Atz Kilcher is a sepia-tone photo from the late 19th century come to life. He wears beards and goatees worthy of that era. Meanwhile, his silvery white hair trails out from under a range-style cowboy hat or cap. He has an expressive, rosy performer’s face and uses it to emphasize what he’s talking about. He isn’t tall, but he has presence. The stance is part lecturer, part cattleman, and somehow equal parts casual and assertive.
But while he occasionally plays a tough guy on TV — he’s among the patriarchs on Discovery Channel’s Alaska: The Last Frontier — he’s actually been working his way toward being a kindler, gentler soul for years now. It’s an effort that’s culminated in his new memoir, Son of a Midnight Land. In the book, Kilcher writes about this transformation, which is based on a considerable amount of reflection and therapy. As it turns out, being the man his father set as an example hasn’t been easy for those who love him — notably, his children (three of whom star in Alaska: The Last Frontier with him, and a fourth who is the famous singer-songwriter Jewel).
Before he was on reality TV, Kilcher made a name for himself as an Alaskan balladeer, singing to tourists in hotels, and to lumberjacks, bikers, welders and fishermen who’d earned the right to call themselves Alaskans. He also turned it into a family affair, with Jewel and his wife at the time, Nedra Carroll, often joining him on stage. They’d perform just about anywhere, even amongst the categorically rough Alaska bar scene that consists mostly of men drinking through their conquests and the hardships of northern life.
Eventually, however, Nedra quit the group and the marriage. From there, as Jewel recounts in her own memoir, 2015’s Never Broken, the dysfunction only intensified. As People magazine reported when her book was released, “Jewel describes her father as having meted out ‘occasional physical and mental abuse.’ She writes that ‘he disliked me at my first cry. He was critical and impatient, suspicious and harsh with me.’”
And yet, today — roughly three decades later — it’s a much different story. In fact, when Howard Stern asked her why her dad would cry over an animal he shot on the reality TV show, but not cry over her, she corrected him: “He has, actually. I’m kind of amazed that my dad and his siblings are as functional as they are. His father was horribly abusive — my dad was nothing compared to what his dad was. He and I have a good relationship now. He has really done a lot of work to make himself better. I give him a lot of credit.”
They’re singing together again, too. She invited him, as well as two of her singing brothers Atz Lee Kilcher and Nikos Kilcher on her cross-country Handmade Holiday Tour this winter. When introducing her father on stage most nights on tour, Jewel would talk about him as an example of how someone can change at any age.
And on the day I spoke with him, Atz was soaking in a bubble bath in Jewel’s Telluride cabin, relaxing after a winter picnic and long hike along a frozen creek he went on with both Jewel and her 6-year-old son Kase.
We’ve heard a lot about your relationship with Jewel, but tell me about your relationship with Kase.
It’s funny, today Kase brought his little rabbit Fluff with him on the picnic. My wife Bonnie made a little hat and vest for Fluff to keep him warm. She also made Kase a [pink] hat that he wore on the picnic — pink is his favorite color. So we’ve had a lot of talks — he, his mom and I about girls and boys and pinks and blues. And coming back from our picnic, he said something about a little girl friend of his having some “girly” things in her purse, and we talked about that. “What are girly things? What are boy things?” You know, his dad is Ty Murray, a manly man, king of the cowboys. He’s by most standards the best bullrider in the world.
But it doesn’t sound like there are any hang-ups for you at least, especially as it relates to gender roles and role models.
Kase is very comfortable liking what he likes and being who he is so far. Kase has a manly man example of a father figure on one hand, and then he has his mom, the artist, on the other hand. And so far, I think he feels pretty unencumbered and free to evolve on his own.
Was that how you were raised, too — unencumbered and free to evolve on your own?
I was raised in the woods by pretty liberal parents. We swam together and took saunas together, ran around in the summer — nude sometimes — and it wasn’t no big deal. I’m comfortable being whatever. I think you’re more in touch with your body when you can see it. It’s very easy to put on layers, especially in northern climates, and it’s easy to lose touch with your body.
So I started at public schools as the son of the “liberal nudist homesteader Nazi” [even though Atz’s father Yule was from Switzerland, and was fleeing the emerging trouble in Europe pre-World War II]. That was early on, and he had the experience of getting labeled, being new in a country and being a Swiss immigrant.
