As you have probably noticed over the years, there’s a considerable cadre of actors who want to be singers. No matter how much we beg them to stop. Jessie Kilguss, in a move you could deem as daunting as reversing the rotation of the earth, is actually doing the opposite. This trained thespian has just released her fourth disc, Devastate Me, and she doesn’t sound a thing like Scarlett Johanssen or Hayden Pannetiere. In fact, this is a finely-wrought, deep, dark valentine of a record, that with luck, will lure listeners who still believe in the well-crafted song. The actors union owes us a debt as big as the deficit. Just for, like, Eddie Murphy alone. With Kilguss, they’ve started that big repayment.
As for how this transformation started?
“I did this very unusual production of Tom Waits’s musical, Black Rider (in 2005), with Marianne Faithfull, who’s one of my favorites of all time. I just think she’s the coolest,” says Kilguss, who grew up in Massachusetts and now calls Brooklyn home. “But during that play, where I was an ensemble member and watching the amazing musicians in the band, really trigger something in me. First of all, Tom and Marianne were two of my favorite songwriters at the time. And I also watched the musicians in the play and they seemed to be having much more fun than the actors. Plus, I wanted to have more ownership of my creativity.”
This infatuation turned to true love. Kilguss returned to New York and started recording covers of others peoples‘ songs and her producers “pushed her” to write her own songs.
So aside from our fickle friend, the muse, we also have those folks in productio to thank. As good an actress as Kilguss may be (she also had a role in the film version of The Crucible), she hasn’t simply arrived with Devastate Me. She’s now clearly here. Singing a bit like the great Sandy Denny, Kilguss has, on the surface, a pretty voice, that is as soft and sweet as honey. But as you swallow it down, you notice it’s got shards of glass embedded in it. There’s a sharpness there. She talks in the title song, about “trying to atone,” and later, on Train Song about how it’s “A beautiful day to lose control” and on still another that, “I started at the top and I’m working my way down.” Along with co-writer and bass player, John Kengla, aided by clear, unfussy production by Joe Rogers, Kilguss has fashioned an album that both pleases the ear and leaves an uneasy feeling of loneliness, betrayal and trace elements of madness attached to almost every song. On the minor-key ‘Train’, Jason Loughlin even applies a guitar sound that not only approximates Neil Young’s ominous gloom, but gets all crazy and convoluted during his solo, just like Young. Almost every song has the sheen of still, lovely water. Then suddenly, while the listener is swimming in it, there’s a feeling that of a shark is circling just below your feet.
“I’d always, throughout my life, been a singer and was always writing something. And eventually, I just started to put those things together,” says the artist, who is both genuinely modest, while betraying the sound of a woman who knows where she’s going. She says at one point, quite ingenuously, “I love the process of writing songs. And I think I’m starting to get better at it.” Then, laughs.
Aside from us music lovers pulling an actor away from the Dark Side, there’s also the refreshingly unselfish approach to Kilguss’s ambitions.
Take a recent gig, where she made a fan of a legendary musician, strictly by serendipity.
Kilguss and a friend, not long ago, volunteered to play at a hospital. Aside from joking that “They were a captive audience, they couldn’t leave,” she ended up in the room where a visiting musician you may have heard of, gave the singer-songwriter a big brown thumbs-up.
“We went into this one room and this guy had some visitors. And one of them was all like, ‘Hey, we’re musicians, play something soulful.’ So we played some songs, including “Tennessee Waltz.” After we finished the song, my friend was asking these people who’d gathered, where we could hear them play. And one of the guys said, ‘Oh, Jazz At Lincoln Center. Give me your number, I’ll text you if you want tickets. My name is Wynton.’ My friend said, ‘Oh, like Wynton Marsalis.’ And the big guy in the hospital bed said, ‘That is Wynton Marsalis!’ I realized all of a sudden, my first time playing guitar in front of someone (Kilguss mostly sings) and it’s a nine time Grammy winner.”
Ultimately, Kilguss is going to get there. Wherever there is these days, with the infrastructure of the music industry basically broken. Not just because her songs are both literate, serene and unsettling, but because she’s in this art form for the right reasons.
“Basically, I love to create,” she says.”It’s awesome when I sell records and when I get paying gigs and things like that. But I don’t have a master plan. I was fortunate enough to go on a UK tour this year and I’m doing a West Coast tour next year. I’m starting to get paid more and more for music, which is awesome. But I don’t have any big plans for conquering the music industry.”
Kilguss’s words sound ingenuous. But judging from the strong songs on Devastate Me, don’t be surprised if world domination doesn’t end up happening anyway. The rules for ‘making it’ have now officially been changed in the music biz. And writing well, playing in hospitals and other unorthodox places are just as good a way to make it happen as any other. Lots of people try to make it by writing up a strategy, putting their heads down and charging. Who says that Jessie Kilguss’s way, just sort of backing in, can’t work? So far, it seems to be. And beautifully.