Alaska is the largest U.S. state in terms of total area. If it was placed over the contiguous U.S., it would touch both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. However, despite its immense size, Alaska has one of the lowest populations among all U.S. states. Only Vermont and Wyoming have fewer residents. With such a small populace spread over this vast area, it would stand to reason that the music scene in Alaska would be about as cold as the state’s winters. Not so fast!
Art is highly valued in Alaskan culture. This, of course, includes musical art.
To determine the biggest musicians from Alaska, 24/7 Tempo considered criteria such as total album sales, appearances on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, Grammy nominations and awards (along with other high-caliber awards), and collaborations with world-renowned musicians. To qualify for this list, an artist must have either been born in Alaska or claimed the state as his/her home for a significant number of years. (If you want to explore another musical state, click here to meet the 10 biggest musicians from California.)
These artists cannot be pigeonholed into one or two musical genres. On the contrary, these musicians range from opera to Nirvana! The Last Frontier has produced singers and bands that have left an indelible mark in the world of music.
Vivica Genaux was born on July 10, 1969, in Fairbanks. Her mother was an opera lover, but Genaux admits that she did not share her mother’s affinity for the art form. In fact, she would often turn on the vacuum cleaner to drown out the sound when her mother listened to the Metropolitan Opera. Much has changed since then, though. Today, Genaux is regarded as one of the world’s premier mezzo-sopranos.
She has performed with the biggest opera companies in the U.S., including the Metropolitan Opera. She has also performed with the San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and Dallas operas. The mezzo from Fairbanks has appeared in cities all over the world, including Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, Berlin, Santiago, Tel Aviv, and Perth.
Genaux is featured on dozens of albums, including two Grammy-nominated recordings: “Arias for Farinelli” (2002) and Vivaldi’s “Bajazet” (2005). She has received other prestigious awards as well, including the Pittsburgh Opera’s Maecenas Award, New York City Opera’s Christopher Keene Award, and an ARIA Award.
The Alaskan vocalist was featured in the 2004 documentary, “A Voice Out of the Cold: Vivica Genaux.”
Janet Gardner was born in Juneau on March 17, 1962. Her family moved to Montana two years later due to her father’s forestry career.
Gardner learned to play piano and guitar as a child. When she was 21, she joined the all-female glam rock band, Vixen. The band experienced its highest level of commercial success while Gardner was the lead vocalist. Their eponymous 1988 album reached #41 on the Billboard chart. Their sophomore album, “Rev It Up,” charted just outside the Billboard top 50.
Vixen released four songs that landed on the Billboard Hot 100, including their biggest hit, “Cryin’.” The song peaked at #22 in January 1989.
At the height of the band’s popularity, Vixen shared stages with world-famous rock artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, KISS, and Deep Purple.
John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams was born in Mississippi on January 23, 1953. While his birthplace is over 3,000 miles from Alaska, Adams’ musical career has been unmistakably influenced by his many years in America’s northernmost state. He is one of Alaska’s most accomplished musicians.
Adams started his musical journey as a teenage drummer in various rock bands. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, he became an environmental activist. His environmental pursuits led him to Alaska in the mid-1970s, where he would live for nearly 40 years.
Along with fueling his passion for environmentalism, the harsh landscapes of remote northern Alaska also became Adams’ greatest musical inspiration. His compositions range from vocal, orchestral, electronic, and acoustic. He has composed scores for film, television, and children’s theater. (Click here to see the most popular movie soundtracks of all time according to Billboard.)
Adams is best known for his 2013 song, “Become Ocean.” The orchestral piece was inspired by the oceans of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. It was recorded by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Ludovic Morlot. The composition received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. “Musical America” magazine named Adams as Composer of the Year for 2015.
Alaska’s influence shows up in many more of Adams’ compositions, including “Arctic Dreams” (2021), “The Wind in High Places” (2014), “Inuksuit” (2013), “In The White Silence” (2006), and “The Far Country” (1993).
In April 2023, Jason Everman appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast to talk about his life and career. It’s no surprise that he was invited to share on such a large platform. He has an utterly unique story among Alaska’s musicians.
Everman was born on Spruce Island in Kodiak, Alaska on October 16, 1967. His parents had moved to the remote island as a way to reconnect with nature. After they divorced, Everman and his mother moved to Washington State. He would later return to Alaska when he was in high school, working for a few seasons on his father’s fishing boat.
Everman began playing guitar with various bands in high school. His talent became well-known in the industry and, in 1989, Everman joined the iconic rock band, Nirvana. He toured with Kurt Cobain’s famous band that summer and appears on the cover of their album, “Bleach.”
In the fall, he left Nirvana and joined the band, Soundgarden. Everman played bass guitar after Hiro Yamamoto left the band, but his stint with Soundgarden was even shorter than his time with Nirvana.
After playing with these two famous rock bands, Everman was a member of the heavy metal band, OLD, and the rock band, Mind Funk.
In 1994, Everman made what many considered to be quite an unorthodox move. He left Mind Funk to join the U.S. Army. He served in the Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion and later in the Special Forces. Everman was deployed for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Combining his sense of duty with his love of music, Everman and his friend, Brad Thomas, formed the band Silence & Light. The modern rock band is made up exclusively of U.S. military veterans. Proceeds from the band are donated to the military and first responder communities.
Willow is about 40 miles northwest of Anchorage. That is where John Gourley was born on June 12, 1981. His family moved throughout the state during his childhood, relocating whenever his father’s contractor job required it. Gourley’s parents both competed in the Iditarod, the grueling 938-mile dogsled race. At one point during his childhood, the family lived in a remote cabin that was only accessible by dogsled.
Gourley’s upbringing in remote Alaska hardly seems like an environment that would nourish a budding rock musician, but that is precisely what happened. When he was 21, he formed the punk band, Anatomy of a Ghost, with Zach Carothers and three other musicians in the small town of Wasilla. The band toured extensively but broke up after two years due to creative differences. Gourley and Carothers then formed the rock band, Portugal. The Man. Gourley is the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist.
Portugal. The Man has toured across the U.S. and Europe. They have played on huge stages, such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. Their biggest hit was released in 2017. “Feel It Still” reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It also reached #1 on the U.S. Alternative chart. The song won a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.
Jewel Kilcher was born in Utah on May 23, 1974. Her family moved to Alaska while she was still an infant. She was raised near the small city of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula.
Jewel (her chosen professional name) began singing with her parents at age six. She toured with her father, Atz Kilcher after her parents divorced. Jewel’s father taught her to yodel, a technique that she has leveraged throughout her career.
Jewel received a partial scholarship to study operatic voice at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. From there, she began performing as a solo artist in San Diego. The beginning of her career was far from easy. She even lived in her van for a time as she pursued her musical ambitions.
After signing with Atlantic Records, Jewel released her first album, “Pieces of You,” in 1995. It failed to chart initially, but it caught the attention of Bob Dylan who invited Jewel to be his opening act on his next tour. That new exposure rocketed the Alaskan singer’s career to new heights. “Pieces of You” would go on to sell over 12 million copies. It is listed at #64 on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Definitive 200,” a list of the 200 best albums ever produced.
Jewel released 12 more studio albums. They often charted in the U.S. on both the rock and country charts. She also released several live and compilation albums, as well as five spoken-word albums featuring her poetry and children’s stories.
Jewel is easily the most commercially successful musician to hail from Alaska. She has sold over 30 million albums and has received four Grammy nominations. Along with Bob Dylan, Jewel has also performed with Kelly Clarkson and Pistol Annies. She won season six of Fox’s The Masked Singer in 2021. (For another list of musicians, click here for baby boomer artists who are still making great music.)