But to answer your question, my parents raised us pretty neutral. They didn’t put any religion on us. We could go to different kinds of churches, but they didn’t put their beliefs on us. They certainly didn’t put anything on us like we should go to college, or tell us that this career is any better than that career. They moreso emphasized just evolving, growing and finding our ways. Between their philosophy, and the nature that surrounded us, it was a beautiful childhood. It helped make up for the times that were sometimes neglectful, abusive and dysfunctional in many ways. But there was also a lot of good, too.
When you’re growing up, you blame your parents for everything bad about yourself. Every nice thing you love about yourself, you swear you invented. You say, “Thank god I figured that out on my own.” But when it comes right down to it, everything you are, you have to give some credit to your parents for. Somewhere in my childhood, I got the ability to stay engaged physically, athletically, emotionally, musically and to keep learning.
I was raised to believe certain things are good and bad, and when you have a father who was easily disappointed, you carry that through your life. Am I good enough? Then you end up trying to be something you’re not, and you end up in a place where you realize you have to go through life with your flaws and all. Once you get to that point, you can like yourself and the way you process things.
Your father was famous in Alaska in his lifetime, and the Kilchers have been well-known long before the TV show or Jewel’s success. What has been the effect of that fame on you?
I tried to figure out a way to use it as a blessing. I’m a Kilcher, and the son of a senator, homesteader and landowner. For better or worse, I moved forward with it. The challenges are there for any human being to process the things going on in their lives in a way that’s moving you forward, keeping you standing still or holding you back.
On Alaska the Last Frontier, though, you’re more of an example of a mountain man — a classic male who rides horses and hunts bears. While that has an appeal with your audience, it isn’t that simple is it?
I was at the head of the bay [a wildland where the Kilchers have been grazing cattle for years] one day, and it was dark. My friend was setting up traps, and I had a rifle and a knife. I started to write a song with a line that went, “Rifle, sharp cold knife, steel traps in my hand, I am where man once was a man.” I got to thinking about that point in our pasts as humans where the roles of men and women were a little more defined — where the women had the babies, and the man’s job was to keep them in food. That’s what determined his success as a human and as a man — where man once was a man.
In our society now, there’s so many definitions about what makes a man. It’s so much more complicated. No matter your gender identity or sexual orientation, there’s still a wide spectrum of what it means to be a man. What counts is that you feel good about who you are, and feel good about being a human and love yourself.
What did you learn about the kind of man you are while writing your book?
The clearest thing for me that comes out is that as we mature and grow, our biggest task is sifting through our past — everything that we’ve done, everything that our parents did — and making conscious choices about what we choose to keep and what we choose to throw away. That also means anything that was done to us, anything that we blamed our parents for and anything that was wrong or hurt us. How are you going to take all that — especially the bad — and turn it into compost? How do you make rich, fertile soil out of it?
I want to take the bad and put a twist on it. Not a denial twist either — even though it might have been shitty or left scars, I’ve been asking myself what I learned from it. How did I benefit from it? How can I accept it? How can I forgive?
Your whole world turns upside down when you can look at something — even something awful — and believe that it was a useful experience. It’s not bullshit. It’s possible. Yes, it’s harder for someone who might have been molested as a child, or worse. But even that child is going to have a better adulthood if they can work down those steps: forgiveness, acceptance that it was awful and turning it into something that can make them a stronger, more empowered person.
How does that express itself? I mean, do you turn it over and over in your mind, or figure it out by talking and writing about it?
There’s a big difference between understanding something and accepting it and feeling good about it after therapy or reading self-help books. If you merely feel good about it, it’s really only just begun. It’s like lifting weights. You have to work that muscle everyday. Whether that’s talking to yourself, or making up a little puppet to put on your shoulder. I talk to my dad a lot, even though he’s been dead for 15 years. I say, “Yeah, I see why you did that, man.”
I had a dream about him a couple of weeks ago where he and I worked through something together that we never could’ve when he was alive. It’s practicing stuff like that. That’s how you change and gain new strength. You gotta work at it. You gotta do the stuff. Then the net result is that you’re happier. You’re grateful for whatever comes along: Whether it’s a rainy day or someone being a butthead to you. You figure out how it was a blessing to have run into that asshole. It might be that you discover new empathy for what that person is going through. Or it might help you realize that you need to be nicer to the people around you.
Does practicing the wrong response have a proportional detrimental effect?
The things you do over and over become who you are. That’s what your brain does — it falls into patterns. The only way you change that is step-by-step. First, you don’t scream at the other driver when you’re having road rage. Instead, you say, “I bless you, you angry man,” as he flips you off. It’s talking out loud and repeating those thought processes.
How does that play into who you’ve become as a man — apart from being a father, grandfather?
