It looked like a usual music class in UNC Greensboro’s Tew Recital Hall. Three music students seated on stage, each performing original work as their peers and professor listened. But for this class, a different professor was listening – Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jewel.
“I don’t often get to critique or talk about people’s creative processes, so it was fun,” said Jewel, in an interview with UNCG News following the masterclass. “They were all really talented, so it was easy. It’s such a courageous thing to get up in front of people and try to bare your heart. That’s a really difficult thing to do, so it was lovely to see.”
AN ARTIST’S INTUITION
Ahead of her University Concert and Lecture Series performance at the UNCG Auditorium on January 12, Jewel led a masterclass with students from the School of Music. She heard songs from three students in the bachelor of music – popular music and technology program (PopTech): James Luca Pestena, Kaitlyn Tracy, and James Davis.
“It was the first time I’d ever sung an original song, and it was in a very different tone than I’ve performed with vocally,” said second-year James Luca Pestena, who performed his song “Blue Nichirin (Purifier).” “It was exciting to have this opportunity. I loved talking to her.”
Pestana’s brother created the track for the song and Luca wrote the lyrics: “I see how the track makes me feel and this one made me feel calm, so I went with a relaxed and smooth vocal tone. I decided to write about a distance relationship where you don’t have the means to see each other, so all you can do is imagine how It would feel being together.”
Jewel encouraged Pestana to use the stage more when performing and complimented his higher vocal register – something she says took training for her to master.
“I did get to study classical music for a couple of years, which was really helpful,” she said. “It changed what I was doing with my voice and (introduced) a register that I never even explored before, like my high falsetto and vibrato. Incorporating high falsetto into my music wasn’t something I would ever have done.”
Jewel’s musical training happened both in and outside of the classroom. Growing up on an Alaskan homestead, she learned to yodel from her father and began singing in bars when she was five years old: “Bar singing keeps you really honest, drunks are brutal. But if you keep them entertained and engaged, you learn a lot,” she said.
It was Jewel’s comments on captivating an audience as a performer that stuck with second-year Kaitlyn Tracy, who performed her original song “Half of Me.” She wrote the song specifically for the Jewel masterclass, wanting it to represent her in the present as a songwriter.
“It was absolutely the most nervous I’ve ever been performing,” Tracy said. “I love doing what I do, performing for people, writing music, and this was something I really care about and wanted to do well with. It was awesome and I would love to do it again.”
Being in the present is something Jewel can relate to. Her most recent album, “Freewheelin’ Woman” was released in 2022 and is the first she’s written completely from scratch, as opposed to turning to her back catalog of songs.
“I’m a grown (…) woman and I love where I’m at. I love who I am. I fought for who I am. I fought for the privilege of being a single woman and making a living on words and my heart,” she said. “So, I wanted to have that fully embodied in this album, not have songs that I wrote when I was 19, 25, or 32. So that was fun for me.”
Music is a thing that doesn’t need permission to enter people’s hearts and soulsJewel, in an interview with UNCG News
As a teenager, Jewel moved out on her own and was homeless for a time, performing on the street and in coffee houses. In 1995, she released her debut album “Pieces of You” which went on to become one of the best-selling debut albums of all time. In her “New York Times” best selling memoir “Never Broken,” she credits the success of one of the album’s singles “You Were Meant For Me” to college radio and the touring she did of college campuses.
“I never know what people get out of me,” Jewel said. “It’s such a personal thing. I love that. Music is a thing that doesn’t need permission to enter peoples’ hearts and souls. I’ve always thought it was incredible. People get such unique and personal things out of a single performance.”
YOUR HANDS ARE YOUR OWN
In her memoir, Jewel says the best advice she can give any young artist is “to never assume someone knows more than you do about your talent, desire, and creativity (…) “An artist’s most valuable asset is individuality.” Following the masterclass, she also noted that knowing the music business is crucial for any aspiring artist.
“The only way to protect your art is to know the business,” advised Jewel. “Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how talented you are because the business is the structure we’re working in. I’ve seen a lot of great musicians fail when they didn’t get to know the business good enough.”
Second-year James Davis originally wanted to study classical performance at UNCG, but soon found the PopTech program was exactly the right fit. He performed his original song, “The Lovers,” for the first time.
“It was nerve-wracking, but fun, to have a person of this magnitude right in front of me as I’m singing to her,” said Davis.
The singer-songwriter told Davis he could work on writing more imagery into his lyrics. She noted the uniqueness in the narrative of his song, sung from the perspective of a same-sex relationship.
“I wrote the song with my friend a few months ago and it was a very organic experience. Writing it was easy,” Davis said. “I want to go around the world and show people my music and really inspire people. I want to be the person that I did not see growing up, as a Black and queer person.”
I have hundreds of songs in my head and from when I’m side stage to when I’m walking out, I’m feeling the audience. You can feel where people are.Jewel, on her ability to not use set lists during her shows.
For many, Jewel’s music has inspired them and spread a message of individuality, positivity, and empathy. She has been a long-time advocate of something important to the UNCG community as well: mental wellbeing. More than 20 years ago, she started the Inspiring Children Foundation and in 2023, she launched Innerworld, which makes mental health resources available through an online virtual world.
“When you make your happiness the (…) most important thing, your life really changes,” she said. “My career was never more important to me than my ability to be happy. Happy is a weird word because it’s a side effect of choices. So, if you want to learn how to be happy, you have to actually examine your choices and what’s motivating them. That’s a lot of work. But for me, I made that my number one job. My second job was learning to be a musician and a songwriter.”
When you’re so yourself and you do something only you can do that nobody else does, it ends up being interesting to peopleJewel, in an interview with UNCG News
Her sophomore album “Spirit” is now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Looking back, she remembers the pressure of a follow-up album but also making an effort to focus on happiness and not the pressure.
“What makes me happy is experimentation. I like changing. I like growing up. It may not be the best business plan, but you have to do what makes you the happiest and thrive as an artist.”
That experimentation came out on the album through songs like “Hands” – one of her most well-known.
“’Hands’ was unlike anything I’d written before,” she said. “It was unlike anything on the radio. It was a really strange thing to say this annulment (in the song): ‘kindness matters.’ It was a weird thing to write, but that’s the amazing thing about music. When you’re so yourself and you do something only you can do that nobody else does, it ends up being interesting to people.”
Story by Avery Craine Powell, University Communications
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications
Jewel performance photography by Mike Micchiche