Singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher grew up listening to a wide range of music.
“I’m a music fan,” she says in a recent phone interview. Jewel hits the road with pop rockers Train next month, and their tour comes to Blossom on Saturday, June 18. “I grew up listening to Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers and Joni Mitchell. I think that’s really normal. I found it confusing when I got into the industry to see how rigid everything is. There is a country label and a pop label. There are stations that are only this and that. I think that’s really weird. Every music fan I’ve ever talked to listens to multiple things depending on their mood."
Over the decades, Kilcher has embraced everything from country to electronica.
"I was very confused by people’s reactions that my writing style would be influenced by my listening," she says. "[The musical styles] all feel authentic to me. That’s the key. It has to be authentic to you, or it smells bad. I look at it like my closet. I have sweat pants and yoga pants and business suits and dresses. No one looks at me and says, ‘Jewel is no longer Jewel because she’s wearing yoga pants or a business suit.’ The music is a natural extension of that. Do I want to dress this up in a banjo or programmed drum loop? Who cares. To me, there is a natural consistency because I’m a singer-songwriter.”
Though she started out in the folk-pop genre, the singer-songwriter that Jewel has become certainly can't be pigeonholed. Last year, as a contestant on The Masked Singer, she sang a bit of everything, including Édith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Bishop Briggs’s “River.” And she pulled it all off with ease.
“Masked Singer was two things,” she says when asked about the show. “I thought it would let me do something artistically, which I’ve never done, which is to just focus on my technical ability as a singer, which was really fun for me. These songs are the ones that taught me to sing. I got to pick them and arrange them. I love the songs. I think they’re heroic. And the other reason was pure strategy. I had an album coming out, and I’m a mom. I can’t go on the road for a year and do two months of promo like I used to. You just make different choices. It’s such a silly show, but I had a really authentic experience. It was nice being stripped of my identity, and as dumb as it sounds, showing my heart.”
For her new album, Freewheelin’ Woman, Kilcher assembled close to 200 songs before whittling things down to the 12 that made the album.
“I always have songs in my back catalog, but I didn’t want to do that for this album because I wanted to see who I was now and come up with something new and fresh and interesting to me creatively,” she says. “I don’t like repeating myself, but the album also incorporates all my styles. There’s pop and country and Americana and folk and an R&B or Muscle Shoals feel to the album as well.”
She basically recorded the album live in Santa Monica with producer Butch Walker, a talented singer-songwriter in his own right who works out of his home studio.
“I love Butch,” she says when asked about Walker. “He’s such a talent. He’s really diverse in his abilities. I’ve worked with producers who are so worried about hits; he’s not like that at all. I feel lucky that he decided to do the record with me.”
Driven by spirited horns, the opening track, “Long Way ’Round,” starts the album off with a real bang. Jewel croons evocatively during the album's soulful intro and sounds sultry as she muses, "Oh I went down the other day/See what the gypsy had to say."
“It started out as a folk or bluegrass song and morphed with time into this version [on the album],” says Kilcher when asked about the track. “That song just happened in the studio. We weren’t ready for a take yet. We were just getting our sound down. I think it was a bassline that started, and I really liked it. I started humming. The drummer came in during a funny place, and I made up that whole first verse on the spot. I hadn’t cracked the code on the first verse yet. I was still writing it, and it just came together all of a sudden. Thank God that the engineer had pressed ‘record.’”
The character studies found in fiction by writers such as Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck inspired the folk-narrative “Half Life,” and the album features collaborations with Train and with singer-songwriter Darius Rucker.
“I just thought it would be fun to have some collaborations on the album,” Kilcher says. “[The collaboration with Rucker] was the first song I wrote for the album. It was one of my favorites, and I thought I would see how it would go with Darius. I was pretty blown away. He gave an incredible performance.”
Kilcher says she’s excited to return to Northeast Ohio, where she’s played often during her career.
“I played there a bunch and have always done a lot of touring in that area,” she says. “It’ll be great to be back there with Train."
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].