You have so many things to ask, when you interview an artist like Jessie Kilguss! The New York City-based indie-pop/folk songstress, who currently also sings with The Gramercy Arms, Jim Andralis and the Syntonics and Benjamin Cartel, released some months ago her latest full-length album, “What Do Whales Dream About at Night”, and she recently honored Kate Bush with her cover of “Wuthering Heights”. So, Myth of Rock tried and managed to come in contact with Jessie, who gave her really interesting answers to Dimitris Zacharopoulos’ questions.
Jessie, you were an actress who made the switch to songwriting and singing. Why and how did this switch happen?
Yes, I used to be an actor. I went to college and then graduate school (drama school in London) for acting. I was in one movie - The Crucible with Daniel Day Lewis and Winona Ryder. I worked in England in the theater when I got out of drama school including a UK/US tour of As You Like It directed by Sir Peter Hall and The Black Rider which starred Marianne Faithfull and Mary Margaret O’Hara, was written by Tom Waits and William Burroughs and was directed by Robert Wilson. I was only an ensemble member/understudy in this play but it had a big effect on me. At the time, I was a huge fan of all those artists I just listed. It was one of those times when life presents you with a little magic.
I’d always been a singer and this experience got me dreaming about writing my own music one day. It seemed to me that there was more creative agency in songwriting than in being an actor.
That was all a long time ago. I quit acting about 15 years ago and have been writing and performing my own music since then. I’m really enjoying performing music live again, now that that’s possible again.
Tell us about discography until now in a few words.
I’ve now been writing, recording and performing music for 15 years. I feel like my most recent album, What Do Whales Dream About at Night is the most “me” of any of them. It captures my personality the most. I also feel that it conveys my voice and vision the best of any of my previous releases. I was one of the producers of this album so that’s one reason for that to be the case.
My previous releases are Exotic Bird (2007), Nocturnal Drifter (2009), The Sky Road (2011), Devastate Me (2014), The Fastness (2018) and then What Do Whales Dream About at Night (2022).
Some months ago you released your latest album, “What Do Whales Dream About at Night?”. How do you feel about this album now? What would you change to this new album now, if you had the opportunity? Are you satisfied with the response of the media and the fans?
I’m actually happy with the album and I wouldn’t change anything! That feels good to say. I worked really hard on it and made a lot of tweaks before I released it.
And yes, I’m really happy with how people responded. As I mentioned, I feel like this album is the most authentically me of any of my releases. It’s been nice to have it well-received.
I allowed myself to be weirder maybe than some of my other albums, to incorporate my sense of humor and a touch of the surreal. It’s nice that people seem to have responded positively to that.
You recently released your cover to Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”. Why did you decide to cover this song? Which was your attitude towards the original?
I’m a big fan of Kate Bush. It’s been nice to see her have this renewed moment thanks to the tv show Stranger Things(also a fan of this). I’ve been covering Wuthering Heights live for several years. It’s a fantastic song (and book!) – so dramatic and emotional. It’s really fun to sing.
I thought to record it this past summer as people had been really responding to it at live shows.
I love the original version. It’s magnificent. I wanted to create my own version though and think I accomplished that.
How would you describe your musical style?
I’ve been described as a storyteller a lot lately. I like that. I’m trying to do that through song. I think indie folk applies to me. Sometimes surreal or magical realism-infused indie folk, americana, singer/songwriter, alt-country. I think all of these terms could potentially apply.
Do you also write the lyrics of your songs? Which are your favorite topics?
Yes, I write all the lyrics. It’s my favorite part, I suppose. I’m drawn to all topics that ignite my imagination. They can vary. On my most recent album though there definitely seems to be a large sea mammal/animal theme.
I also often use books as inspiration for new songs – as a jumping-off point. I just finished reading the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante. I’m really inspired by those books right now and hoping to at least write one song inspired by them.
Your music is emotional and atmospheric. How would you describe the atmosphere and the feeling of your songs?
Ideally the atmosphere and emotional tone of each song is unique. I think there’s an underlying element of mystery and intrigue that I like to cultivate. It excites me.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I’m in the process of writing a bunch of new songs now. I’m also playing live on a regular basis and trying out new material. Once I have a new collection of songs I love, I will record again. This could take some time. I’m not in a rush. I want to make sure I’m happy with the songs before I record them.
I’m also producing and performing in a tribute to one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Sinéad O’Connor on May 3rd at Sid Gold’s Request Room in NYC. I was inspired to do this after watching the recent fantastic documentary about her, Nothing Compares, directed by Kathryn Ferguson. I was reminded just how much her music has meant to me for a long time. Her album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is one of my all-time favorites.
At the show on May 3rd, we’ll be celebrating this album and a couple other gems written by Sinéad. I’ll be singing a couple of the songs and have asked several other singers to help me sing the rest of them including Rembert Block, Lizzie Edwards, Patricia Santos, Sam Brown, Wendy Ip, Joanna Choy, Erica Smith, Verena Wiesendanger and Renée LoBue.
I also really recommend Sinéad O’Connor’s book.
How did the pandemic affect you?
I think I’ve kind of blocked it out at this point and prioritized moving forward. It was a strange but productive time. I recorded my most recent record right as lockdown started to lift.
I really missed performing live and am so happy that’s possible again.
I performed a few virtual shows during the pandemic but they were really unsatisfying. I missed the energetic exchange with a live audience.
What do you think about the war against Ukraine?
I think it’s an atrocity. I think it needs to end. My heart goes out to the people of Ukraine.
The title track of my most recent record was inspired by the poem Headphones by Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan. The poem is basically about a man, a poet, during the previous war in Ukraine, who puts on his headphones and listens to “golden oldies” to block out the horrors he sees all around him. There’s a line in poem, “think about whales in the ocean at night.” That inspired my song What Do Whales Dream About at Night.
If you had a time machine, to which time period would you travel?
Well, I just visited Rome. It would be pretty cool to see the Roman Forum before it became a ruin. So when was that? 800BC? I’m not sure what living conditions were like back then though, especially for women, so maybe I would like to visit and also have the superpower of invisibility so I could check it out without being fed to lions in the Colosseum.
You are also a member of Gramercy Arms. How does it feel, singing for this band?
This band is made up entirely of my friends so it feels great to sing with them. The band has become a social group. Dave Derby (GA’s founder and songwriter) is an incredible songwriter and also really great at bringing talented and fun people together. During the pandemic, we had a weekly Zoom happy hour on Friday nights for about 2 years.
Please tell us about Musicambia!
Musicambia is very important to me. It’s an incredible nonprofit, founded by my friend, violist/composer Nathan Schram, that brings free music education into prisons and jails throughout the US. The aim is to build music schools inside each facility where we work. I just stepped down as Executive Director and have now joined the board of directors. I’ve been involved with Musicambia for the past 6 years.
Music is healing and vital for everyone. I would venture that there is nowhere where music is more important and transcendent than inside the harsh, abusive environment of prisons. Musicambia does an amazing job of fostering music communities inside prisons and providing incarcerated people with opportunities to build musical skills that translate into life skills such as self-esteem, self-expression and effective communication, in a supportive environment. You can find out more and make a donation at www.musicambia.org.
Send a message to the fans!
Thank you so much for supporting my music! Please feel free to reach out. I’d love to hear from you.