Jewel

What Project Runway did for fashion and Top Chef for food, Bravo's Platinum Hit (premiering Monday, 10/9c) does for music. In this case, the tried-and-true template of contestants rushing to jump through hoops for the sake of their aspirations feels even more immediate: unlike clothes you can't wear and touch or food you can't taste and smell, you can hear loud and clear the tunes these competing songwriters drum up per the show's challenges. What you hear is what you get, just as you're supposed to.

We spoke with the show's host Jewel, who also serves as judge alongside American Idol alum Kara DioGuardi. The singer-songwriter discusses mentoring 12 contestants who want to do what she does, why what looks like a reality TV contrivance reflects the actual world of songwriting and whether she'd be able to take part in such a show when she was just starting out almost 20 years ago.

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I wasn't sure how songwriting would make for compelling television, but then when I saw the string of people sharing the hooks they just wrote, one after another, it really made sense. This show caters to short-attention-span culture.
Jewel: I love Bravo shows. That's one of the reasons I signed onto do this — that and I love songwriting. Bravo will take a show about cooking, which you can't smell or taste [by watching] and make it interesting because they show you about the process or what it takes to be great at it. I'm also passionate about Platinum Hit because there's no school for songwriters. You have to just learn the ropes on your own. If you're lucky, you'll get mentored. I was lucky to be mentored by my heroes: Bob Dylan took me under his wing when I was 20, and Neil Young after that. They really schooled me and were kind of hard on me. They told me what they thought I should and shouldn't be caring about in no uncertain terms. Those things are invaluable.

It's really interesting that you're a veteran basically mentoring newcomers and yet your paths are all crossing on reality TV.
Jewel: It's a different world, but I'm all for it. I think the show's authentic and it shows a real process. There's so much natural drama because you have people having to write about their lives. They have to bring something real or it just doesn't resonate. You see them struggle with that, so there's nothing cheap about the show.

At the same time, the challenges do seem to impose unrealistic drama. In the first episode, the contestants have to write a hook in 30 minutes. When would they ever have to do that in real life?
Jewel: It's very realistic. Every challenge we put these kids through we tried to fashion after real experiences that Kara and I lived through as professional writers. You'll have an A&R guy come to you and say, "I need a song for Ke$ha tomorrow and it can't be about clubs. She doesn't want to talk about clubs anymore." I'm making this up, but you'll be given very specific instructions. You call up your co-writer and say, "I just got offered the Ke$ha single," for which there are 30 other writers all over the world competing, by the way. After picking your co-writer you'll have maybe three hours to finish the entire song. If you don't have a good hook within 20 minutes, you have to move on. That's what being a professional songwriter's about: knowing your craft well enough so you can get in there and deliver on a dime. It might be Ke$ha one day and Carrie Underwood the next.

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I really thought that was just reality TV contrivance.
Jewel: And then you have to present it in a satisfying way, because sadly a lot of these A&R agents don't have very good ears anymore. They can't hear a single in a guitar/vocal track if it's for an R&B artist. They just don't have that talent to hear how it'll change. You have to deliver it like a hit — it pretty much has to sound like who you're writing it for. Those are things we challenged these writers [on the show] to do. It's a tough business with a lot of pressure, but it's a really exciting business with tremendous gain. You can earn millions of dollars by having a hit pop or country single.

The show forces you to evaluate these people on sight. Are you a natural critic?
Jewel: If there's a hit on the radio, something about it works. I love dissecting songs, even if it's a song I'm not crazy about like [Far East Movement's] "Like a G6." It's too repetitive — I like songs that change instead of have the same two sections repeat over and over. But you can't deny that the sound and the "slizzered" are aspects of that that make it a hit. It's not my job to write it off and go, "That's not my kind of song." It's my job to listen and go, "Why is this a hit?"

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Would you have been able to compete in a show like this when you were just starting out?
Jewel: I don't know. I was a hillbilly.

That sounds like great TV!
Jewel: I guess. I've always been a bit raw. I was so ignorant when I was discovered. I was homeless. People always think I was living in my car for my music, but I wasn't. I just ended up destitute and homeless for a year and I started singing because that's what I did with my dad growing up. I had no stars in my eyes. I did not think I was going to get signed. I was trying to make cash. I didn't know this world of songwriters existed, so when labels did discover me and started visiting the coffee shop I was in, I put them on hold. That's a bizarre thing for a homeless kid to do, but I was very scared of being famous. I didn't think I had the personality for it. Had I known there was a place you could just be a songwriter and not be famous, I probably would have jumped at the opportunity.

It's interesting that you were apprehensive about fame from the start. It usually takes experience for people to grow wary of it. What are your thoughts on fame today, having attained it?
Jewel: The adjustment was tough for me. I can't say I did it in the most graceful way, but I did it as authentically as I could. And then that first record [her 1995 album Pieces of You] was so successful that it bought me a lot of freedom. Instead of feeling like I had to follow it up with a big hit, shockingly in a matter of years I was rich enough to never need a hit again. I knew if I was smart with my money, I could write whatever the hell I wanted. [Laughs] That's what I've done!

No regrets at all?
Jewel: I've been able to make it the way I wanted it. I've taken years off between albums, which is extremely unadvisable. I've tried to always be authentic and live a life I could handle, and if it got too hard for me, I quit or stepped back. Then I made records when I felt like I could again. I'm sure it was bad for my career in a million ways, and I lost money in a million ways, but it's been a life I could handle. I didn't end up a drug addict somewhere, so that's good.