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Jewel Kilcher, known mononymously as Jewel, embodies the quintessential story of resilience and artistic integrity. From her humble beginnings in the rugged landscapes of Alaska to her rise as a[…]
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From heartbreak to grief, musicians have always used personal pain to influence their art. Singer-songwriter and poet Jewel Kilcher is no different, but her story is far from ordinary.

The stories of how she got her name and how she got to where she is today are connected by one thing: her strained and transformative relationship with her parents. In her interview with Big Think, Jewel explains how her challenging upbringing bred authentic creativity, connection and a strong resolve where others would have crumbled.

Seeing is believing

Jewel’s unique perspective on the world is shaped by the fact that she has synesthesia, a neurological condition characterized by a merging of the brain’s sensory circuitry. It’s something shared by a multitude of creatives, from Pharell Williams and Lorde, to physicist Richard Feynman and inventor Nikola Tesla. By activating one sensory experience like sound, another sense like sight or taste is also activated. In Jewel’s case, sounds present themselves as colors and shapes when she closes her eyes. “I remember being very young and hearing my mom call my name and there were all these colors that I would see when I shut my eyes,” says the 50-year-old. “When she said Jewel, I was like, ‘That’s me. That’s the name for these colors that are in here.’”  

Not only did this sensory experience give the Alaskan-raised singer the stage name that would one day be known across the music industry, but it also gave her purpose. “My ability to connect to people started when I was a small girl,” she says. “I would see this yellow color and it corresponded to a feeling in my body and to feelings other people had. I just knew that it was special.”

Creating connections

Although she recognized this empathic ability was a gift, the road to share it with those around her wasn’t easy. Overcoming a physically abusive father and absent mother, Jewel set off on her own at 15 to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, knowing that the odds were stacked against her.

To support herself through school, Jewel began performing at a coffee shop. She managed to earn her first two fans after playing a five-hour set that expressed her pain, confusion and longing for acceptance. “These two surfers sat there the whole time crying and we hugged afterwards because it was such an honest and real experience,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone else felt that way.”

Highs and lows

After graduating from school, she moved to San Diego where she lived out of her car. She continued to perform in coffee shops, where she was eventually discovered by a local singer who put her in touch with Atlantic Records. Two years later, she recorded her debut album, Pieces of You, selling 12 million copies in the United States.

She also reconnected and reconciled with her mother, who doubled as her biggest fan and manager. But this idyllic dream and career Jewel had built on the power of connection soon came crashing down when she found out that the woman she loved the most was mismanaging her wealth and leading her into substantial debt.  

“I wanted her love much more than I wanted the truth. That cost me a lot of money, cost me a lot of years, cost me a lot of heartbreak,” says Jewel. “But the beauty that came from that was realizing I can heal.”

Happy endings

It would be understandable for Jewel to shy away from personal relationships after that betrayal, but she moved forward instead. “My most consistent passion is to connect with people,” she says. “My dad went on to heal. He got sober in his 60s and I had done my growth, and we both met as two completely different people. It’s a gift I never thought I’d be given.”

This ability to give people second chances and not let pain win stems from something she promised herself before becoming the successful artist she is today: “To learn how to be a happy, whole human, not a human full of holes.”

We interviewed Jewel for Question Your Perception Box, a Big Think interview series created in partnership with Unlikely Collaborators. As a creative non-profit organization, they’re on a mission to help people challenge their perceptions and expand their thinking. Often that growth can start with just a single unlikely question that makes you rethink your convictions and adjust your vantage point. Watch Jewel’s full interview above, and visit Perception Box to see more in this series.

JEWELGosh. Hi. My name is Jewel. I am a singer-songwriter, a visual artist, and I also work in behavioral health. Being able to find my inner self has had lots of iterations, times where I lost contact with it, and times where I've been more in touch with it. And it's also been a relationship that has deepened.

When I was young, I'm kind of audial—I also have synesthesia, and so when I shut my eyes, I do see colors. And when I sing, I see colors and shapes. I remember being very young and hearing my mom call my name, and there were all these colors that when she said “Jewel,” I was like, “That's me—that's the name for these colors that I see inside my body.”

Another one was when I moved out at 15, I was living in a house with an abusive dad. My mom had left. I had been reading philosophy at the time, been looking at the idea of nature versus nurture, and I was peeling an orange one day. I realized that my nurture, the way I was raised, caused me to form personality traits like a low self-esteem, being guarded, not trusting adults. The list goes on. And that became my exterior, it became the way that I protected myself from the world. What I realized is I spent all of my life identifying with the peel. I spent zero time thinking about the fruit, and I realized at that moment that I really had to spend serious time dedicating what I call, “Going down and in.” Whenever I have a problem with people or I'm angry or these things are going on—that's all a distraction. I have to go down and in and understand why am I letting that make me angry? Why am I perceiving that as I'm worthless? And that's when I really started to be able to get my life to change.