I’m at that point where many of the men in my circle have gone beyond the paradigm of the old macho ways. For my happiness and mental emotional growth, it’s more about being softer and more understanding. How can I have more Zen? Not that I know shit about Zen. But how can I have strength in my softness through forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance and understating as well as be kinder toward myself, my parents and my fellow man? Only then am I experiencing all the colors and all the notes.
About forgiveness, what is there to be said for asking someone to forgive you?
I’m a recovering alcoholic, so I’m familiar with the program, and that’s one of the steps: Go back, apologize and ask for forgiveness. You go to the people who you can, but the hardest thing is forgiving yourself. You have to accept the very worst thing that you’ve done. If you can look at that, you can start the work.
The time I slapped my first wife, I knew I was going to be my dad. That was the first and last time that happened. If I can look back and talk to my 28-year-old self, I know that I had no options — it was all reaction. Now I can say, “Thank god you learned from that. I forgive you, love you and accept you.”
How do you score yourself as a father?
That’s a big part of what the book is about. Only I can look at the worst things I’ve done. People are usually uncomfortable when you go up to them and talk about the thing you did that you were ashamed of. They’ll say, “You weren’t that bad.” They want to get away from that. Nobody’s going to say, “Wow, you really fucked up as a dad.”
So, I’ve said it to my kids: I was abusive physically. I was abusive psychologically. I wasn’t there emotionally. I just kind of lived my life, and my wife did most of the parenting. I was pretty much clueless and absent emotionally. I didn’t have a lot of patience or tolerance when it came to teaching the bicycle riding and the shoe-tying and all those little fumbly steps you gotta go through.
But that was then. Today, from what my kids tell me, I’ve succeeded in being able to talk about what I’ve done. I was able to say, “You know, I gotta start over. I can learn.” I’m setting an example for that. You can learn. You can change. Like they say, it’s not how you start a race, It’s how you finish it.
It seems as though you’ve got an all-new relationship with your kids. How long has this been the case?
I think when a parent’s children become adults, it can be very smooth, or it can be very disruptive. It’s always a transition. For me, because I didn’t have much of a relationship with my kids when they were younger, it was almost like I didn’t really know them. Now, I get to know them as adults. You still, though, have to work through a lot of stuff like old patterns, old reactions and old triggers.
It’s no different than some of the PTSD work I’ve been through. Whether it was Vietnam or childhood, it’s the same stuff. It’s all about triggers, and you react the way you did long ago. For example, if I see a man raise his hand, I still want to duck. I hear a loud explosion, and the reflex is there. At the same time, my kids have a reflex. I react, they react and it’s a ping-pong effect. All you can do is slow it down and say, “Hey, this ain’t about now. It’s about long ago.”
How do you spin out of that exactly?
You have to address it as quickly as possible. If you talk about what triggers each other, you can get to a point where you can talk about the rut you’re both in and start to live consciously.
It’s no different from when I first got back from Vietnam. I went to college next to a big rock quarry, and there were lots of big explosions. Me and the other Vietnam vets talked about that. One guy said he hid in the closet; another was under his bed. After two or three months, you catch yourself running toward the closet, and stop it right there. After a few more months, you catch yourself sitting up in bed, and stop it there. You just work backwards and backwards until you just lay there scared.
Now, in many realms of my life, I’m very happy. All that happens now are the inner tremors that I can quickly acknowledge. Or like if someone does something that triggers emotional stuff, I can sometimes catch it. There are still times, though, when I want to blame that other person and make it about them. But usually I can talk myself down, and that’s as good as it gets.
When a human being spends the better part of a year in a place like Vietnam — where it’s okay to kill other people, where other people are trying to kill you — you have to do something to your feelings to survive. Not just to physically survive either, but to survive emotionally and mentally, too. You have to turn stuff off. My childhood had many components of that as well: Pain, disappointments, uncertainty, living in fear of either being hit, shamed or belittled. Your body and mind builds defenses to make it through that. Then, it’s a matter of undoing that for the rest of your life.
What do you do with regret?
Well, the other day, I was sitting here at the table with my daughter and my grandson and her business manager who’s a close personal friend. The dinner topic was regrets about the past year. I said, “I don’t really have any regrets.” The other guy said the same thing, and we ended up having a wonderful conversation about accepting what you’ve done and forgiving it. No matter if it was stupid or a mistake, you’re not letting yourself learn from it if you regret it. You’re not moving on. A regret kind of means it’s stuck. It’s a little dark place inside of you — a little tumor that holds you back.