10 Aug 2003: The formerly folky singer has gone all J-Lo on her new album – in both sound and image

When an artist has sold 25 million records by the age of 29, you hardly expect them to go to all the bother of reinventing themselves. If you’ve been thought of as Joni Mitchell most of your career, you have to go a bit of trouble to return with your fourth album as J-Lo. Yet this is exactly what Jewel has done: put the poetic, folky songs on hold and experimented with modern dance beats. Abandoned the blowsy, dull, blonde look of the past eight years and dyed her hair almost white, shed some pounds, squeezed herself into corsets and hot pants, displayed a striking cleavage.

Jewel Kilcher was raised in a homestead in Alaska and she is one of North America’s most successful female artists. Her first album, Pieces of You, came out in America in 1994, as grunge was coming to an end. It sold 11 million copies and the second single, ‘You Were Meant For Me’, became one of the most successful singles in US chart history. At the age of 20 Jewel supported Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Madison Square Garden and confessed to him that she was worried about selling out by wanting a hit single. ‘You’ve probably already sold more records than me,’ he told her. ‘This is not a popularity contest.’ Bob Dylan was also supportive, sending her CDs of other artists he admired and saying how much he respected her for standing on stage alone.

Jewel quickly built a reputation as a formidable singer-songwriter who was bright, articulate and very much able to take on other projects. In the late Nineties, she signed a $2m publishing deal with HarperCollins; her collection of poems, sold more than 2 million copies in America. In 1999, she also proved she could act, starring alongside Tobey Maguire in Ang Lee’s Civil War drama Ride With The Devil.

Despite her ability to embrace different forms of pop culture, it probably came as a surprise for most fans when Jewel decided to make 0304 more Madonna than Melanie. Her most loyal followers may be disappointed – they probably would prefer the angsty girl alone with her guitar to the babe gyrating on MTV to the Euro pop of ‘Intuition’, the first single – but the artist herself is happier than she’s ever been. ‘For some reason this feels like my first record. I used to go into the studio scared, mute, frustrated. I’ve always fed off a live audience, so singing in the studio has never been my real joy. This is a bit crude, but it’s like masturbating as opposed to having sex; you’re in a little boxed room imagining great things. I just don’t like it.’

Jewel has been performing since the age of six. Not just showing off in front of her family like most precocious kids, but actually travelling around with her father, folk artist Atz, to sing in bars. ‘I’d wear lederhosen because of my Swiss roots. Which also meant I yodelled. He was a great entertainer; he never had to write a set list as he always improvised.’

Soon after Jewel’s birth in May 1974, the Kilcher family moved to the 800-acre homestead in Homer, Alaska, founded by Jewel’s Swiss grandfather. In a town of just 4,000, it was a remote, old-fashioned existence, with no phone, television or indoor plumbing, and Jewel quickly learnt to entertain herself. Her grandfather encouraged her to read Nietzsche at a young age; her parents wrote, painted, sang and played instruments. ‘There were a lot of long winter nights,’ she says, laughing.

When she was eight, Jewel’s parents divorced; along with her two brothers, she decided to live with her father and to continue performing with him. She was happy to have a distraction from school, where she was teased for her eccentricity as well as her dyslexia, and also from the divorce, which hit her hard. She remembers one particular show when she was 14. ‘I ended up singing in a serious bikers’ bar at around 11pm. Someone was having a really bad PCP [drug] trip and half an hour into the show, the cops were called. I was underage singing in a bar, so I had to go hide in the bathroom.’

She shakes her head. ‘Can you imagine? The men sent their women to look after me. There I was with very straight blonde hair, a silly Eighties print shirt buttoned up to the chin and a little skirt, with these biker women telling me about their bastard husbands.’

By the time Jewel signed to Atlantic records in 1994, at the age of 19, she was pretty tough. She had been singing in a coffee shop for a year and was unwilling to play the game by shortening songs for the radio. She readily admits she has a reputation for not suffering fools but having some attitude doesn’t seem to have been detrimental.

