Ask 31-year-old Duluth musician Rachael Kilgour if she considers herself a folk singer, and she hesitates. “I think I’d call myself a singer-songwriter first and foremost,” she clarifies. “An acoustic, confessional-style singer-songwriter. With that said, I’m also happy to have my work included in the long and beautiful tradition of folk music.” An independent artist unafraid to address social issues head-on, Kilgour is blazing her own trail, and doing things her way.
Rachael classifies herself as an introvert. But, to outsiders, she comes across as a bubbly conversationalist, prone to suddenly bursting into song. On-stage, she often feels the deeper spectrum of emotions, turning inward and sometimes weeping during performances. Perhaps it is this delicate balance of charisma and vulnerability that provides her artistry its edge.
EARLY SIGNS OF MUSICAL GIFTEDNESS
Rachael was raised in a traditional family. Her mother, Jean, stayed at home to raise Rachael and her older siblings, Joel and Sarah. Her father, Bob, was a hard-working, self-employed contractor. Her parents are now retired. The Kilgour children were raised to be themselves, and pursue their individual interests. And, for Rachael, that was music.
“As a kid, I was always fairly musical,” she says. “I was always making up songs, and I would answer my mother’s questions in song. We listened to a lot of ‘50s and ‘60s music in our house – Sam Cook, Buddy Holly, and Simon and Garfunkel. And, my mom loved Patsy Cline.”
After begging her mother for violin lessons starting at the tender age of four, Rachael finally got her wish: When she entered Lowell Elementary in 3rd grade, she discovered they offered free music lessons. She immediately signed up for violin lessons, choir and orchestra, and later took up the guitar.
“Music in general seemed to come really easily to me,” she says. “Socially, I was pretty terrified most of the time, so it’s good that I excelled in music, school work, and athletics.”
SOCIAL JUSTICE – A TOP FAMILY PRIORITY
As time went on, Rachael came out of her shell. She idolized her big brother Joel, who is eight years older than she. Even as a young man, Joel actively rallied for animal rights, human rights, environmentalism, and other social issues.
Rachael shares, “Joel helped further define my moral compass as a young person. I became a vegetarian at age eight, organized student protests, and found myself in heated debates with classmates and teachers on a regular basis.”
The Kilgour family attended a variety of protests over the years; there was their annual trip to Georgia to protest the School of Americas, protests against the ELF site in northern Wisconsin, and road trips to Washington, DC to protest sanctions in Iraq.
“My parents really encouraged us to care for our neighbors, ask questions, and stand up for what we believe in,” Rachael says, “But it was my brother who got us started in social activism.” As a result, many of Rachael’s original songs address social issues such as poverty, privilege, and injustice.
A BRAVE ANNOUNCEMENT
Rachael came out to her family when she was a senior in high school, after becoming romantically involved with a young woman. Her family was incredibly supportive, which made Rachael consider the plight of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) individuals of past generations.
“I recognized that it was very hard to be a gay person in previous decades,” she shares. “I’m so lucky to have such a supportive family, and I’m grateful for the work that others did before I ever came along.” Today, Rachael gives back by volunteering her time with Together for Youth and LGBT Elders, local support groups encouraging acceptance and tolerance for all.
AN UNCLEAR FUTURE
Although an incredibly talented musician, Rachael didn’t know what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She took a year off after high school to ponder her future.
“That year,” Rachael shares, “I met Rudy Perrault, who at the time was the director of the string department at UMD. I babysat his children at the time. He had heard me play as a high school student, and encouraged me to attend the music program at UMD.”
INSPIRATION ARRIVES AT THE PERFECT TIME
For the next two years, Rachael took Rudy’s advice and pursued music education at UMD. She socialized with Sara Thomsen, a local singer-songwriter, and played backup violin for her. Being exposed to the life of a musician planted a seed in Rachael’s heart. After her first year of college, another chance encounter seemed to be nudging Rachael toward a career in music. She got a job at a children’s summer camp, and was also subsequently offered a job caring for the director’s own children.
The director’s partner turned out to be Catie Curtis, a well-known singer-songwriter out of Boston. Rachael was (and still is) a huge fan of Catie’s work. The two became great friends, and in addition to watching her kids, Rachael watched Catie write and perform songs all summer.
She returned home with a new zest for music, and started writing passionate songs about politics and social issues. In November of 2005, Sara Thomsen invited Rachael to share one of the songs she had written at a fundraising concert in the Weber Auditorium. After receiving her first standing ovation, she shares, “I immediately knew that I needed to drop out of school and do this forever.”
A BIT OF A DETOUR
After receiving her first taste of music as a profession, Rachael admits she happily sidelined her career after falling in love. She got married, and as a wife and step-mother, Rachael was satisfied with the decision to put her career on the back burner in order to run the household and help raise the couple’s daughter. After eight years, however, the relationship ended in 2015.
The difficult divorce propelled Rachael to create a lot of intensely personal music, which has strongly resonated with her fans. In the last year, her career has taken off.
Rachael occasionally performs at local venues including Amazing Grace, Beaner’s, The Underground, and Teatro Zuccone. She has become a bit of a local celebrity, regularly getting recognized everywhere she goes, including restaurants and the grocery store. “I am so grateful for all of the community support I’ve received,” she says.
Recently, Rachael successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign, allowing her the financial means to record her third full-length album (which is still unnamed) in Boston, being produced by Catie Curtis. Rachael has entered several songwriting competitions, winning the grand prize in the 2015 NewSong contest, along with several other prestigious awards. She regularly performs across the country, including radio shows, concert series, coffeehouses, and even at protests and in picket lines.
Her personal tastes, however, remain simple. Rachael is debt-free, and lives in a modest apartment with her roommate. She doesn’t have a car, and relies on public transportation and her own two feet to get around town. While she happily travels the country to perform and record her music, she will never forget her Minnesota roots. “I love Duluth. No matter what, I’ll always come back here. These are my people,” she says.
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
When contemplating her future, Rachael has this to share: “I don’t know what my goals are, exactly. I know that this is a weird gift I have. A beautiful gift. I want to share it with as many people as possible before I die. When the words and music come together, I can’t half-ass it. The songs jump out of me in a really passionate way. The music is truly alive inside of me.”
For more information about Rachael Kilgour visit her website: rachaelkilgour.com Written by Andrea Busche. Originally Published in Duluth.com the Magazine May 2016 issue. Get yours on newsstands today.