Jewel delivered an understated, yet powerful performance in Nashville Thursday afternoon (Sept. 10), when she previewed selections from her latest album, Picking Up the Pieces, for a small group of journalists.

The singer-songwriter is releasing the new project on Friday (Sept. 11), marking a return to the no-frills approach of her now-iconic 1995 debut, Pieces of You. She moved easily through a variety of styles and moods in her hour-long set, casually sharing stories from her life and career and breaking the serious mood by joking with those in attendance, warning everyone to "eat quietly" and wondering, "Why am I not drinking and having random sex?" after her much-publicized divorce.

"That would be easier" than what she has undertaken, she mused — namely, a staunchly un-commercial folk album and a searingly honest new memoir, Never Broken.

"I always knew I would do a record that had a similar spirit to my first one," Jewel tells Taste of Country after the performance. "Being mentored by Neil Young, seeing Harvest and Harvest Moon — you were allowed to do that. You were allowed to dip in and out of different styles and come back to certain styles. I always felt that was in my future; it became apparent that it was now. I almost did a standards record, but where I went in my life ... having my son made me really want to figure out if I was the woman that I wanted him to know, and what I needed to do and change in my life."

I always knew I would do a record that had a similar spirit to my first one.

Part of that process was to produce herself for the first time, which only happened after Paul Worley was unavailable. "He backed out last minute, saying that I was the only one who could do it," Jewel recalls. "I thought he was saying that as a cop-out because he wanted to go take another job. He said, 'You're gonna thank me one day,' and I ended up thanking him in the liner notes. He was right — I just needed a kick in the pants to do it."

Jewel chose to record the new material as organically as possible, eschewing vocal comps and multiple layers of tracks in favor of recording the instrumental bed tracks and vocals live in the studio, with minimal vocal harmonies as the only overdubs. She collaborated with Rodney Crowell on "It Doesn't Hurt Right Now" and brought Dolly Parton in for a duet on an autobiographical track titled "My Father's Daughter."

"As soon as she stepped into the vocal both, she said, 'Now honey, you don't be afraid to tell me what you need out of me,'" Jewel says, slipping into an endearing imitation of one of her own musical heroes. "'You just boss me around. And if you don't keep me honest, I brought someone that will.' She brought somebody with her that, if I wasn't gonna speak up if something didn't sound just right, he was gonna. It kind of empowered me to do that. But she's such a pro; she really doesn't need any guidance. I was just glad to be there along for the ride."

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Kip Moore also contributed to a song titled "Pretty Faced Fool," but the most surprising collaboration on the album is "The Shape of You," a song inspired by losing someone to cancer that Jewel co-wrote with David Lee and bro-country king Dallas Davidson, who's best-known for testosterone-laden hits like "That's My Kind of Night" and "Kick the Dust Up."

The song shows a very different side to Davidson's talents. "I don't think it would be a typical song that Dallas would write," she laughingly acknowledges, but the track is as strong as anything else on the collection.

Drawing on such diverse influences, the resulting album stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of contemporary releases, which is its greatest strength. But Jewel is aware that she's facing an uphill battle to make Picking up the Pieces into a commercial success.

"It feels like a risk. I took five years off. That's a big no-no," she admits. "I did it to build a family, and I lost a family. I have a son. I knew I couldn't go back to a major label, because I couldn't promote a record the way you need to at a major label, and I didn't want to waste their time or money. I knew as a mom, I was probably unwilling to do six months straight on the road at radio. So you make decisions, and they're tough decisions. I decided to make an indie record, and a folk record, and something that probably wouldn't be commercial," she adds with a laugh, "after taking five years off ... 'cause I am a glutton for punishment! But it's the only honest thing I knew how to do. My goal has always been to have a 40 or 50-year career of being a great singer-songwriter, and I think you do have an onus to make those types of decisions."

I couldn't go back to a major label, because I couldn't promote a record the way you need to at a major label.

She's not yet decided exactly how she'll structure touring to promote the album.

"I haven't had a band in 100 years," she says, "so maybe I'll take a band out. I do tend to tour solo acoustic. I was also thinking about doing a one-woman show that's based on the book, sort of more a theatrical thing that has music. I've acted in a couple of films, and I do a lot of stand-up in my shows, so I think it would be this amalgamation of drama, comedy and music, and I'd shape it in a way that fit a format of about an hour-and-a-half. I'd have to write it, so .... we'll see," she says with another laugh. "We'll see what I get up to here!"

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