After 43 Years, Mossy Kilcher’s Folk Songs for Alaska Get a Second Life


In her first memory, Mossy Kilcher, then 3 years old, is standing on a windswept Alaskan beach in 1945, holding her father’s hand as thundering waves crash at their feet. Surrounded by rugged cliffs and the seemingly endless expanse of Kachemak Bay, she realizes for the first time that any of this can kill her.

Kilcher’s father, Yule, had fled Switzerland and World War II to start a communal utopia on the United States’ wilderness frontier with his wife, Ruth, an aspiring opera singer. Mossy (born Mairiis), the oldest of their eight children, remembered being terrified by the rugged terrain of their 160-acre spread that day. Then she heard the long-tailed duck’s affirming song.

“That seabird made me want to find out what was out there, so I wouldn’t be so scared for the rest of my life,” Kilcher said recently by phone from her own Alaskan homestead. She paused and mimicked a bit of its call — a lilting slide between two notes, like a muffled trumpet playing the blues — and giggled. “Nature was so scary that I felt like I had to befriend it, or I would never be safe here,” she added. “I still feel that way. That was the beginning of me.”

In the 75 years since Kilcher first heard that call, integrating with and observing the Alaskan wilderness — and becoming its international emissary — have become her life’s work. In the 1970s, she helped build an intentional community near Anchorage and fought to protect the state’s splendor as the oil industry encroached. Since the ’80s, she has owned Seaside Farm, where she guided guests on dayslong horseback trips for a dozen years. She has obsessively documented the songs of the state’s bountiful birds, donating her archive to the ornithological library at Cornell University and lecturing about them at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Now, at 78, Kilcher is finally returning to songs of her own. Last week, Tompkins Square Records, a taste-making clearinghouse for obscure acoustic music since 2005, reissued “Northwind Calling,” the homespun collection that Kilcher recorded and self-released with a hand-drawn cover in 1977 before largely disappearing from music. Her soft, welcoming voice floats over delicately picked acoustic guitar and an occasional banjo or fiddle, or her own recordings of birds.

“There was no pretense on the album, no commercial ambition whatsoever in its creation,” said the Tompkins Square owner Josh Rosenthal, who found the record in a YouTube wormhole while searching for Alaskan vacation rentals. “It was homemade.”

Like a stack of poems and Polaroids from Kilcher’s life as a budding naturalist, “Northwind Calling” is a revealing 20-song window into the beauty, intrigue and occasional danger of her northern life. Written in part before Alaska became a state, it is a striking reminder of the primitive function of folk music, too, informed by Swiss standards and the Alan Lomax field recordings her parents played on the homestead.

“It’s a very pure look at what folk music was meant to be — the songs of a local region,” said the singer-songwriter Jewel Kilcher, who is Mossy’s niece, by phone from her home near the Rocky Mountains. Two days later, she flew to Alaska to spend Independence Day with the aunt she calls her surrogate mother. “These songs are of their own culture, their own birds, their own wildlife, their own people,” she said.

The Kilchers were a fabled Alaskan family decades before Jewel made them famous with her 1995 breakthrough, “Pieces of You” — or before Jewel’s father, Atz, became the star of the long-running Discovery Channel reality show “Alaska: The Last Frontier.”

Yule helped frame the state’s constitution in 1956 and later served in its senate. When Mossy was a teenager, the Kilchers returned to Switzerland for two years so he could roam Europe, lecturing about the Alaskan wilderness in seven languages.

Inspired by her first concert, from the virtuoso guitarist Andrés Segovia, and spurred by an extreme bout of homesickness, Kilcher picked up a lute and began singing odes to Alaska. She wrote one of her first songs, the gliding “Day Dream Land,” when she was 13. During the next two decades, this became her pattern: She’d leave home, whether to attend Reed College in Oregon or work in faraway fish canneries, and return with reams of songs about statehood devotion.

“Going to Blow” captures the ingrained sadness of an aging angler, waiting in the harbor for one more catch. “Where Does This River Flow?” details the bittersweet sting of leaving home to see the world. She penned “Cloudy Day” — a folk hymn that longs for family and friends in the way spirituals celebrate the afterlife — on an outcropping along Oregon’s rocky coast, staring northwest back toward Alaska.

“I could have gotten into bad trouble there, but I had a little bubble around me called ‘Alaska,’” Kilcher said. “I had a song in me, too — I was rescued several times by thinking about the long-tailed duck or the hermit thrush, like my guardian angel.”

Kilcher’s songs rest on the realization she’d had at 3 — that, to survive, she’d need to cooperate with nature, not conquer it, an empathy often at odds with the pioneer mentality. She sang of prowling coyotes and migrating birds like trusted friends. “The land was here before us; it is indigenous,” she said. “You learn to live with your environment. It doesn’t have to be a big struggle.”

For decades, as one of Alaska’s few women ranchers, Kilcher drove cattle 25 miles to their grazing lands. In her early 20s, she prowled the country alone, sleeping at truck stops in the back of her Triumph station wagon and subsisting on canned crab meat. “Women did whatever needed to be done — felled trees, shoed horses, built homes,” Jewel said. “They never talked about gender roles.”

But when it came to making “Northwind Calling” in the late ’70s, Kilcher was painfully aware of being a woman surrounded by overbearing men, even in a remote Anchorage recording studio. She loved playing for hours with her band, but had to convince the album’s engineer that she had a vision and the final say, an insult to her lifelong independence.

“I understood for the first time why so many recording artists turn to drugs — I was a nervous wreck,” Kilcher said, howling with laughter. “It was intense beyond belief, something I never wanted to do again.”

So she didn’t: Soon after recording “Northwind Calling,” Kilcher divorced her first husband, the mountaineering legend Art Davidson, and returned to Homer. She raised their two sons, Arlyn and Dylan, on her own land and eventually married Cornelius Klingel, a German tourist who stopped at Seaside Farm while “he was traipsing around the world, and never left,” she said. She became a mentor to a teenage Jewel and, in 1994, a grandmother.

Like her British folk contemporaries Vashti Bunyan or Bill Fay, she seemed to have sung her songs and slipped quietly into domesticity. In retrospect, she admitted, something else must have been at play.

“I have never been quite sure if I was good enough, and I was scared to take the next steps to find out,” she said sheepishly. “It was like taking all your clothes off. People judge you on the spot. I’m a work in progress.”

But Kilcher, again like Bunyan or Fay, or Shirley Collins, is ready to try one last time. She has finished a memoir about her young life on the homestead, meant partly as her corrective to the androgenic versions of Alaskan life promoted by reality television. She reckons she can do the same as a singer, too. Jewel — who still performs her aunt’s “Day Dream Land,” one of the earliest songs she learned and the first song she taught her own son — has offered to record Kilcher in Nashville. She has 40 songs ready, nearly half a century of undeveloped Alaskan snapshots.

“I hope it’s not too late. Everybody always points out to me all the stuff I have done. But I only see the stuff I haven’t done,” Kilcher said during a FaceTime chat, smiling as she traipsed through the riot of colorful blooms in her yard. The landscape no longer terrifies her.

She stopped suddenly, distracted by a fox sparrow’s cheery song. “Do you hear that?” she said, laughing until she sighed. “It’s important for me not to lose that connection.”

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