When Jewel told a “woke” male friend of hers that she wanted to mark the 25th anniversary of her breakthrough debut album Pieces of You with a special reissue, she got a response she never saw coming.
“He goes, ‘Should you really be drawing attention to it? It makes you seem old,'” the ’90s folk icon tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “I was like, ‘What in the heck?’ It’s hard for women. Nobody would say that to Bob Dylan.”
“Women in my business have always faced this uphill challenge, but I vote be unapologetic,” she adds. “I’m not embarrassed of my age. I don’t feel less than. I feel I’m doing what I want and how I want it, and that’s all you can hope for in life.”
Jewel, 46, indeed went ahead with the reissue anyway, and she unveiled it to fans on Friday.
“I’m not a big celebrator,” she says. “I’ve always been really bad at that my whole career, and I don’t think that’s a great thing. I’ve done so many amazing things in my career, and I never really did stop while it was happening and be like, ‘Wow.’ It was always, ‘Next.’ So, I wanted to fix that. I wanted to celebrate and really honor with gratitude everything this record did for me. It changed my entire life trajectory, this little record.”
Born Jewel Kilcher, the singer-songwriter was raised in Homer, Alaska, in an abusive household.
“My mom [Lenedra Carroll] left when I was 8 years old, and my dad [Atz Kilcher] took over raising me and my brothers at that age,” she says. “My dad had really bad PTSD [from serving in the Vietnam war], but those words weren’t really known at the time. He tried to drink to handle the anxiety, and he became abusive.”
No longer willing to put up with the abuse, Jewel moved off her family’s homestead at age 15 and into a cabin of her own.
“I started paying rent and working a couple jobs in town, hitchhiking to work,” she says. “It felt good. My dad and I had a difficult relationship, and I thought, ‘I could live in a cabin by myself or I could live in a cabin with a guy that isn’t that nice to me. So, why not go live in a cabin by myself?'”
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After finishing high school at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, Jewel moved to San Diego at age 18 to be with her mom, who was sick and working “dead-end jobs.” Forced to sleep in her car when her boss at a computer warehouse fired her after she refused to have sex with him, Jewel hit rock bottom when her car was stolen.
“I ended up homeless and was shoplifting to get by,” she says. “One day, I was shoving this dress down my baggy Levi 501 jeans and thought, ‘I’m going to end up in jail or dead.’ Then I remembered this quote by Buddha: ‘Happiness does not depend on what you have or who you are. It solely relies on what you think.’ I thought, maybe I could turn my life around one thought at a time.”
Armed with a newfound positivity, Jewel got a break singing at a local coffeehouse.
“At first it was just me trying to make rent money,” she says. “Then it started to feel different. It just started to take on this momentum. It became standing room only, and then people would be outside the windows listening to me or standing in the rain for a five-hour show. “
Her charm and raw lyrics quickly caught the attention of record labels, and after a bidding war, she released her debut album Pieces of You through Atlantic in 1995.
Though it initially failed to chart, the album peaked at No. 4 two years later after Dylan invited her to open for him on tour.
“I made a folk record at the height of grunge, which didn’t seem like a recipe for success,” she says. “But I learned in nature that anything that grows too quickly falls quickly, so I was very patient when Pieces of You didn’t take off right away. I wanted to find those diehard, lifelong fans who were attracted to me for the right reasons. I wanted to have a career like John Prine, so that meant doing it the old-fashioned way: touring.”
“For two years, I was doing five and six shows a day between two to three cities,” she adds. “It was incredibly hard, but it ended up paying off more than I ever thought it would.”
Pieces of You eventually sold more than 12 million copies and became one of the best-selling debut albums of all time, with hits songs such as “Foolish Games” and “Who Will Save Your Soul.”
“I’ve been able to take all the risks I wanted creatively because that album sold so well,” she says. “But my No. 1 goal was always to stay authentic and happy more than try to be famous.”
Now, Jewel — a hands-on mom to 9-year-old son Kase with ex-husband Ty Murray — is confident she “made good” on that promise.
“I worked hard to be where I’m at,” she says. “I’m very proud.”
For all the details on Jewel’s journey from homelessness to pop stardom, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.