described return to the territory explored on her landmark 1995 debut, Pieces of You. “It’s something I needed for myself.”
Perhaps due to Jewel's desire to confront the darker side of life head on, her inimitable vocals sound as emotionally potent here as on her earliest work, conveying an unrelenting desire to share herself once more, a poet and troubadour on a lifelong journey of reflection. “My mission was to try and make a record where I didn’t feel diluted,” she explains of a 14-track collection of songs that finds the singer baring her soul and exploring a wide range of sonic textures, from sparse to exotic, in a manner few have ever treaded so successfully.
Picking Up the Pieces, which Jewel describes as a “singer-songwriter’s record,” and one she hopes her influences, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones and mentors, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and Neil Young, would be proud of, is the project many have been waiting patiently to hear for years. With her vast and wide-ranging catalogue, which is rapidly approaching 1000 songs - all written over the last quarter century, Jewel has indeed become one of the premiere singer-songwriters of our time.
Over the course of the album, Jewel conveys the emotional turmoil of life during it’s most difficult and challenging moments, with genuine emotional pain fueling her vocals and reaching a new intensity level with her music in the process. A singer cannot transmit feelings into listeners without tapping into those feelings and this collection of songs provided the opportunity to dig deep into her own experiences.
Meditations on lost love and broken relationships are prevalent on Picking Up the Pieces, with the potent and poetic “Love Used To Be" and the hopeless despair of "It Doesn't Hurt Right Now," a penetrating collaboration with Rodney Crowell that explores the aftermath of an affair. Previously unrecorded live staples from the original Pieces Of You era like "Everything Breaks," "Here When Gone," "His Pleasure Is My Pain" and "Carnivore," which manages to convey heartbreak, hostility and defiance simultaneously, are also among them. Family relationships are also eloquently explored, with the self-examining "Family Tree" and “My Father’s Daughter” – a stunning autobiographical collaboration with country legend Dolly Parton.
“I was trying to keep my mind quiet and honestly get back to something I feel like I’d lost touch with in my life,” she adds of the reflective LP. “It was really an exercise in shutting out fear. I was giving myself permission to be exactly who and what I was.”
To be sure, this is an album about self-awareness: namely, the way it affects our evolution, maturation and acceptance. “It really felt like returning to a part of me that I didn’t mean to lose, but with time and relationships and life and surviving and dealing you take on new things and not all of them are great,” she admits. The recording process for the album, which Jewel describes as a “very holistic process,” centered on “carving away things about myself and returning to a sense of myself that I really needed.”
The 41-year-old singer didn’t come to this place easily however – a rough childhood, a recent divorce and countless moments of introspection led her here. Still, as when she was a homeless teenager, hitchhiking the country and finding herself along the way, she persevered. Specifically, Jewel spent the past few years hashing out her new album in Nashville, hunkering down at a workmanlike clip with an accomplished band comprised of several of her mentor Neil Young’s longtime musical comrades. Typically, she’d log studio time for several hours a day, multiple days a week while her four-year-old-son, Kase, was at school.
Self-producing the album, she says, was something that came as a matter of unfortunate circumstances. “My original goal was to have Ben Keith do it,” she says of the late Pieces Of You producer. In his absence, she took it upon herself to man the boards, a challenge, she says, only in teaching herself to forget all the music-industry shortcuts she’d picked up throughout her career: “When I made my first record I knew nothing so I was able to make a very pure record. To try and do that 20 years later and forget all the quote-unquote clever stuff about the business is challenging.” The absence of polished production and studio trickery reveals a clear focus on vocals and the instrumental empathy between Jewel and her musicians. This was a risky approach that could have led to disaster but instead has helped her reach a new level of lyrical and musical unity. One of the finest examples of this is "Here When Gone," which is virtually unrecognizable from its solo acoustic incarnation, now vacillating between a haunting groove and a shuffling swing. About this track, she says, "Thanks to the chemistry between these musicians and I, this song has finally found its place."
If returning to several songs she’d written at a much younger age – not to mention participating in countless moments of introspection – for Picking Up the Pieces, has taught Jewel anything, it’s that no matter her place in life, at her core she’s a singer-songwriter. “It isn’t just thinking about you,” she explains of her natural-born craft. “It’s thinking about the world and wanting to rise with people. You have a social obligation. You’re aware that there’s more than just you.
Picking Up the Pieces, she concludes, is born out of a simple purpose: it’s about “getting very comfortable with saying “This is just me. These are my thoughts. These are my feelings. This is my poetry.”