Mossy runs an organic farm just outside of Homer, Alaska.

Mossy runs an organic farm just outside of Homer, Alaska.

Alaska Calling

Folk singer Mossy Kilcher ’66 has her regrets. Her life-changing time at Reed is not among them.

By Casey Jarman | December 15, 2020

Mossy Kilcher is yelling at her dog, who has run under the porch. “I’m sorry about this,” she says into the speakerphone from her home on an organic farm she runs just outside of Homer, Alaska. “She went under my deck and now I don’t know what she’s gonna do.”

Alaskan farm life is not always glamorous, but it’s the life she loves, and the one she keeps coming home to. This despite her famous niece (Jewel Kilcher; yes, that Jewel) regularly pleading with her to come record her songs in a Nashville studio. Despite recently being profiled in the New York Times and featured on the influential Aquarium Drunkard music blog. Despite her sole album, 1977’s Northwind Calling, being prized by outsider folk aficionados and then digitally reissued this summer by the acclaimed Tompkins Square label. Despite the fact that she has more to say and, at 78 years old, she feels she is running out of time.

Alaska, though, has always held her heart. From a young age, she felt as though she belonged to the land there, that it was in her. She would take notes on local wildlife, record bird songs, climb trees. She was feral in a way that confounded even her settler father, who came to the Alaskan frontier from Switzerland during World War II, years before Alaska achieved statehood. The Kilchers came to Alaska with the dream of building a utopian commune, but to a young Mossy, it was still a dream built on taming the land—of “bending it to your will,” as she says. She wanted the wilderness to stay untamed. “I would’ve been an ecoterrorist, had they been around in those days,” she says. “I would have lived in a tree for 40 years.”

Her nature-child disposition earned her the lifelong nickname “Mossy” (her birthname is Mairiis), but it was tempered by her parents’ insistence that their children become world citizens. Her father spoke seven languages; her mother was an opera singer. Their house was full of books and music. Even before electricity came to their cabin, the family had a hand-cranked record player they’d gather around to hear 78 rpm LPs of Mozart and international folk songs. When she was 14, the family took a two-year journey to Switzerland that would broaden both her educational and cultural horizons. This was where she saw her first real concert, which featured the famed Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia. His playing blew her away, convincing her to take classical guitar lessons that she would make use of 20 years later, while recording her album. Though she didn’t often perform publicly, songwriting became a lifelong practice for her. She taught her younger brother Atz to play guitar, as well. He would later teach his daughter, Jewel.

Returning to rural Alaska from Switzerland was a new sort of culture shock. All the girls with collegiate ambitions seemed to dream of becoming secretaries or typists. Mossy was having none of it. She let her grades falter before dropping out entirely, later piecing together her GED. She “drifted,” a word she often uses when describing her life, down to Anchorage, where she took waitressing jobs. Then, when she was 20, a stranger name-dropped Reed in casual conversation, as a place she might fit in. The conversation moved her to apply to a handful of schools, including Reed, but the only letters that came back were rejections. Mossy drifted again, taking seasonal jobs at canneries along the Alaskan coast. That blue-collar life suited her just fine. “Canning was the perfect job for me, because I didn’t have to dress up,” she says. “I made three bucks an hour and I could save up my money to be a traveling bum.”

One afternoon, while she was canning king crab in Kodiak, her work day was interrupted. “The boss comes in and says ‘There was a call for you, from Reed College. They want you to come up to the high school and write an essay,’” she remembers. “So I go up there with my cannery boots on. I smell like crab. And I write this random essay from the top of my head—I just figured, ‘What can I lose?’ And sure enough, I got an acceptance letter from Reed: based on the essay, not my grades.”

She came to Reed and got exactly what she needed: an influential professor whom she connected with and who shaped the way she thinks about the world, her place in it, and the contributions she might make. In typical Reedie fashion, that life wasn’t a common one—she blazed her own trail as an artist, activist, writer, and thinker.

Paying for her first year with money she’d saved from cannery jobs, she enrolled as a 21-year-old freshman in 1962. From the start, she felt “like an odd duck.” It wasn’t the school’s progressive reputation (“I grew up in a very radical household”) that gave her pause—she just didn’t feel comfortable around her younger classmates, many of whom she found both more privileged and less worldly than she was.

