SEPTEMBER 30, 2021
A music industry mainstay and folk icon since her 1995 album Pieces of You, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jewel didn’t intend to be famous. “I never set out to be a musician; I set out to learn how to be happy,” she says.
(DAVID “DOC” ABBOTT)
Songwriting led her away from the troubled path she walked as a teen—she ran away from an abusive home, fell into a pattern of stealing and homelessness and battled frequent anxiety attacks. She taught herself techniques to become more mindful and to help quell anxiety, “and I wrote [songs] as a way of keeping track of my progress.”
What followed was chart-topping fame thanks to her vulnerable and emotional music. Her self-observation in those early years became a lifelong quest to educate others about the benefits of mindfulness and tools to improve mental wellness. “For some reason, I’ve had a talent for two things: One is writing songs, and one is creating practical exercises that rewire my brain,” says the 47-year-old, who shares research-backed techniques at her website Never Broken.
She works alongside the Inspiring Children Foundation to provide young people and adults with tools to manage anxiety, and is releasing her 13th studio album this fall—“the first record I’ve written from scratch in my whole career.” The songs, she says, are a raw, honest and authentic representation of her current stage.
We spoke with Jewel about how becoming more mindful has had an impact on her life, her favorite technique for calming anxiety and some common misconceptions about meditation that we all need to move past.
What are some mindfulness techniques you taught yourself as a young musician?
While homeless, I had a year of creating a lot of breakthroughs for myself and exercises that were practicable. I started to look at addictive patterns and thinking, Well, if my brain can get addicted to that, maybe it can get addicted to good things. It was through a lot of self-observation I learned that if I want tomorrow to feel different, I have to do something different than I did yesterday. That’s how I learned to be present. And then I learned how to put that presence to work.
What does it mean to be “dilated” and “contracted”?
I believe we have two states of being: dilated and contracted. Start to notice when you feel relaxed and open, that’s dilated. When the body feels tight, that’s contracted. Write in a journal: what are you thinking, feeling or doing? Because every single thought, feeling or action is going to lead to one of those two states. You’re going to start recognizing, “Oh, I always dilate or feel calm when I talk to Susie, when I walk in nature, when I get exercise, when I feel rested, when I’m pursuing that passion.” Or you might feel tight and contracted when X, Y, Z happens. You’ll start to see the things you’re consuming in your life—the thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors—that do or don’t agree with you.
What’s the biggest misconception about meditating?
Think of meditation as a bicep curl for your brain, one that builds the muscle of how to be present. Let’s pretend you’re in a business meeting. The person who’s the most present is going to observe the most. And whoever observes the most and can act on that observation quicker, has the edge. Building presence is incredibly good for every area of your life because it makes you a higher performer.
I think the biggest misconception about meditation is that you shouldn’t have thoughts. People feel like they’re losing if they have thoughts. They think meditation is some amazing state where you hear the universal “om” and your mind goes blank and it feels awesome. That’s not what it is. Your brain will have thoughts, but every time you notice the thought, you come back to the breath, the present moment. And that’s the bicep curl, that’s winning.
And sometimes that process can feel uncomfortable?
Learning to meditate can feel like quitting smoking. You feel like your skin is crawling because you’re going through distraction addiction withdrawals—you’re so used to checking your phone and emails that your body is giving you the impulse to check them, just like smoking. When you sit and try to abstain from that, your neurochemicals are still going to try and stimulate you to do the behavior. It doesn’t feel comfortable. But I want people to know that the great thing about being present is you now have a chance to ask, “Do I like what my life is doing? Do I like this behavior? Is it serving me? And would I rather do something else?” Those are really important questions so we don’t end up late in life realizing we got way off course.
How do you stay consistent?
Meditation is about being willing to make a small commitment to yourself and being consistent with that. You don’t have to run a marathon; just try five breaths. Or maybe it’s 10 breaths every morning before you get up. Make it doable. And then if you want, you can build from there.
Are there days you still get anxious?
