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Jewel on dating Sean Penn, her new album and how she 'almost died' when homeless

It's been 20 years since Jewel, then a fresh-faced Alaskan barely out of her teens, released the album that would change her life forever, "Pieces of You," her one-way ticket out of the cycle of poverty she'd known all her life.

The singer reflected on her past in an interview with TODAY.com, explaining how it helped shape her new album and memoir, and her life as a mom to 4-year-old son Kase with rodeo star Ty Murray, whom she divorced last year.

"I didn't have the kind of childhood I wanted to repeat," said Jewel, now 41. "I think it made me a more thoughtful, conscious parent."

ReThink Housing
Jewel at the premiere of her new film, 'Our Journey Home," Thursday in New York

Her new album, "Picking Up the Pieces," is a nod to her debut, and includes some songs she wrote when she was a teenager. "With what I was going through in my divorce and everything else, I wanted to strip away all the structure and get back to the heart and essence of myself as a singer-songwriter," she said. "It was like time travel, having a conversation with my 18-year-old self."

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Jewel has been open about her struggles — from emotional and physical abuse at the hand of her father, to being broke and homeless, and living out of her car. That happened after she turned down a boss' sexual advances and lost her job, she said.

"For me, the hardest thing was being treated as if I was sub-human — as if I didn't matter," she said. "I remember washing my hair at a bathroom sink in a Denny's, and I was using the hand towels to dry my hair. And people looked at me like I was absolutely disgusting. I wanted to yell at them and say, 'I'm human! I may not have a house, but I matter!'"

AP file
Jewel performed on the final day of Woodstock back in July of 1999, in Rome, New York.

Her personal experience led to her work with ReThink, an organization dedicated to changing perception about public housing and homelessness, a cause close to Jewel's heart.

"I know firsthand what it's like to not have a stable environment to grow up in," she said. "You can have very hardworking parents, or a single parent working very hard, and still not be making ends meet. These aren't lazy people."

She narrated ReThink's new documentary "Our Journey Home," which premiered in New York Oct. 8 and tells the stories of three families who sought help through public housing.

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"There are stigmas that these people are lazy, or don't work, or do drugs," Jewel said. "These are hardworking families, and I think that's something the film does a good job highlighting."

She told her own stories to illustrate how homelessness spirals into other problems.

ReThink Housing
Jewel spoke to the audience after the premiere of ReThink documentary, 'Our Journey Home.'

"I almost died in an emergency room because they didn't see me because I didn't have [health] insurance," Jewel said. "Thankfully, a doctor had seen me get turned away. I was dying of lead poisoning and he gave me some antibiotics and saved my life. But then, the car I was living in got stolen. And when you don't have a physical address, much less of an education, it's very, very difficult to get a job and break that poverty cycle."

While Jewel has long been open about her hardships, she's even more forthcoming in her new memoir, "Never Broken," which includes some details that surprised readers — like her romance with Sean Penn.

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"I had a wonderful time with Sean and he was really lovely to me during a critical time in my life," she told TODAY.com of the relationship. "Nothing but fond memories."

And for Jewel, being honest is just part of the job: "I do believe that you have to be very transparent in your artwork if you're going to do something like this," she said. "I don't want anyone thinking happiness is beyond their reach because they don't have the right job or economic background, or a home. I don't mind being honest."

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