It’s always difficult to work out why some artists sell so well, but Jewel thinks it’s probably because she has tried to be honest. She has talked openly in the past about having a ‘sad streak’ and sometimes being a little dark. ‘I’ve quit trying to escape though. There were times in my life when I really felt like there was something wrong with me. And maybe…’ A nervous laugh. ‘Maybe there were bits that were wrong. I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. It’s just a part of being able to feel. I guess it’s the world we live in.’

Jewel never worries about making herself too vulnerable in real life, in lyrics or in her poems; she has nothing to hide. ‘My favourite writers were that way. Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. Anaïs Nin and Bukowski. They didn’t use art to make themselves look better than they were. I love that they didn’t sugarcoat anything; it was almost embarrassing to read their work as a teenager because it reminded me so much of myself.’ She smiles. ‘Not that I’ve ever slept with a prostitute or been a 50-year-old barfly.’

Jewel is much prettier than she looks on the oddly styled cover of 0304. The Day-Glo ripped string vests, wispy hair extensions and strangely forced ‘sassy’ pose do nothing for her. Sitting on the edge of a huge sofa in a Knightsbridge hotel suite at the height of this summer’s heatwave, she looks cool in a white and pink Fifties dress and high-heeled pale pink shoes. ‘It’s a bit Fifties housewife, isn’t it?’ She says, getting up and pretending to vacuum.

That Jewel has a good sense of humour is sometimes missed by Americans, who tend to take her at face value. On the video for ‘Intuition’, which is an R’n’B pastiche, one teen girl spells it out, exclaiming: ‘Jewel’s music sounds much better now that she’s dancing!’ Jewel doesn’t see why she can’t take risks with her music while playing around with her image.

‘I wanted to combine dance music with urban beats with folk music. I think that’s interesting; I’m not making the same old music time and again. But the radio programmers go, “Oh, nice peeps” and don’t even notice the record. Why do women have to choose between smart and sexy?’ She pulls a face. ‘I’m just trying to have a bit of fun.’

Although ‘Intuition’ is rotating constantly on MTV, Jewel says the record company has cut the promotional budget for the album this time round. Jewel is one of Atlantic’s bestselling artists but this is a record industry in crisis and even the big names are suffering. Jewel claims This Way, her last album, sold 2 million copies, while it was downloaded 8 million times. ‘Yeah, there was a massive loss of earnings. Atlantic weren’t as willing to put money behind me on this record. Times are tough.’

Just in case this multi-millionaire artist starts to make less money from music, she is keeping the poetry going on the side. Next is a collection of love poems. There were a couple of poems on the sleeve notes of Pieces of You. One entitled ‘Me’ runs as follows: ‘I have blonde hair/I pluck my eyebrows/I have crooked teeth/and green eyes/I play guitar… I have firm breasts/I have lips that always smile.’ The collection, due in the autumn, will take the physical descriptions a stage further. ‘Have you read Rilke’s love poems? I read them recently and I was really surprised. They are very, very explicit. Maybe even more so than Neruda. My poems will be very sexual too.’

What does her long-term boyfriend, Ty Murray, think? He is a real-life, award-winning Texan cowboy, after all. She squirms but laughs. ‘The book is about him, of course. It is strange going out with a cowboy sometimes. We went through immigration recently and the passport guy thought he was joking when he put ‘cowboy’ down as occupation. Art is new for him. Bless his heart, he does really try. I can’t imagine never having been around art.’

Some time later, Jewel is having her photo taken. She sits posing patiently in the corner of the white hotel bathroom. She fiddles with her dress and swishes her hair. She is all woman but for a moment she looks as vulnerable, as a lost little girl. The cowboy comes to watch. He is every bit the Texan rancher, in cowboy boots, tight jeans, baseball cap. He wolf-whistles his girl. ‘You look like a hot babe.’ She colours slightly, tries to ignore him.

When the shoot is over, Jewel goes and sits on the cowboy’s knee in the corner of the suite. She whispers in his ear, plays around with his baseball cap. In a room full of record company people, stylists and make-up artists, she is oblivious to anyone but him. From a distance she could be J-Lo or even Madonna. But to her cowboy she’s very much Jewel Kilcher, the girl who grew up on an Alaskan homestead.

· ‘Intuition’ is released on 18 August. 0304 is released on 1 September