Yes. If I notice I’m really contracted, I ask, “What was I just thinking, feeling or doing?” I use that exercise all the time. Then I’ll realize I was just feeling badly because of what so and so said. But I don’t have panic attacks anymore. I’m not agoraphobic anymore. A lot of those things go away, but your anxiety is kind of your ally. It’s your body communicating: Are you in agreement with your life? Are you in agreement with your surroundings? I still feel anxious, but it isn’t scary or debilitating. I have tools to deal with it and understand it.
What do you mean by using anxiety as an ally?
Anxiety can be your body telling you you’re consuming something in your environment that doesn’t agree with you, whether it’s a thought or an interaction. So think of your anxiety as an ally. That’s one of my favorite daily practices to teach people if they’re struggling with any type of anxiety. And it’s a really good example of putting your presence and mindfulness to work.
When you look back at your rise to fame, what are some feelings you remember?
I had such a meteoric rise that I was exhausted. I needed time to psychologically adjust. I had to give myself permission to stop and say, “Do you still want to be a musician? Does this actually work for you?” Because that level of fame made me pretty unhappy. I’m an introverted writer and all of a sudden, I was so famous.
I realized the pace of my career was very difficult for me psychologically. You can’t just have constant output; you need input at some point. I realized I needed to read books. I needed to have quiet time. I needed time to let my mind drift. I can’t just tour and make records, tour and make records. And if I wait a couple years between records, it keeps the fame at a level I can handle. I started doing that. And it was a radical thing to do.
You promised yourself as a young musician to always focus on your own happiness.
I’m very proud that 25 years into my career, I’ve never let myself down on that promise. And it’s why I made decisions that might have hurt my fame or my celebrity but were good for my mental health. Nobody’s encouraging musicians to take a year off to handle the almost traumatic experience of becoming famous. And it’s something I hope every musician gives themselves permission to do. I’m very proud of what Simone Biles did for instance. Because a gold medal is not winning if you also want to die.
What is your relationship with social media?
My self-worth does not depend on how many likes I have. I can’t say it was always that way, but I feel fine engaging on social media now. It’s really helpful as a musician because I have a direct relationship with my fans, which is really nice. But consider how you interact with it, how it affects your mental health. If it’s affecting you in a negative way, ask yourself, “What about this is flipping my switch?” I don’t think social media is bad—it’s how we relate to our social media apps.
When you look back at your songwriting years from now, what do you hope to see?
I want to look back on my life as my artwork, not just my songs. I would feel dumb if my songs were my best work of art. I want my life to be my best work of art, and that means I have to give every aspect of my life, my time and thought and intention and consideration. And in this job, that really isn’t what we do. We want a relationship, we want to be parents, we want to have all these aspects working well. And to do that means you better make time and a plan to make those things feel good to you.
Why did you want to write this album from scratch, not use any of your back catalogue?
I’ve always been prolific, and always written a steady stream of multiple genres. And I’ve had a back catalogue of 1000s of songs my whole career. So even by the time I put out my first album, I had a couple 100 songs and was able to pick 14 for Piece of You. And it kept going my whole career. I just was lucky to be prolific. And so maybe would write one song per record per project. With this record, I wanted to write it from scratch. I just wanted it to be completely from the ground up who I was now. And it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I see why middle aged artists do a lot of drugs (laughs)!
I don’t like covering the same ground twice. It’s just my personality. I like being uncomfortable and putting myself in an uncomfortable place that’s authentic to me. That’s why I like to try different things. So this record was a really wild process, I wrote over 200 songs to get these songs that made it on the album. So it really took a while to get a group that sounded like they were of a piece of a body that felt raw and honest but also were representative of who and what I am now and that pushed me some way creatively in a way I haven’t been pushed before. So the result is this record. It has a much more soul feel than any record I’ve ever done. I wrote for my vocals I think for the first time. I don’t know why I’ve never written for my voice. It sounds kind of funny saying it out loud. I just always serve the story and didn’t really think about showing off. But I wanted this to showcase my singing so I wrote for my voice. And hopefully I did not compromise on the storytelling aspect.
All of my records feel like folk music to me, in the sense of what folk music is. I should look up the dictionary and see if there’s an actual definition. But my definition of folk music is songs that speak to people and doesn’t use art as propaganda. And so the album has that same sense in it. And I’m really excited about it and really excited to play it.