By: Emily Stifler | Photos by: Michael Clark
Growing up without TV or electricity in Eureka, Montana encouraged Jessica Kilroy to be creative. She remembers running around in the woods with her brother Jason, “climbing trees and singing songs.” She’d play an old broken guitar, and he drummed on cardboard boxes.
In high school, Kilroy’s music teacher, Michael Atherton, was her inspiration. ‘Mr. A’ produced her first album, Before Dawn, in 2003. Often described as angelic, Kilroy’s singing voice has a maturity that resonates beyond her small frame. Having worked as a hotshot firefighter, wilderness therapy instructor, limo driver, snowmobile guide, and now a professional musician and songwriter, Kilroy’s strong spirit comes through in her music. In 2009 she was a finalist at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s songwriting competition. Kilroy describes Eureka as “small and tightly-knit.” Indeed—now she’s partnered with electronic artist, Kier Atherton, Mr. A’s son. Their band, Pterodactyl Plains, is made entirely of Eureka natives.
A cross of folk and electronica, the music is “cinematic and landscape oriented.” They’ve recorded two hypnotic, addicting albums, and toured across the U.S. and in Europe.
Listen to Jessica Kilroy/Pterodactyl Plains’ song “Clean:”
Listen to Jessica Kilroy/Pterodactyl Plains’ song “Right Here:”
How long have you been writing songs?
When I was 17, I started writing music. I wasn’t serious, I just loved it. In 2004, I met Skip Ewing (Grammy award winning singer/songwriter) at an open mic night in Jackson, Wyoming. He invited me to play at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. The Bluebird is a hole in the wall, but it’s famous—a lot of great songwriters were discovered there. That’s when I first considered songwriting as a career.
What was Nashville like?
I was pretty star-struck at first. I’m a country girl though, and it’s not my thing to live among millions of people trying to grovel to the top of the music industry. But I still go almost every year and co-write with country artists.
Your music has been changing.
Country, folk and bluegrass are very traditional, especially if you’re writing songs for other people and for radio. I wanted to get out of that box. Two years ago, Kier Atherton and I started collaborating. He takes roots instruments (like dulcimer and lupit) and loops it, mixing it with electronic music. His music has a lot of movement. With touring, I was always moving, so I started writing lyrics over his loops.
Did you go to school for music?
I took music classes at University of Montana, but it was too stuffy. I don’t know how to read music. I
do it all by ear. After a semester, the Dean told me, ‘You’re a fish out of water. Withdraw, or we’ll fail you.’ That kicked me in the pants. I went to school for three years, then got a job with the hotshots, fighting fire. I never finished my last semester.
Tell me about touring in Europe.
Kier and I went to Europe last spring. It was a whirlwind of 10 countries in three months. It was like a major scouting mission, based on shows, and a little bit of rock climbing in the Pyranees, in Spain, which was amazing. We’re going again this year.
How did you make connections there?
In 2007, a Greek man, Dimitris Lampos, heard my music on MySpace and emailed me. He was an accountant and
a folk musician. He was depressed, because nobody in Greece likes folk. I told him he should be a folk musician, even if it was hard. So, he quit his accounting job, made an album and had me sing on a song. It became a big hit in Greece. I also contacted a Belgian who’d found me on My Space. Turns out, he’s played my music on the radio and in the Belgian airlines for years. So, Greece and Belgium were our anchor points. Once we were there, we got more shows.
Here’s a video from Pterodactyl Plains first Europe tour:
Where did you learn to rock climb?
At Stone Hill, outside of Eureka, with my dad when I was four. That place is beautiful. I struggled when I was younger, because I had knee issues. I’ve had a bunch of surgeries.
Have you climbed recently?
Last fall, my brother Jason and I were on a mission to go climbing. We got stuck in a snowstorm outside of Driggs, Idaho, and had to sleep in the car. Then we got snowed out of Red Rocks, Nevada, and climbed in New Mexico and Cochise Stronghold, Arizona.
How was driving limos?
I was in a bluegrass band in Bozeman, the Tall Boys, for a little while. They all drove limousines, and they hooked me up a job driving for Classic Limo. People always thought I was a stripper when I’d roll up. It got awkward a couple of times.
Do you play music when you’re on the road climbing?
I play the ukulele. I wrote the song, Horizon, on the way to Yosemite.
You do everything by memory?
Lyrics I write down, but the music I remember. It’s all by feeling.
A finalist at Telluride – that’s big.
It’s ridiculous to compete with music, but it helps me get bigger theater shows. I played with Sam Bush on the main stage, which was awesome.
Do you play clubs in Europe?
Pterodactyl Plains plays clubs. It’s so different—very physical. We do a lot of percussive playing. I’ll be hitting the walls with sticks, jumping up and down.
Tell me about ‘In the Air’, Pterodactyl Plains’s new album.
We wrote it while we were touring. It’s about the constant movement of the musical life and how appreciative we are to have Montana as home.
Do you miss Montana when you’re gone?
Europe was awesome, but felt like I was constantly with millions of people in the street, on a bus, in the subway, on a train… I was going insane. When we got back I moved into a cabin in the woods.
What do you do when you visit Bozeman?
Cactus is my favorite place in the world to loiter. I love buying vinyl. I also visit Gibson Guitars.
What’s one of your favorite songs you’ve written?
‘Love don’t make mistakes’, a song about how hard it is to keep a relationship when you’re constantly traveling. When I wrote it, I was writing in Nashville, thinking of moving there, and working on a publishing deal. I couldn’t hold down a relationship. This song is about forgiveness and being OK with letting go.
“Love Don’t Make Mistakes” is on Kilroy’s forthcoming solo album “Cold.” Listen to the song here: ]
See more of Michael Clark’s photography at michaelclarkphoto.com