06/02/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Sitting in the Manhattan offices of her record label, Jewel launches mid-conversation into a sultry rendition of a jazz song she has conjured in her head, transporting the listener to a smoky 1940s nightclub. It doesn't matter that her outfit is straight out of the '80s: a pink Flashdance-style sweatshirt and low-slung belt over black pedal-pushers. At 29, the folky coffeehouse darling of the mid-'90s is out to defy expectations. On her fifth album, 0304—which she calls her "hip-hop-influenced folk record"—the acoustic guitar has been ditched for dancey electronica. It's a sign of the times. "Things are obviously not okay in the world," explains Jewel. "And I was starting to be drawn to music that made me feel good. I thought it would be a real mistake to make a pensive record." Her versatility, she says, won't shock fans who have seen her onstage: "I sing Italian arias, I yodel, I do Cole Porter songs a cappella."
Now her outfits are catching up. "As a kid she was always into costumes and dressing up," says Jewel's mother and manager, Nedra Carroll. A self-proclaimed "bizarre dresser" in the early days, when she was living out of a van in a San Diego parking lot, Jewel says she toned down her look when she made it big. So "if you think of Jewel, you probably think tank top and jeans," she says. "But every girl, at some point, wants to wear the most beautiful prom dress ever. I'm having fun. This is the first time I've played with my image."