I have some jarring news.
Someone who was born on the day Jewel’s Pieces of You, the album that sold 12 million copies and launched the career of the folk-turned-pop-turned-country singer-songwriter-actress, would now be 18. Feeling old? Implausibly—again, this is a singer who burst onto the music scene crooning hit folk songs in the '90s—Jewel’s career has also made it to adulthood. On Monday, she stars as June Carter Cash in the Lifetime biopic Ring of Fire, and is a sight for sore eyes for fans who, as they have so many times when she’s returned to the spotlight after long hiatuses, are offering a heartfelt chorus of “Welcome back, but where have you been?”
Jewel is the kind of artist who, when she pops up in an episode of I Love the ’90s, when she resurfaces with a new album, or even when someone just mentions her name, a typical person puts their hand to their heart, sighs nostalgically, and coos something about how much they love “Who Will Save Your Soul.” But since becoming a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon in the mid-’90s, when an entire nation belted its heart out to songs like “Foolish Games” and “You Were Meant for Me,” Jewel has purposefully traveled a career path that guides her out of the limelight for years at a time—only to lead her back just as we realized we were missing her.
Even if that means, sometimes, she has to be nudged back a little.
“This came to me out of the blue,” Jewel tells The Daily Beast about signing on for Ring of Fire, her first major film role since 1999 and, aside from a greatest-hits album released in February, her first major return to the Hollywood media circuit since the 2010 country album Sweet and Wild. The producer, Jonathan Koch, doggedly badgered her into taking the part. “I tried to tell him I wasn’t really an actress, but he was pretty stubborn and insisted I consider it.”
The timing is about right. A glance at Jewel’s discography reveals something very peculiar, especially for a singer whose debut was as wildly successful as hers. She lets years pass between major releases, letting every soaring balloon of momentum deflate completely as she retreats back to her quiet family life at home in Stephenville, Texas, where she lives with her husband, bull rider Ty Murray, and their nearly 2-year-old son, Kase. It was three years between the releases of Pieces of You and its followup, Spirit. Three more passed before This Way dropped in 2001. The pattern continued over the next decade.
But it turns out that those prolonged absences from the spotlight were actually quite intentional.
“I never meant to write a hit,” she says. “‘Who Will Save Your Soul’ I just wrote because I was hitchhiking through Mexico. I didn’t mean to become a songwriter, you know? And then it’s so popular you wonder how will lightning strike twice? And that’s when it dawned on me. You can live on this money the rest of your life, so it’s actually no pressure. You just got the golden ticket. You never have to do this again for the rest of your life. You can just write songs that you like. It gave me this tremendous liberation of, like, screw it. If I don’t have a hit, fine. If I do have a hit, great.”
The mindset, a refreshing change of pace from the industry’s hordes of rat-race runners, has made for a comfortable lifestyle for Jewel, one she says (talking over her son’s cries) she relishes: “I got way more popular than I thought I would ever get, and I wasn’t really geared for it.”
Still, when people are wondering “what happened to…” in reference to a musician, it doesn’t make for the easiest career. She was dropped by Atlantic Records after disappointing record sales for 2006's Goodbye Alice in Wonderland and picked up by the independent label Big Machine Records, which released 2007's Perfectly Clear. Yet Jewel realizes that her ambivalence toward the idea of striking while the iron is hot probably exasperates those trying to shepherd her career.
“I’ve always taken way too much time between records for the industry’s standards—sometimes years, which is unheard of,” she says. “But I was so lucky that my first album was so successful that it gave me freedom that, if I saved my money, to just go ahead and make whatever creative decisions I wanted. I didn’t have to have a hit record to pay off my mortgage or my private plane or something. I lived very simply so I could afford myself the creative freedom to follow my muse and push myself musically and make any kind of decision I wanted and follow my creativity wherever it wanted to go, whether it was poetry or acting or pop music or country music.”
That she’s followed that creativity to the role of June Carter Cash—which she tackles quite impressively—is a bit of a poignant bookend to her career. Back in 1999, she opened for June and Johnny Cash in England after playing two sold-out shows of her own. “The promoters said, ‘Hey, June and Johnny are coming, would you open for them?’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Heck yeah, I would.’”
Sharing the stage with the legends, however, wasn’t even in the highlight of the night. “I remember telling her that she smelled nice,” Jewel says of her interaction that night with June. “She said, ‘Well, do you want my perfume?’ I told her, ‘No, no. I don’t want to take your perfume.’ But she wouldn’t let me leave without digging in her purse and giving me her bottle of perfume. She was just that kind of person.”
It’s that kind of person that Jewel was most interested in when offered the part in Ring of Fire. It’s no small feat playing a real-life icon in a movie. There’s a whole other level of pressure piled on when another actress already won an Oscar for her portrayal of that same icon, as Reese Witherspoon did in 2005 with Walk the Line.
“If I can’t fail in a big way, I’m usually not that excited,” Jewel says when asked about her performance being compared to Witherspoon’s take. “I guess I’m perversely fascinated with things that are difficult. I had my work cut out for me, but I loved having the chance to tell more about her—about her personality, her humor, her physical comedy. Just a fuller tale.”
This is of course, Lifetime, so as much as Ring of Fire tells the chronology of a musician’s life, there’s an equal, if not larger, focus on the story of a woman who stands by her flawed man. As Brian Lowry of Variety writes in his largely positive review, that narrative is “a Lifetime-movie staple.” Similarly, Jewel’s involvement with the network—which carries with its name a certain reputation of a certain kind of storytelling—is amusingly fitting. The singer’s own life story and path to superstardom is Lifetime-movie-ready on its own.
As has been repeated ad nauseum, Jewel was so hell-bent on living off her music that she quit her job in Alaska at age 18 and lived out of her van in California while struggling to book small music gigs. Then came the Hollywood fairy tale—getting discovered, recording an album, and becoming almost unfathomably famous. At first, Jewel giggles at the thought of her own life being adapted into its own Lifetime movie. But then she remembers how real that very notion nearly was.
“You know what’s funny? When I was about 22—I forget which—a movie studio sat me down and wanted to make a movie about my life, and I remember thinking, That’s a terrible idea. I’m only 22 years old,” she says. “I turned it down. Now looking back, I think that’s so hilarious. What person turns down a movie about their life? My God, what a ding dong.”
If Ring of Fire is any indication, that ding dong is back. And not a moment too soon.