Jewel explains 'Masked Singer' turn: 'This business is notoriously unkind to women as they get older'
Jewel has sold nearly 20 million albums, been nominated for four Grammy Awards and maintains her standing as the most successful folk singer exported from Alaska.
So why bury herself under the ginormous ruby-red headgear created for the Queen of Hearts on “The Masked Singer,” a show primarily recognized for its kitsch factor?
“It checked a lot of boxes,” she tells USA TODAY from her home in Colorado. “I’m a mom and I’m 47, and you never hear women talking about kids and learning how to tour with a child who has nap times and school times. This business is notoriously unkind to women as they get older. Cher, Madonna, they’re great. But that’s so not who I am. My heroes, like Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, became recluses. My goal was to be here 60 years, and the (show) gave me the opportunity to still be home with my son.”
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Jewel won the sixth season of the Fox celebrity singing competition in December and promptly released an EP of the songs she covered while contending, including Katy Perry’s “Firework,” Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way.”
“I really fell in love with it all. I got to design the costume based on art I was doing, I got to sing and do the arrangements. I got very invested in the process.”
On Friday, Jewel unveils “Freewheelin’ Woman,” her first new album in seven years – a break that was also spurred by her need to dedicate her time to raising Kase, her 10-year-old son with ex-husband Ty Murray.
The dozen new songs produced by Butch Walker (Taylor Swift, Green Day, Keith Urban) flit from the ‘80s pop/R&B of “Alibis” (“This one was just a free pass to have fun,” Jewel says) to the painfully raw “Almost” (“It was hard to sing in the studio because it’s so emotional”) to the Memphis soul-driven “Love Wins” (“Ella Fitzgerald taught me how to sing and mimic her agility and control, but I also wanted a whole Tina Turner vibe”).
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The album follows 2015’s “Picking Up the Pieces,” a sort of bookend to her 1995 breakthrough, “Pieces of You.” That’s when soft-spoken Jewel Kilcher arrived on radio with the contemplative “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant for Me,” armed with her riveting story of a hardscrabble upbringing in Alaska – where she also learned her admirable yodeling skills – and living in her car while playing California coffeehouses.
Through the decades, Jewel is still usually classified as an acoustic-based folk-pop singer. But that pigeonholing overlooks the fact that many of her biggest hits – “Standing Still,” “Intuition” – have been powered by a pulsing backbeat.
On “Freewheelin’ Woman,” which she’s releasing on her Words Matter Media label, Jewel again turns to a perky backbeat with “Dance, Sing, Laugh, Love,” a song that vibrates with unfettered joy.
“It’s hard to write pop songs that aren’t romantic,” Jewel says. “I was proud of ‘Intuition’ for that – it delivered a deeper concept wrapped in a pop song. Dancing and singing are my keys to life.”
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Jewel also enlisted a couple of musical pals for the album: Train (“Dancing Slow”) and Darius Rucker (“No More Tears”).
On June 8, she’ll kick off a tour in Massachusetts with Train and Blues Traveler that will wind across the country through early August.
“I’ve known them a long time,” she says of Train. “I find the road isolating, so I’m looking forward to (having company).”
Jewel is sensitive to the realities of isolation and the mental health struggles that often accompany it.
For nearly two decades, she has worked with the Inspiring Children Foundation, and during the coronavirus pandemic she engaged in “mental health triage” to help people cope with anxiety and depression.
COVID-19 "showed that everyone is struggling with mental health on some level,” she says. “It’s a dark predictor, and I believe we’re going to see a lot of physical ailments from the stress people sustained.”
In keeping with her aspirations to comfort those in need of emotional support, Jewel wrote the “The Story” to perform as her entry on NBC’s “American Song Contest” this month.
Though she was eliminated from the competition – she could return as a wild card – her dedication of the song to “anyone who is afraid their magic is gone” further amplified her lyrics: “She was fighting for a miracle, afraid she won’t see. But that’s not the end of the story.”