Most of all, she was homesick. If hiking trips on the Oregon coast reminded her of Alaska, they only made the longing worse.

She might not have made it a full year at Reed, but for one teacher—Prof. Lloyd Reynolds [English and art 1929–69]. She remembers him as a philosopher whose class was well worth all of her savings. “He took me under his wing,” she says of the beloved professor and world-renowned calligrapher. They talked about art and about Carl Jung, but Reynolds also showed a deep interest in her stories of growing up on the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. That interest, she says, “helped me stay true to myself.”

“I shared with him that I was very depressed a couple of times,” says Mossy, who felt unsure of her future. Reynolds’s response would change the way she looked at her life. “You’re not a summer squash,” he told her. “You’re a tree, and a tree takes a long time to grow.”

It was advice that would shape the course of her life, and help her find her unique interests and influence in the world. Her Reed experience “was liberating for me in many ways,” she says. “It was a great place to spread my wings of independence and try on a different, new hat. For example, I came back wearing a serape as a headband. My dad accused me of being a beatnik!”

She decided to leave Reed in 1963, at the end of her first year. “Back to cold, hard reality” at Alaskan canneries, she recalls. “And I loved every minute of it.” She might describe some of the ensuing years as drifting—she frequently went up and down the West Coast on hitchhiking trips—but they also included environmental activism and raising a family. She continued to document bird migrations and songs in recordings (that now take up terabytes of hard drive space, a practice that has led her to participate in conferences and earned her an invite to speak at the Smithsonian Institution). All the while, inspired by her connection to the land and wild spaces, she was writing songs—a relatively private practice that had been important to her since her teenage years.

At 35 years old, she recorded Northwind Calling under her then married name, Mossy Davidson. The album, a double LP, is a lovely and unguarded collection of love songs that are more often about places and animals in her home state than they are about people. Sparse but warm, often overdubbed with her own field recordings, they still sound wholly unique. The New York Times notes that the album, “written in part before Alaska became a state, [is] a striking reminder of the primitive function of folk music . . . informed by Swiss standards and the Alan Lomax field recordings.”  “Little Brown Violins,” a particularly loving tribute to the hermit thrush, sounds almost patriotic. Her classical guitar chops on the baroque “Fox Sparrow,” another bird song, imbue it with a deep sadness as her lyrics wonder whether the titular bird will be around for future generations to hear.

Northwind Calling was not a commercial success, nor was it ever intended to be. It did, however, add to the Kilcher family’s mythical reputation in her home state and later became a hard-to-find cult favorite among folk music aficionados. Jewel recorded Mossy’s “Day Dream Land,” one of the first songs the star ever learned, for her children’s album Lullaby in 2009.

It remains a mystery—even to Mossy herself—why she never went back into the studio.

“I went to counseling about it,” she admits. “At my age, can you believe it?”

“I think I’m overwhelmed at the thought that I’ll disappoint myself. That I’ll fall short,” she says. Like many artists, she talks about feeling like the music is coming through her rather than from her. She likens it to soapstone carving, which was her favorite creative practice and a successful side job for years until carpal tunnel in her hands made her stop. “You put all your energy into it, and you kind of go into a different realm. Then when somebody walks in the door it jerks you back out, like through a wormhole, and you have to go back to this other world. It’s all discombobulating, and it takes a lot of energy going back and forth.”

At 78, Mossy is now a year older than her mother was when she died. Mortality has been on her mind. Still fiercely independent, still powerfully attached to the land, she admits that she often chooses comfort over adventure these days. Still, she yearns for something—or someone—to take her out of that comfort zone and stick her back in a recording studio. “If you came to Alaska right now and said, ‘Mossy, I just paid for a studio session, you come on tomorrow ready or not, bring your guitar, we’re going to record,’” she says, before rattling off a checklist of the kinds of session players who might show up to this imaginary studio date. Then she snaps into a more determined tone. “You know, that’s what I’ve got to do. I just gotta do that.”

It’s heartening, in a way, to hear an artist at Mossy’s age still fighting with procrastination and self-doubt. It makes a little more sense of Northwind Calling, an album that seems both wise beyond its years and utterly childlike.

Mossy Kilcher is no summer squash. Mossy Kilcher is a tree, and trees take a long time to grow.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music