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Music

Jesse Phillips’ Soulful Upbringing

The bassist for St. Paul and The Broken Bones looks back at how growing up in the wilds of Montana shaped his musical worldview

By Brian D’Ambrosio
Musician Jesse Phillips at his home studio in Missoula. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Music has been a part of Jesse Phillips’ life since the beginning. 

Phillips is one of the founding members of the soulful and experimental St. Paul and The Broken Bones, a Birmingham, Alabama-based eight-piece band that has put out four albums and two EPs over the last 10 years, all the while touring both domestically and internationally. But while Phillips’ music is inspired by the sounds of the South, it is rooted in his hometown some 2,200 miles away in Eureka, just south of the Canadian border. 

“There’s probably no reason to pass through Eureka during the course of normal affairs,” Phillips said recently. “Eureka is not particularly close to anything — it’s the last stop to Canada. And being nowhere near a big city, you didn’t even really have access to a music scene to speak of.”

Phillips’ love of music began at home. He was born in Sydney, B.C., on the south end of Vancouver Island, but his parents hailed from the Kootenay Region in the southeast part of the province. Both parents were avid music aficionados and instruments were accessible throughout the house: a guitar propped against the chaise lounge; a fiddle slanted on the kitchen countertop; keyboards pressed against the living room wall.

“(My parents) were mostly into classic country or outlaw country and I kind of resented it when I was young,” Phillips said, “but as I got older, I learned to appreciate it a lot more.”

The Phillips family eventually moved back to the Kootenay and settled about 15 miles north of the Montana line in a small ranching community called Grasmere. The move happened right before Phillips went to junior high and while he could have gone to school in Fernie, B.C., Eureka was actually closer. That decision turned out to be a fateful one in the young man’s journey to becoming a professional musician. 

Jesse Phillips plays at the 1997 Lincoln County High School prom with his band mates Zach Mote, Jessica Kilroy, and Joe Bourassa. Photo by Tobacco Valley News/Larry Cheek.

Phillips, a self-described “band nerd,” started playing the guitar when he was a freshman at Eureka High School. He played in various bands throughout his years there.

“There were opportunities here and there to play,” Phillips said. “Whether it was the junior prom or the junior high dance.”

In addition to his parents, the Eureka area was home to other people who were supportive of the arts, Phillips said. One of his most influential mentors was a public school music instructor named Michael Atherton, who taught Phillips beginning in sixth grade and all throughout high school. Atherton helped him develop far beyond what he was able to glean from music magazines, his parents’ recordings, and the occasional trip to the record store. Atherton deepened Phillips’ awareness of the scope, range and sensibilities of music. Because of Atherton, Phillips briefly considered pursuing music teaching as a career. 

“He had been to Woodstock and had seen Jimi Hendrix,” Phillips said. “All of it was just patently unimaginable for somebody growing up in a place as remote as Grasmere or Eureka.”

Musician Jesse Phillips at his home studio in Missoula. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Phillips graduated and left Eureka to pursue a degree in music in New Orleans. But he found it tough to focus on schoolwork in a city known for its music scene. 

“In New Orleans, you can see some of the most badass players and musicians in any venue you walk into, from tourist bars on Bourbon Street to little dive bars tucked back in some neighborhood, all the way to the masters at jazz clubs,” he said. 

Consequently, his true schooling took place in the clubs as much as it did on the campus, though he managed to graduate with a music degree. He then headed to Alabama in 2006, sold musical instruments at a store in Birmingham, and sought to mesh creatively with his peers. It was there he met singer Paul Janeway and started playing bass with a band Janeway was in. That band eventually fizzled out, but Phillips and Janeway remained friends. Paul’s silky-edged voice had a power and beauty that Jesse greatly admired. So, they started writing songs and recorded a few of them for fun. In 2012, they released a four-song EP under the name “St. Paul and the Broken Bones.”

Since then, the group has blossomed. Janeway sings with surprising gospel fervor and the rollicking support from Phillips and his bandmates transforms customary rhythm-and-blues numbers into a string of fantasy adventures. Recent material is much bluesier than the original pop efforts, with Janeway more willing to gamble on his own funky style.

Jesse Phillips, far right, in the early 2010s with other Lincoln County creatives, from left to right, Chance Cole, Jesse Netzloff, David Schaffer, Kier Atherton, and Michael Atherton. Photo courtesy of Jessica Røki Kilroy.
Musician Jesse Phillips and his cat. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

One of the band’s biggest milestones came in 2015 when they were asked to open for the Rolling Stones. Phillips said the opportunity came after a set at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California that year when one of the Rolling Stones’ tour organizers came up to them and said he liked what they did. They would end up opening for the Stones twice in 2015 and again in 2019. 

Reflecting on the band’s newest release, “The Alien Coast,” Phillips acknowledges that the guys are not afraid to get weird, change moods, 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 scope and there are a lot of musical tastes and abilities in the band, and I think we were just really interested in exploring that on ‘The Alien Coast.’ Rather than trying to force the songs to fit into a specific aesthetic that was more akin to what we’ve done on other previous records, we were willing to let things fly this time, and to see where they would land, and where they would feel good.”

At the moment, it all feels good to Phillips, who eventually returned to Montana and made Missoula his home in 2019.

“You take everything for granted when you’re growing up,” Phillips said. “Missoula is big enough that I have access to all the sort of city things that I like and need, but small enough to be very navigable. When I get off the airplane in Montana, I immediately feel calmer, less anxious, and more at peace. There’s just no substitute for that.”

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