When I was about 18, I was homeless because I wouldn't have sex with a boss—he refused to give me my paycheck. I tried to get other jobs, but I was having panic attacks. I was becoming agoraphobic. I was shoplifting a lot. My life was really grinding to a halt, and I was very lonely. And I realized I kind of deserved to be lonely because nobody actually knew me. And my desire to connect became stronger than my desire to be safe. And I decided to do something that was very radical for me, which was to say the truth out loud, expose myself to people.

'This is Jewel. Hi. This is a place called the “Inner Change.” This is what you started off-what about a year and a half ago? Oh, yes.' I found a coffee shop that was going out of business. I asked them if they could stay open for one more month, and she agreed. Her name was Nancy. I said, “Can I keep the door money if I bring people in and you keep the food and coffee?” We agreed to that. But my very first show, two surfers showed up and I sang these poor surfers for five hours. I sang to them about the most honest, gut-wrenching, vulnerable truths about myself. I read poems. The whole nine yards! And these two surfers cried the whole time. And I cried on stage, and we hugged afterwards because it was such an honest, real, authentic experience we just had all had together. And for me, that was when that really became a powerful thing. I knew that would be a life path for me. That I would be safer in the world, the more honest I was, instead of the more guarded I was.

I think one of the most surefire ways to disconnect me from others is shame. It instantly isolates me. It instantly makes me feel separate from. For me, shame feels like a real tightness and a denseness. It just feels like I'm lost in a fog. It feels like I can't see, can't see what I did wrong. I get disoriented feeling. And so when I notice I’m agitated, when I'm noticing I'm getting triggered—I just soften. I breathe. My posture is changing. My blood pressure is changing. Different biochemicals being released, my vascular system dilates, blood pressure comes down—and then I just need to listen with no agenda. And so that really helps me. It helps me when I'm feeling shame to stop and go, “Okay, this is a feeling in my body. How do I want to redirect this?” And so, I turn it into a river in my mind. Where do I want this energy in this water to go? That gets me back into behavior and gets me into, “Okay, now what am I going to do about it?” And then I can start to move on.

Let me think of a good way to talk about because I haven't said it out loud. There's an aspect of my personality that I think stems from perfectionism. It's a way of trying to control my environment. I'm working on an art exhibit right now, and that means I have about 5 billion decisions to make. And I'm trying to decide if where this QR code will take you to Spotify, or will it take you to a Linktree. And I realized that I was wanting to step in. I was wanting to manage it, control it, figure out what the most perfect, perfect, perfect solution was—and that it was a complete waste of my energy.

Being loved makes me scared. That's scary to me. That's a really vulnerable, dangerous thing for me. You don't grow up being abandoned and being abused—and you know what happened in my divorce—being loved was really painful, consistently. And so, it is really good to check in on that. It was really important to heal. It was really important to take the time to heal. I have learned with time that the truth always wins. The uncomfortable parts of my personality, the uncomfortable parts of life are true whether we live in denial of them or not. And I've spent plenty of time in my life denying the truth, wishing it wasn't so, trying to pretend it wasn't so, and all it cost me was years. And then I still had to deal with the truth. And I actually paid a much bigger price.

When I was about 29, I realized my mother wasn't who I thought she was. She was my manager. I had such a strong need for my mother's love that I was willing to ignore what other people would have perceived as red flags. I wanted her love much more than I wanted the truth, and that cost me, cost me a lot of money, cost me a lot of years, cost me a lot of heartbreak. And so, I have a saying now called “The Truth Wins.” I want to see the truth as quick as I can. It's actually a daily mantra for me as I pray for the eyes to see the truth. Power is perception. Power is being able to perceive. The more I can perceive, the more powerful I am. That has been an absolute game-changer and life-changer for me in my life.

My most consistent passion is to connect with people. I noticed that I enjoyed this ability to connect to people when I was pretty young. I don't really know why it happened or what caused it to happen; it's just like I would see this yellow color and it corresponded to a feeling in my body, and it corresponded to a feeling they had. And I just knew that it was special. It felt like being around a fire, it felt like being warmed. As well as, you know, the physical abuse of my dad—my dad went on to heal. He got sober in his 60s. I had done my growth, and we met as two completely different people. That was an unexpected surprise in my life. My son gets to know my dad. It's like a gift I never thought I'd be given.

When I was discovered, I made myself a promise that my number one job was to learn how to be a happy, whole human, not a human full of holes. My number two job was to be a musician, and I'm very proud that I'm 49 years old, and I've never let that promise down. That went really far. That is an excellent question. Whoever wrote these questions has done a lot of work and a lot of research and should be very, very proud. I've never heard other people talk about this, so this is really exciting.