You can't ask me that!' screams Jewel mockingly down the telephone. Not that anyone is trying to grill her about her private life or anything - the offending question was just a formulaic prod, a query about her favourite bit on her new release Spirit. 'It's a critic's job to decide what's the best,' she continues in a somewhat miffed manner. A surprising response from a singer who has been trying to promote positivity, and who put encouraging messages such as: 'We are loved beyond our ability to comprehend,' on a record sleeve. Maybe it is the frustration of having to explain her positivity 200 times a week to cynical press hounds; or maybe it is just out of embarrassed modesty. Or it may be because Spirit is so uniformly wholesome that it would be a crime to single out bits of it for appraisal. And compared with her debut - 1995's folksy Pieces of You - the new album is a more richly textured record, a collection of lusciously produced pop songs and stripped-down acoustic ditties. With support from a much more experienced team of musicians and producers, including long-time Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, Jewel has outgrown the simplicity Pieces Of You embodied as a virtue. After all, she was only 19 when she started recording it. 'I actually grew up and I got more comfortable with myself, my position, my mind and all kinds of things,' says Jewel, now 24. The lyrical twists she delivers on Spirit also show her maturity. Three years ago she pondered, with naivety, on songs like Who Will Save Your Soul or indulged in shallower waters with her platinum hit You Were Meant For Me. This time round the message comes across in a more confident style. 'I want to encourage people to be thoughtful and to be intelligently optimistic, instead of being cynical and blindly optimistic,' she says. 'Spirit is the whole human and not to deny any part of the human body, mind and spirit.' Jewel, who hails from Homer, Alaska, began her career performing small-town venues waiting to be discovered and could only afford to live in her car. Landing a deal with Atlantic Records saved her from that meagre hand-to-mouth existence living off food stamps. It is surprising to find her delivering so much positive vibe when her peer Alanis Morrisette - who had a comparatively easier ride to the top - decided to major in angst-ridden melodrama. 'I've been given a lot of hardship in my life, and it can either make you more bitter or more compassionate,' she explains. 'I know my life's been hard but there are many people that have things a lot harder, and I want to be useful, I want to help. 'If I stay compassionate, look at the problems and focus on the changes that are possible, it works better. It's hard to do but ultimately I think it's more powerful.' That is probably why she has held no grudges in her difficult climb to the top. 'It was a surprise really - I put out a record when I was 20 and I didn't become successful until I was 23. It gave me plenty of time to plan and get used to it . . . instead of [dealing with it] in the first five months or something.' That her mother, Nedra Carroll, provided unlimited support also helped in smoothing out the bitterness. Carroll, who also works as Jewel's manager, was on hand to provide spiritual and even musical support, lending her voice to the mother-daughter duet This Little Bird, an additional track tagged to the end of Spirit. Their bond extends to other projects. They formed the Higher Ground For Humanity, a non-profit foundation with a mission 'to support, inspire and empower new possibilities for humankind'. Among the projects supported by this foundation are the Centre for the Study of Consciousness - a group of American scientists studying the relationship between conscious thoughts and disease - and the development of an alternative health and healing clinic in the Indian capital New Delhi. Jewel's spiritual credentials do not end there: her first book of poetry - A Night Without Armour - hit the bookstores in May; a second book of prose and short stories is expected next July. Hugh Miller and Pablo Neruda are among the literary icons she admires. Writing lyrics and poems involve similar creative aesthetics, she said. 'It's just like ending up in the same place - it's just a different way of getting there,' she says. 'It was a first step; I enjoyed poetry and I want kids to know me from my own thoughts instead of depending on how other people in the press perceive me.' Acting has also become a part of her curriculum vitae, with her screen debut as an 18-year-old bride in Ang Lee's American Civil War drama, Ride With The Devil. However, with her next year-and-a-half tied up in another world tour, her other projects will have to take a back seat. The thought of such a tiring schedule, perhaps, sent Jewel into a lapse of intolerance once again. When asked about when her fans could expect a third helping of her material, she snapped: she had no idea at all. 'I write songs all the time,' she says. 'I never keep count.' At least she didn't scream.