05/06/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
DON'T TELL SINGER JEWEL KILCHER about grunge. She lives it. True, the ethereal vocals and delicate folk melodies on her debut album, Pieces of You (now making its way up the Billboard 200), are more wholesome than Hole-some. But judging by her threadbare, one-bedroom San Diego flat, Martha Stewart living isn't a priority. "I'm trying to be realistic," says Kilcher, 21. "What's happening to me now could end tomorrow, and I'd be back where I was."
Kilcher might not have Alaska in mind, but that's where she was born and raised, on an 800-acre farm near Homer (pop. 4,133). The second of three children, she was 5 when she began singing Alaskan folk songs and yo-deling—she is of Swiss descent—in clubs with her parents, Atz Kilcher and Nedra Carroll. The trio disbanded in 1982 when Atz and Nedra divorced. "I don't recall Jewel ever being daunted by a crowd," says Carroll, now her daughter's manager. "She loves people."
Dyslexic, Kilcher drifted in school until 10th grade when she won a scholarship to Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy. There she learned to write music and play guitar, and decided to try singing as a career. Graduating in '93, she joined her mother in San Diego, where money was so tight they wound up living in a pair of used vans. Still, says Kilcher, "van life was simple."
In 1994, an Atlantic Records executive saw her act at the Inner Change coffeehouse and signed her to a contract. Since then she has starred as Dorothy in a New York City benefit performance of The Wizard of Oz—with Nathan Lane and Natalie Cole—and written a song for The Crossing Guard, directed by Sean Penn, with whom she has been romantically linked (she's mum on the subject). But her move to sub-splendor hasn't gone to Kilcher's head. "I'm determined," she says, "to learn the process of fame and act human at the same time."