25 years of 'Pieces of You': Jewel on touring with Bob Dylan, Sean Penn romance and ambition

Early in her career, Jewel turned down a $1 million signing bonus, despite being homeless. She said no to joining the cast of MTV’s “The Real World.” She chose to keep her romance with actor Sean Penn private. 

Now, as the singer-songwriter reissues the 25th-anniversary version of the debut album “Pieces of You,” she looks back on her career path with pride.

“I was ambitious, but in a stranger way,” she tells USA TODAY. “I wanted to be one of the best singer-songwriters of all time. That meant I had 60 years of work ahead of me, of working at that.”

Part of being one of the best was maintaining control of her professional and personal life. She signed with Atlantic Records in part because the deal rewarded her on the backend for albums sold, as opposed to advancing her a loan. Jewel shunned the MTV reality show because she worried about the effect it’d have on her mental health (“Nobody needed this living in a house with them,” she jokes). And the singer kept her relationship with Penn private until her 2015 memoir, "Never Broken: Songs Are Only Half the Story" because she wanted to be known for her work, not who she was dating.

Jewel will rerelease her debut album "Pieces of You" in November, 25 years after it dropped.

“I grew up bar singing with my dad since I was 8, and I remember a man put a dime in my hand when I was 9. He folded my fingers around it and he said, ‘Call me when you’re 16. You’re going to be great to sleep with when you’re older,’” Jewel says. “I realized that the attention wasn’t personal, it was the inertia of loneliness. It made me be very clear about my energy, my sexual energy and what I wanted to be known for.’” 

She went on to call Penn “a supportive and pivotal figure in my personal life.” The actor also led Jewel to record “Emily,” for his movie “The Crossing Guard.” The track is featured on the four-volume reissue of “Pieces of You,” out now.

As for her father, Jewel notes that the song “Daddy” on “Pieces of You” is not autobiographical but she admits the track contains “some of my own youthful anger.” The singer has been open about her growing up in an abusive household with her father who struggled with alcoholism. But the fences in her personal life have since mended.

“He’s a miracle,” she gushed of her dad, Atz Kilcher, who is also known from Discovery’s “Alaska: The Last Frontier.” “In his 60s he got sober, and not just sober and apologized, but actually changed behavior. I get to know an amazing human now that I never thought I’d get to know.”

Jewel was raised in Alaska, left home for California and built a following through local radio airplay and coffee house gigs. While homeless, the singer ended up in a record label bidding war before signing with Atlantic. She admits that the 1995 release of her debut album was initially a flop. Then she toured with Bob Dylan.

“He talked to me after every show and gave me books to read and music to listen to and went over my lyrics,” she said. “It was a trip. He really encouraged me to keep going and that being a singer-songwriter is different. You may never get popular. You don’t get to play the radio game like everyone else. And he gave me the courage to keep doing that.”

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Cover of Jewel's debut album "Pieces of You".

But Jewel did get popular. More than a year after “Pieces of You” came out, “Who Will Save Your Soul” cracked the Top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The first time Jewel heard it on the radio, it was played in between songs from Nirvana and Soundgarden.

The next single from the LP, “You Were Meant for Me," which featured the bonus track “Foolish Games” on its release, peaked at No. 2.

With the "Pieces of You" reissue, Jewel will share expanded liner notes, rare photographs and more. 

“Hopefully, fans will see what it takes to evolve,” she said of the new version, which includes a never-before-heard live set from her late teens. “You don’t start perfect. You just start somewhere.”