small-town Montana nurtured the indie-soul bassist’s musical identity | The music
Brian D’Ambrosio for the Missoulians
Music facilitated Jesse Phillips in the world.
And as one of the founding members of soul and experimental bands St. Paul and The Broken Bones, his musical identity grew stronger, largely influenced by a small town in western Montana just a few miles from the border. Canadian-American.
With a population of around 1,400, an isolated location like Eureka poses a set of challenges for music lovers; though these can hardly be considered insurmountable, as Phillips illustrates.
“There’s probably no reason to go through Eureka in the normal course of business,” Phillips said. “Eureka isn’t particularly close to anything — the last leg to Canada. So you really had to be motivated to seek out the kind of access to culture that wasn’t just around you. Being away from a major city, you didn’t even really have access to a music scene to speak of, an original music scene of any kind.
Phillips’ familiarity with musical traditions began at home. Born in Sydney, BC, Phillips’ father is from Fernie, BC, and his mother has roots in Eureka.
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Both parents were great music lovers and the instruments were accessible, encouraged: a guitar leaning against the chaise longue; a violin tilted on the kitchen counter; keyboards leaning against the living room wall.
“We always had tons of recorded music around. They were mostly into classic country, outlaw country. It hurt a little when I was young, but as I got older I learned to appreciate Outlaw Country a lot more, George Strait, and that kind of stuff.
The Phillips family eventually settled about 15 miles north of the Montana line – a small ranching community with nothing but a gas station and post office called Grasmere – before Jesse go to college and high school in Eureka.
“There was a small country school when I was growing up there in Grasmere which is now closed,” Phillips said.
For sixth grade, Phillips could have either attended junior high school in one of the largest cities in the province of British Columbia or chosen Eureka in the States.
“Eureka was actually closer to where my parents lived,” Phillips said.
Opportunities, Mentoring at Eureka
Phillips, a self-proclaimed “pretty dedicated band nerd,” started playing guitar when he was a freshman at Eureka High School. He played in various bands throughout his years there, fluid and amorphous setups depending on who graduated or not or where one of the contributor’s interests fell.
“There were opportunities here and there to play,” Phillips said. “Whether it’s the prom or the college dance… Once in a while they have a little street easel up there called Rendezvous Days, things like that… It was a classic example of DIY with a bunch of different things and concepts, keyboards, guitars, basses and other string instruments, some wind instruments and that sort of thing. I was in high school at the height of the grunge era. So it was pretty easy to sing popular Nirvana songs pretty quickly.
In addition to his parents, there were a number of other people he knew in the Eureka area who supported the arts, Phillips said. One of her most influential mentors was a public school music teacher named Michael Atherton, who taught her from sixth grade and through high school. Going far beyond music magazines, his parents’ recordings, and the occasional trip to the record store, Atherton deepened Phillips’ awareness of music’s scope, range, and sensibilities.
“I got it for everything,” Phillips said. “He gave lessons in harmony, choir and guitar. Over the years, I got more involved in music and more interested in music, and I was kind of inspired by his example. And I kind of decided initially to pursue that (teaching music) as a career path (because of Michael).
“A mentor in the pre-internet era was probably so important. Michael had grown up around DC, and had played music in New England, before moving west, and had played in a number of bands different, like folk-leaning bands. … He had been to Woodstock and seen Jimi Hendrix, and all of that was just unimaginable for someone growing up in a place as far away as Grasmere or Eureka.
moving south; become Saint Paul and the broken bones
Soon Phillips graduated and left Eureka to pursue music studies in New Orleans, where he struggled to concentrate in class when the dynamic and thrilling immediacy of live music surrounded him at Crescent City.
“In New Orleans, you can see some of the nastiest gamblers and musicians anywhere you enter, from the tourist-hedge bars on Bourbon Street, to a little dive further into a neighborhood, to the master jazz clubs.
Consequently, his real schooling was in clubs as much as on campus, although he did manage to earn a degree in music; he then decamped to Alabama in 2006, sold musical instruments in a Birmingham store and sought to mingle creatively with his peers.
“I was asked to be part of a band that needed a bassist for some kind of thing they were doing, even though I wasn’t really a self-identified bassist. The vocalist was Paul Janeway, who mainly sang in church and had exposure to church music. I think that was kind of the first secular band he was ever in. I became a more permanent member of that band , and we did a few recordings and stuff, but it never really came to fruition (and the band disbanded ) We sort of became best friends.
Phillips and Janeway bonded closely around music and culture; Paul’s silky voice had a power and beauty that Jesse greatly admired. There was a strong old gospel feel woven into it. They wrote and arranged songs and recorded a bunch of them “for fun,” Phillips said.
“And we ended up doing a four-song EP called St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and we finished that in 2012.”
Letting Things Fly: Blossoming Art and “The Alien Coast”
Since then, the band’s artistry has blossomed, and interest in their eight-piece soul band has also blossomed. Janeway sings with startling gospel fervor, and the dynamic backing of Phillips and her bandmates transforms the usual rhythm and blues numbers into a series of definitive fantasy adventures. Recent material is much more bluesy than the original pop efforts, with Janeway more willing to gamble on her own funky style.
In terms of glaring milestones, one of the most surprisingly memorable happened after the band played their set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California in 2015.
“This guy walks up to Paul and says something like ‘hey man, I really like what you’re doing. “How would you feel about opening for the Rolling Stones?” Our attitude was, ‘yes, sure, give us a call, and we’ll see if we can make that happen.’ But the guy happened to be touring the Stones, and we got this call. The first two shows were in Atlanta and Buffalo in 2015, and the other in Chicago in 2019. Very etched in my memory!
Reflecting on the entity’s latest release, “The Alien Coast,” Phillips acknowledges that the guys aren’t afraid to get weird, change their mood, shake up their themes, or just be experimental.
“It’s not fun to repeat yourself over and over again,” Phillips said. “Our band has grown in size and there’s a lot of musical tastes and abilities in the band, and I think we were really interested in exploring that on ‘The Alien Coast’. Rather than trying to force the songs to fit into a specific aesthetic that felt more like what we had done on other previous records, we were ready to let things fly this time, and see where they would land, and where they would feel. good.”
Indeed, it’s all good for Phillips right now, who despite being free to settle down or run away wherever his temptations or impulses take him, has finally returned to Montana and made Missoula his house in 2019.
“You take everything for granted when you grow up,” Phillips said. “Missoula is big enough for me to have access to all the things in town that I love and need, but small enough to be very navigable. When I get off the plane in Montana, I immediately feel like a calmer, less anxious and more at peace person.There is simply no substitute for that.
Brian D’Ambrosio is a journalist and certified private investigator. Her next book, “Montana Eccentrics,” will be out in the spring. He can be reached at [email protected]