Jewel's nearly finished recording her most personal and autobiographical record so far — and yet none of what she reveals will be immediately apparent to the listener. Happy to be cryptic, the singer/songwriter is in no hurry to explain her new songs, nor to put them out.
"It's hard to talk about songs," she said. "You try to say things in a specific and general way at the same time, so that [your audience] can sift the words inside and see themselves as experiencing it. You try to write lyrics that will be suggestive enough that they'll conjure up their own experiences."
Still, she road-tested a few of them on her recent summer tour, and based on fan reaction, she's got a pretty good idea of which songs cloak her stories the best. She's currently deciding on the final 12; likely to be among them are "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland," "Good Day" and "Again and Again," as well as older, retooled tunes such as "Stephenville, Texas," "Passing Time," "1,000 Miles Away" and 0304's "Fragile Heart" ("because it deserved a shot"). Working with Rob Cavallo (see "Jewel Says Her Cowboy Makes Her Art Seem Less Important") — with whom she's co-producing the still-untitled album — Jewel said she's been taking breaks from the studio because she's wanted to figure out ways to make some of the songs sound rawer.
"I didn't want a click track, I just wanted me and my guitar," she said. "So the band would kind of play around me, and it would be this ambient swell. No rhythm track. It was almost like if you saw me live."
Jewel was originally looking for a co-producer who would have more of an "old-school recording style, someone who would be elegant and great at arrangements." But when she couldn't find anyone that fit the bill, she decided she would just do it herself — until she talked to Cavallo. Though he's more known for working with rock bands like Green Day and Goo Goo Dolls, Jewel credits him as being "very steeped in music" and having a firm grasp of folk-rock and Americana. "I think he has an intuitive sense of the emotion behind music," she said. "I think he is the guy who fights to keep that emotion from being too covered up. He's actually been able to help me sound honest."
After three sessions together, "I'd say we're about 99 percent done," she said. "We just need to finish the background vocals, get some harmonies on there, get it cooked." She anticipates the album will come out in February.
Of the songs making the cut, Jewel said "Goodbye Alice in Wonderland" is probably the most personal song she's ever written, even though at first glance it seems to be more about fairy tales and American culture. In it, she muses about a child's loss of innocence from discovering the truth about the way the world really works. "When fables go away, does it make the world less magical? How do you keep looking for the truth without being cynical? How do you learn to see something for what it really is? It's not an easy thing to sum up," she said. "Children are told these fairy tales, and yes, they stimulate the imagination, but they also create a desire for escapism that isn't necessarily healthy." That doesn't sound personal on the surface, but "I don't know how to say it better," she said, except through the song itself.
Same with "Good Day," which is told in waltz time, "because you can get a lot more lyrics and syllables in than in 4/4 time," she said. The song takes place as she stands at the fridge in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and captures her thoughts as she thinks out loud. "It follows a pattern of looking at life, pop culture, reality TV," she said, starting to recite a few lyrics. " 'So why I am I awake again at 2 ... Staring, such a sight/ Fluorescent light/ Nice to see people not as stuck as me/ It's going to be a good day.' "
The hardest thing about deciding on which songs to include, she said, is that she's got too many (about 400 or 500) that she's only played live and hasn't recorded, and she can't remember them all. She's actually paying an archivist — whom she met online when she was trying to track down her own bootlegs — several hundred dollars a month just to organize her tunes and catalog them. "I've lost a lot of songs over the years," she laughed.