Upon hearing Jewel Kilcher's bio, it is easy to believe that the young singer is the star of her very own fairy tale. When she was a kid, she used to wake up on the family's 800-acre homestead in Homer, Alaska, with frosty eyelashes because there was no heat. There was also no electricity or running water in the house.

In less than three years, Kilcher has gone from sleeping in a van in San Diego and eating only carrots and peanut butter to bouncing from one posh hotel suite to another, courtesy of Atlantic Records. Last February she released her debut album, "Pieces of You," which is now No. 5 on Billboard's Alternative New Artists chart, and she's on a nationwide tour that stops at the 9:30 club tonight.

In the past year she has opened for Liz Phair and Bob Dylan, been picked by Melissa Etheridge to perform a duet on VH-1, and starred as Dorothy in a benefit performance of "The Wizard of Oz" for the Children's Defense Fund that was broadcast on TNT. She's also been subjected to days of back-to-back interviews and promotional appearances, but you will hear no complaints from the 21-year-old.

"A day of long interviews and bad shows is better than one hour of waitressing," she says. "I feel blessed to be doing what I love."

By the time she was 6 years old, Kilcher was singing and yodeling professionally. Her parents were folk singers of Swiss descent who sang before supper instead of praying and earned money by touring Eskimo villages with their daughter in tow. They divorced when Kilcher was 8. She stayed with her father in Alaska until she won a $6,000 vocal scholarship to Interlochen Fine Arts Academy in Michigan. "There's always been a bird in me that's wanted to fly south. It just didn't know what south was," she says. Not having $11,000 to pay the rest of the two-year tuition, Kilcher raised the money through a benefit concert in Homer.

At Interlochen she began to take music seriously, studying up to 12 hours a day, learning to write music and teaching herself, at age 17, to play the guitar.

"It's amazing what happens when you focus your brain on something. I think the hardest part is figuring out what you want to do. Kids aren't asked what makes us happy, but rather how we're going to earn a living. So our passions become our hobbies."

Kilcher graduated from the high school knowing she loved music, but unsure of what to do with herself. She relocated to San Diego to be with her mother, but the two of them struggled to make rent.

"It was one of those things where you get bad job after bad job and you don't know what you want to do with yourself and you have the rest of your life to face consciousness. . . . Finally I just decided to move into my van and try to do something that I liked," she says, her smile giving way to a giggle, "and it worked!" Her 1979 Volkswagen van became her home.

Her mother, Nedra Carroll, says by phone from California, "It was my suggestion that we move into our respective vans and cut all this overhead. We would chose sites, park together, open our doors and have tea."

Kilcher landed a weekly gig at a coffeehouse called the Innerchange, and spent her time surfing and writing and practicing her songs. Within five months, at age 20, she had drawn the attention of music industry reps and snagged an album deal with Atlantic Records. "It was never even a goal to get a record deal, I just wanted to have food every day," she says.

What she got was "Pieces of You," produced by Ben Keith, who also did Neil Young's "Harvest" and "Harvest Moon." Half of the album was recorded at Young's Half Moon Bay ranch, and the other half live at the Innerchange. The album is much like Kilcher's personality, which is to say it invites intimacy.

Though a variety of critics have raved over her voice, which has been called everything from ethereal and crystalline to as close to heaven as you can get, her lyrics have been criticized for being just a little too sweet, a little too naive.

But she defends her work, saying "It's honest and {it's} got heart. I am happy with it because of that. I believe that if I sing to people from my heart, they will be moved in theirs."

Kilcher admits that the music is a little awkward, but attributes that more to technical difficulties rather than creative vision. "Right now, my hands haven't caught up with my head. They aren't there yet on the guitar playing. When I sing, I can see it. The sound has color to it and tension. Making music is a very visual process for me; it is almost like painting in my head. I just need to catch my hands up to that."

There is no disputing the affection of Kilcher's quickly growing audience. The fresh-faced singer from Alaska has even attracted the attention of one notorious actor-director. After hearing her on the Conan O'Brien show, she says, Sean Penn tracked her down in Alaska and asked her to write and perform a song for his movie "The Crossing Guard." Since then gossip columns from New York to Los Angeles have been buzzing about the twosome. When asked about the nature of the relationship, she bristles and declines to answer. But minutes later she is back to chatting about their collaborative efforts on her latest video, "You Were Meant for Me," which Penn directed.

The young woman who grew up eating beef tongue sandwiches and Eskimo ice cream made from blueberries, milk and snow is grateful for what she has. She sings simple songs about being sensitive and wanting to stay that way, and she tells her fans that she is having the best time. She's enjoying the story as the pages of her fairy tale turn. CAPTION: Singer Jewel Kilcher has had quite an odyssey for a girl from Homer, Alaska.