When Jesse Phillips left western Montana, he was not expecting that years later he would return to headline at Kettlehouse Amphitheatre as co-founder and lead bass player of the soul band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
Before his success, Phillips’ life reflected that of a typical high schooler growing up in rural Eureka.
“Like a lot of kids who grow up in small towns … I thought that this part of Montana was a total back-asswards cultural void,” he said.
Far from the southern soul and R&B influences present in his band, Phillips grew up listening to the outlaw and neotraditional country music of his parents generation.
From a remote corner of Montana like a typical rebellious 90’s teen, Phillips moved past his parents’ love of George Strait and Garth Brooks and embraced the Seattle grunge movement, where he followed artists such as Elliot Smith, Nirvana and Radiohead.
These artists had a significant impact on him from a young age, inspiring him to write and compose his original music. But these influences still play a part in Phillips’ methods of creating his own sound.
“I think what most people do in songwriting is you try and find the things that make you feel the familiar feelings that you have loved from the stuff you listen to and try and re-contextualize it, disguise it, or make it sound fresh.”
Phillips harbored a somewhat pessimistic view of his future in music, however, knowing the difficulties that many face while trying to make a name for themselves as a full-time musician.
“Everyone who is a musician when they are a kid or when they are young thinks that they want to be a full-time musician because it sounds glorious and romantic. It doesn’t happen for most people unless you are really, really willing to hustle.”
As a result, when Phillips left Montana for Loyola University of New Orleans, his main goal was to pursue music as an educator – a school music teacher – but not necessarily as a full-time musician.
“I had kind of resigned myself to the fact that I was just going to be a hobbyist, I was going to be in it, but I would have my recording gear in my basement and write songs that probably no one would hear and I would press 100 copies for my friends.”
But this wasn’t the case when Phillips launched into the music industry in 2014 after meeting Paul Janeway, a fiery and exuberant Alabama-born singer with whom he formed the band, Saint Paul and the Broken Bones. Within a couple of years, Janeway and Phillips developed the band into a full eight-piece soul band.
Janeway’s voice was naturally developed for soul and R&B, having grown up singing in a Southern gospel choir. As a result, St. Paul and the Broken Bones took its energy for the genre and developed its sound around Janeway’s voice.
“The band ended up sounding basically like a Southern soul band from Memphis or Muscle Shoals in the late ’60s or early ’70s. When we realized our band sort of looked like that we thought, ‘We should study what these guys were doing and start trying to emulate the ways that they play more heavily.’ ”
After the release of their debut album Half The City, the band launched into stardom, signing a $10,000 record deal with Single Lock Records and headlining a tour across the country. Since then, the eight-piece soul band has toured around the world, released three albums, and played with big names like The Rolling Stones and Lizzo.
“I was feeling endorphins all the time. The clubs just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I remember for the first time I had more than $1,000 in my bank account on tour and just being like ‘Wow, how do I get to make a living doing this.”
The band’s sudden rise to fame was rapid and exciting, but also physically and emotionally draining for the musicians who were suddenly thrust into the spotlight and the demanding schedule of touring with a live band.
“By the time we realized what was happening it was just too much of everything, all the time, just go, survival mode, just strap yourself to the rocket and see what happens.”
In 2014 alone the band was on tour for a total of 300 days, sleeping on the tour van with a schedule that could take them from Omaha for a show one night to Denver the next morning for a radio show. Not to mention, the glamorous life of rockstars on tour with few rules and supervision.
“I am glad I was a little older when I became a full-time touring musician because I can absolutely see how it would just destroy people if you get into it when you’re younger because it is everything all the time, whatever you want. It’s a nonstop party and you’re allowed to drink and do drugs on the job. You stay up too late, don’t eat right, and you’re out on the road all the time.”
Although Phillips wanted to make it clear that as the band has aged, they remain “pretty well behaved by rock and roll band standards.” Since moving to Missoula and facing a year-and-a-half with a global pandemic, his life looked very different and the time off provided a much-needed break from tour life.
“I land at the airport and the door slides open and I walk out, within 30 seconds I feel 50% less anxious. Just like that, smelling the trees and seeing the mountains. It has been very helpful for me being back.”
Phillips said his return to western Montana is not one of a “prodigal son” but a return to his roots.
“You realize how much you actually value this kind of thing and how special it really is. I used to work up here for the Forest Service every summer in college up in the Flathead and the Kootenai. My grandparents run a hunting camp in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. My dad’s side of the family is Kootenai Indian so they have been running up here forever. My roots are here.”