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Kilgour's 'simple songs' come from the heart

Rachael Kilgour, who is spend the month at the Anderson Center, will be the opening act Saturday night, May 11, 2019, for Jeremy Messersmith at the Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing. Ruth Nerhaugen / RiverTown Multimedia

Rachael Kilgour stepped out of her comfort zone when she applied for a residency at the Anderson Center. But the Duluth singer-songwriter-guitarist is finding that being at Tower View this month is giving her the time and space to focus on her current project.

"Residencies are often attached to the arts through academia," she explained. "The thing I do is very much the people's artwork. I am a self-educated person writing simple songs."

Kilgour has discovered that she does fit in just fine with the other residents — artists, poets and writers — who are in Red Wing during May working on ventures that spark their passion and creativity.

"I feel more like a journalist than a creator. I don't write fictional songs. They are almost exclusively autobiographical," she said. "There's something very special that happens when our words are paired with music. It grabs an emotional place in us."

Her love of music goes back to childhood days. As a 4-year-old she heard a violin being played and announced, "I want to do that!" When she was a grade schooler, her parents switched her to a music magnet school that made it possible for her to take lessons and participate in orchestra, choir and other musical activities.

That experience led to her firm belief that "arts education, music education for young people is such an important thing to our society." She takes issue with the fact that those experiences are not offered free in most public schools.

Kilgour continued participating in music activities through high school, and after taking a gap year she began studying music education at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but "It was not the right fit."

She had started songwriting and taught herself to play guitar. Then came "a very big defining moment" — she performed one of her own songs for an audience at a fundraising concert, and "I knew myself. Music would provide an alternate way to express myself and communicate."

Leaving college, she focused on pursuing a career as a songwriter. Friends and mentors had succeeded at music, and they helped. "Some people took chances on me," Kilgour said. She played at coffee houses and open mike events, and toured the Midwest with one of her mentors.

Life took a turn when she entered into a same-sex marriage and devoted her energies to her stepchild, partner and community. Still, Kilgour continued performing locally and writing music that chronicled her life as well as sociopolitical issues.

"When I was 30 I got divorced," she said. "It was very painful. I wrote a lot about it," and created her third album, "Rabbit in the Road." It was well received. Billboard called it "a heartfelt slice of master crafted indie folk."

"It was like a second start to my career," Kilgour said. "I threw myself into it. I felt a responsibility to my work to get it out in the world."

She entered — and won — songwriting contests, toured, made friends, performed at notable venues. In February, Kilgour released a new EP, "Game Changer," about her re-entry into a post-heartbreak world. Even Rolling Stone magazine liked it.

"I feel really committed to learning how to reveal myself in front of an audience. It feels like very important work," she said. "The vulnerability I give an audience somehow leads to connection and understanding that we are all flawed, all figuring life out."

Kilgour learned about the Anderson Center residency program while in Red Wing performing at Fair Trade Bookstore. It seemed the right time and place to work on her new project about her father, who died a couple of years ago.

"He's kind of an endless well of inspiration. It was hard to lose him. It means something about your own vulnerability," she said. "Death sparked the intense emotion that my songwriting comes from. ... It reminds you of being loved."

It also gave her permission "to write about my dad honestly," Kilgour added. "Now I can write about the things he struggled with. I feel more patient with myself as a result. ... I am more forgiving of myself," and better able to share herself in her music.

The songwriting is going well at the Anderson Center, particularly when she makes her way up to the top of the center's "magical" tower to work. Kilgour hopes to release a concept album in a year or so.

For a taste of her music, go online to www.rachelkilgour.com. She will be the opening act Saturday night for Jeremy Messersmith at the Sheldon Theatre, and will be performing in Duluth and other Midwest cities in the coming months before heading to the East Coast in the fall.

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