Sex, yodeling, and skinning knives: The true, wild story behind the making of Jewel's Pieces of You

In 1995, an Alaskan farm girl moved out of her van and into the white-hot center of the pop zeitgeist. Here, she and other players reveal the pieces — bidding wars, Mexican drug busts, late nights with Bob Dylan — of Pieces.

This story originally ran in the Feb. 27, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly, marking the 20th anniversary of Jewel's Pieces of You. We're re-sharing it here now, in honor of a new edition being released for the album's 25th anniversary.

Jewel Kilcher grew up in Homer, Alaska, in a saddle barn with no indoor plumbing, and began singing at bars with her dad as a child. She left home at 15, eventually making her way to San Diego.

JEWEL: I got fired for not having sex with my boss and he wouldn't give me my paycheck, so I couldn't pay my rent. My mom went back to Alaska, but I stayed in San Diego, living in my car. That's how I ended up homeless.

LOU NILES (Radio host, 91X, San Diego): She was living in her van when I first met her. The 91X parking lot was a really safe place, because right across the street was the highway-patrol station.

JEWEL: I had started writing songs and learned guitar when I was about 16. It started so I could hitchhike through Mexico for spring break. I didn't have the money to make it back to Alaska, so I concocted a genius scheme where I would hobo by train across the States and then hitchhike. I started street-singing along the way, and that's when "Who Will Save Your Soul" came. I didn't know any chords — I played the same four over and over and just started improvising lyrics. I sang and gave foot rubs to tourists at the docks in Cabo, and hitchhiked without being murdered or raped. I always carried my little skinning knife. It wasn't little, actually. It was a pretty big knife.

STEVE POLTZ (Ex-boyfriend and co-writer of two songs on Pieces of You): I met her at Java Joe's [where Jewel was a barista]. We would write songs together and go surfing. I think we made a little bit of stained-glass art.

JEWEL: I remember asking his advice about getting a gig. I grew up singing in bars with my dad, doing cover songs, and I thought if I could just get a gig, maybe I could get by that way.

Credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

POLTZ: I said she should find a coffeehouse and play there the same night every week. There was a little place called the Inner Change.

JEWEL: I asked the owner, If I could play and bring people in, could I keep the door money and she could keep all the coffee sales and food?

POLTZ: She would hand out fliers on the beach.

JEWEL: I grew up doing five-hour sets in bars and figured I needed five hours' worth of material.... I was a Nazi. I wouldn't let people leave or use the restroom. And I'm still that way, sadly. [Laughs]

POLTZ: Those were fantastic shows. She showed up one day wearing lederhosen. She'd come out barefoot, she'd spit, she'd cuss.

JEWEL: Two people came, then five, then 20, and it multiplied until there were people standing outside watching me sing behind the glass. They had to put little speakers out there.

NILES: I figured I would get Jewel on my show, and then maybe someone would give her a few hundred dollars to make a tape, or she'd get better shows at clubs rather than a coffeehouse.

JEWEL: I recorded an acoustic version of some song and they put it on the air at, like, 2 a.m., and slowly it got requested enough where I ended up in their top 10 countdown with Nirvana and Alice in Chains.

JENNY PRICE (A&R, Atlantic Records): I talked to a manager who said she had heard about this girl in San Diego who sounded like Janis Joplin. So we went down there, and Jewel was on stage in this maroon bell-bottom jumper straight out of the '70s and she was yodeling, and then she broke down into a love song. Our jaws just dropped.

JEWEL: Once labels started coming, it was ridiculous. The coffee shop put up little signs saying "Welcome, Atlantic Records!" or "Welcome, Sony!" It was a tiny place with 70 people in it, and all of a sudden there are these suits in limos showing up.

DANNY GOLDBERG (President, Atlantic Records): It went from me going to see her as a favor to becoming obsessed with signing her.

JEWEL: There was a huge bidding war. I read a book called All You Need to Know About the Music Business, so I learned about mechanical royalties and how record deals work. I probably could have gotten at least a million-dollar advance, but I didn't take anything up front. I knew I had to be affordable to make the kind of music I wanted to make.

PRICE: Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love. There were a lot of angry women on radio. She was something new.

Credit: Craft Recordings

RON SHAPIRO (General manager, Atlantic Records): She was startling to look at, you know? She had an unbelievable stage presence. People were like, "Why doesn't she get her teeth fixed?" But you could not forget the sound of that voice.

PRICE: We didn't have a big budget. It was, like, $50,000 to do the record.

JEWEL: I loved Neil Young's Harvest Moon, and I saw it was co-produced by Ben Keith. He wasn't slick and he wasn't trying to turn me into something I wasn't.

POLTZ: "You Were Meant for Me" was written on a drug bust in Mexico. We ended up in this place called Bahía de San Luis Gonzaga. Jewel said she wanted to go out on a boat and go whale-watching, but we didn't have a boat. We met these cops, and as if on cue, they asked if we wanted to go whale-watching. We were way out on the water and they got a call and said, "We don't have time to drop you off. We're trying to catch these drug smugglers, and there might be a shoot-out." They asked us if we wanted AK-47s, so we had guns, and they caught the guys. We helped them load the pot back onto the boat and they took us back to shore.

JEWEL: I was so convinced we were going to end up framed. I was really paranoid. We got this picture of Steve holding a kilo of marijuana and me holding an AR-15 with the federales. It was pretty funny. There were no shots fired, which was a relief.

PRICE: [L.A. station] KROQ started playing "Who Will Save Your Soul" early on, but the response was lukewarm.

JEWEL: It was the height of grunge, and I was just alone with a guitar on stage. It was intense. I did probably six shows a day — at high schools, in stores, radio shows. I had no tour manager, no tour bus, just one of my surfer friends dragging me around in a rental car. The record flopped for a year, so I toured a lot.

POLTZ: Atlantic, to their credit, could have just said, "We're done with this." I think they felt this buzz.

JEWEL: Bob Dylan took me on the road once before I was famous, and he really mentored me. Every night after the show, he'd go over my lyrics with me, and he'd ask me why I wrote them. He'd send me CDs to listen to and we'd exchange books. It was really one of those times where you pinch yourself. I kicked people out of his shows, too. I thought he would murder me. But I think he liked it.

GEOFF MOORE (Video director, "Who Will Save Your Soul"): Jewel and I talked about the kind of place where you could escape, a sanctuary in the middle of daily life.

JEWEL: I grew up outdoors and in nature, and I found the only place in cities I could be alone was the bathroom.

MOORE: That was an actual bathroom in Los Angeles City Hall.... Most of the characters were my friends. The drag queen was actually [Oscar-winning My Fair Lady star] Rex Harrison's grandson.

JEWEL: Conan O'Brien was the first person to put me on television. I feel like that was a real turning point.

PRICE: Sean Penn saw her on Conan and called, and she started dating him, and so the press was picking up on it. And then it just started to build, the momentum.... "You Were Meant for Me" was the biggest-selling single in the history of Atlantic at the time.

POLTZ: She was on the cover of Time! She had to hire ex-FBI guys as bodyguards because weirdos kept showing up with paintings they had done of her. It was like the circus came to town.

JEWEL: It changed my life forever. I made enough money where I never, ever had to have a hit again. Suddenly I was in a position where I was like, "Well, f--- it, I don't have to have another anything. I get to do what I want."... I'm working on a bookend to Pieces of You, a pretty simple, raw folk album. If you like incredibly noncommercial folk music, you might like it.

Credit: EW

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