Singer/songwriter talks about growing up in Homer
By Ryan Ridge
Homer Tribune: How do you feel about playing in front of the hometown crowd?
J: “I’m really excited, especially because of the great emphasis on the arts in Homer. That really helped me refine and build a craft at a relatively young age. It made me competitive, and maybe even gave me an edge when I got into the professional field at age 18.
When I was 15, I did a fundraiser at the Mariner Theatre. I think it was my first solo show, without singing with my dad. Jimmy Anderson played piano for me and I hadn’t written any songs and I didn’t play guitar yet. I had gotten a partial scholarship to go to a fine arts school, but didn’t have enough. With the help of several of my aunts, we had a concert and auctioned off several items that local businesses were kind enough to donate. All in all, the community – along with the help of Tom Bodett – ended up raising $11,000, and I was able to attend school.”
HT: What are some of your strongest memories of growing up in Homer?
J: “Oh gosh, the country just speaks to me, as much as anything. The landscape and the beauty; I think those were the things I always got so homesick for. It’s like having a drug – that great depth of field is so shocking to your brain that it gives you a constant endorphin rush. As I travel around, the world is amazing, but there’s nothing like Homer Alaska.”
HT: Is there anything special you like to do when you come back?
J: “I’m bringing my husband, who has been here before with me once. His parents haven’t, so I’m going to take them out to the homestead and show them the saddle barn I was raised in. We’ll go over to Halibut Cove, and then I think we’re going to spend as much time as we can at the head of Kachemak Bay.”
HT: Your concert here in Homer is benefitting the Artists in Schools program. How is this program, and others like it, important to you?
J: “When Asia (Freeman) first contacted me about it, it was really important for me to be able to support the arts in such a way that perfectly mirrored how I was supported. I’m so grateful that I’m even in a position where I can help raise and donate money to other artists trying to get their start. Homer seems like a far place from the rest of the world, but it really is a great cradle; a great place to develop. I think it’s important in a lot of ways to not be too inundated with pop culture so that you can be original and not too generic. I think that being out of the way enough in a place like Homer is important. Again, the more I’ve traveled, the more I realize it’s such a rare thing to have small communities that are ranching and fishing communities that have such a strong support for the arts. It’s really special.”
HT: Any specific teachers who inspired or influenced you while growing up?
J: “Duncan Wanamaker definitely sticks out. He taught out at McNeil, and when I went back at some point to see him, he had saved my creative writing folder all these years. I got to see a lot of the first stories and first poems I had written. I appreciated him as a teacher because I wasn’t – and am still not – a good speller. I’m not good with grammar, but I was always highly creative. I think he realized that if he stopped and really forced me to get good at my grammar, get good at my spelling, it would dampen my interest in writing. It seemed so tedious to me, I really wanted to try to invent something and create something, I appreciate that he didn’t attempt to really drill those kinds of things into my head to the point where it killed my passion for writing. That’s what editors are for!”
HT: Do you have any advice for local aspiring artists?
J: “I think the biggest misconception about me is that I was trying to get signed. I wasn’t. I wasn’t looking for a record deal, and I never once thought I would be a recording artist or something like that. For me, it was just a fascination with trying to be the best at what I could do. I ended up in a situation where I needed to make money and I went back to singing locally – the way that my dad and I did in Homer. But it wasn’t with stars in my eyes, it was just to get a gig locally to try and make money (laughs). So I was surprised when record labels started showing up.
My advice to all the artists that I come across is just to be the best at what you do. Greatness tends to get attention as a natural side effect. I think all the time I spent practicing was time better spent than if I had been out trying to shmooze and network with people. To me, it’s focusing on practicing more than anything. The horse has to come before the cart.
Unless your goal is just to be famous, then you can always go to parties with no underpants. I guess that works (laughs).”
HT: What do you think about having your brother, Atz Lee, opening for your concerts here and in Anchorage?
J: “I’m really excited. He’s been on tour with me before – playing harmonica and helping out – but never anything official like this. I’m looking forward to it.”
HT: Why is involvement in local and international charities and humanitarian efforts important to you?
J: “My life has just been so shaped by the kindness of people. I started Project Clean Water specifically because, while I was homeless, I had bad kidneys and was supposed to drink a gallon of bottled water a day. That was way too expensive for me, and I thought that if we’re having a hard time in America, I wonder what it’s like elsewhere? Amazingly, I got into a position to help and was able to form Project Clean Water in 1997. It’s been run in-house completely, so it’s not just something I lent my name to. We’ve put 35 wells in 15 countries, and I’m really proud of that.
A lot of the work I do with youth homelessness is because of people who were so kind to me when I was homeless. I’ve seen what kindness can do. It wasn’t charity – just kindness, because some people would help me without wanting anything from me. They were just really being helpful and kind for no reason – they didn’t even know me. Things like that really helped keep hope alive, which is the most important thing for making it through a hard situation.”
HT: Are you working on any music projects right now?
J: “I just completed a project I’m really proud of called “Lullaby.” It was really fun for me because it was my first project without a label, and I was able to just produce it without thinking about radio or genre or marketing. I just got to make an album I love. I wrote a lot of those songs. I wrote “Raven” when I was 16. If times were stressful, or if I had a hard time relaxing, I’d write songs that were like a little meditation or prayer. They were just soothing and comforting, and I continue to do that. I decided to compile them all into an album, thinking that there must be other adults who like soothing music (laughs). So it was really a fun project for me.”
HT: “Lullaby” was first released on the iTunes Music Store. Has releasing music digitally worked out for you?
J: “iTunes has been great! The world’s changing, and the way you can launch and release records is really changing – especially with tools like Twitter. You can let fans directly know about a new album, take out the middleman, and let fans hear it on your social networking site. I think it gives a lot of power back to artists, and helps us get outside of boxes where we don’t have to think about genres and marketing as much, but just about art.”
(On responding to fan messages on Twitter)
“I enjoy it! I like people, I’m fascinated by people. It’s so hard as an artist to get direct contact, especially as you get famous, because the contact isn’t exactly … um … it just changes everything, especially how people interact with you. I also think that fans don’t get to have an idea of who you are because as an artist, you’re always being interpreted through this filter of a journalist, or a publicist. They are all people with angles telling stories and interpreting – instead of it just being able to be you. I think those social networking sites give me direct contact to who my fans are and it gives them direct contact to who I am.”
Jewel’s concert is Wednesday, Aug. 19th at the Mariner Theatre. You can find Jewel on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeweljk and her Web site: http://www.jeweljk.com.
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