With her hypnotic and darkly charged take on Americana, New York-based singer/songwriter Jessie Kilguss possesses a poet-like precision and power to tap into the strange wonder of everyday experience. A former actress inspired to make music after joining Marianne Faithfull in the Tom Waits musical The Black Rider in London and Sydney, Kilguss also reveals an uncommon ability to gracefully and boldly channel a whole spectrum of raw emotion. On her fourth album Devastate Me—a self-released effort and her first record written almost entirely on guitar—Kilguss offers up a stripped-down yet sensuous selection of songs both reflective and impassioned, intimate and refined.
To record Devastate Me, Kilguss and her band (guitarist Jason Loughlin, bassist John Kengla, and drummer Rob Heath) holed up for a week last December at Brooklyn studio Room 17. Produced by Joe Rogers (a composer/musician/producer who’s previously worked with such artists as Moby, The Shivers, and Denitia and Sene), the gorgeously atmospheric album features a host of songs that capture the many nuanced dimensions of longing (including the lush and lilting title track, the dreamy and slow-burning “You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and the seductively snarling, guitar-driven “I’m Your Prey”). Elsewhere on Devastate Me, Kilguss weaves her elegant lyricism into tracks like “Train Song” (a real-life story of fainting on the subway, on which Kilguss delivers haunting lines like “It’s a beautiful day to lose control/And leave this life for just a little while”) and “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” (a memory-soaked meditation on the simplicity of country life, whose imagery includes pony-drawn sleds, big starry skies, and “Running barefoot on the fresh cut grass/Sailing into summer on an endless laugh”).
Raised on a farm in Massachusetts, Kilguss got her start in acting, appearing alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible and later taking to England to perform in a touring production of As You Like It directed by Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall. Upon returning to the U.S and moving to New York, Kilguss began seeking another artistic outlet and soon started recording cover songs. “My producers encouraged me to write my own material, and I fell in love with songwriting,” she says. Naming Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Sam Phillips among her key songwriting inspirations, Kilguss partnered with production team Super Buddha ( aka Charlie Nieland and Barb Morrison who’s credits include Rufus Wainwright & Blondie) to create her 2007 debut Exotic Bird and its 2008 follow-up Nocturnal Drifter. And for her 2012 release The Sky Road, Kilguss journeyed to Ireland to work at the famed Grouse Lodge (a residential studio where artists like R.E.M., Muse, and Michael Jackson have also recorded).
Throughout Devastate Me, Kilguss’s songwriting proves infused with her lifelong infatuation with the written word. With its sultry twang, “Red Moon” pays homage to Federico García Lorca’s “Song of the Rider” and Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, while the hushed and gauzy “City Map” was born from Kilguss’s participation in the Bushwick Book Club (a musicians-only gathering in which each member writes a song inspired by that month’s book selection—in this case, Becky Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan). “I’ve always been very much drawn to words and the emotion that can come from them,” says Kilguss. “Writing’s been part of my life for a long time, even before I started making music, but I never knew what to do with the things I was coming up with,” she continues. “Now I turn them into songs, and the whole experience of that is so satisfying to me.”
In the fall of 2015, Jessie played the harmonium and sang harmony with Freddie Stevenson on songs from his record The Darkening/The Brightening, opening for the Waterboys on the European leg of their Modern Blues tour. She and her band also played a featured show at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.