Rachael Kilgour is a queer Minnesotan-born Americana artist who is just about to release her second album. Her first album, written after a heartbreaking divorce, was hailed as “…a heartfelt slice of master crafted indie folk brimming with the battle-tested capacity to endure the worst in others” by Billboard. Her new album ‘Game Changer’ sets the stage for Kilgour as she moves forward into the complicated nature of romance and relationship, sets up a stunning defense of queer love, and reassesses her priorities as a citizen of a changing wider world.
She recently sat down with me for Strange Fire and had a chat with us about music, life, love, and her new album.
Cindy Emch: First off, I love the new album and was so moved by it! For our readers that are new to you music – how would you describe yourself as a musician?
Rachael Kilgour: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I guess I would describe myself as a songwriter first and foremost. I’m committed to creating and performing work that is intimate and revealing and that leads to connection. There is something important about the autobiographical aspect of it: the strong first-person narrative and the wrestling I do with my own moral compass and self-esteem and relationships.
CE: These new recordings for the Game Changer EP are so beautiful and nuanced – what inspired you to make this album?
RK: I think it’s important to have the backstory of my previous album, Rabbit in the Road, which dealt with the follow-out of a difficult divorce. If that album was the wildfire that burned me to the ground, Game Changer is the regrowth. A lot of the songs sound to me like a list of intentions – what I want from my life, who I want to be, how I want to show up in relationships and in the wider world.
CE: Are there any songs that stand out as having unusual backstories?
RK: Not really. Mostly, the songs just come out of my life. There is nothing and everything unusual about a life.
CE: What was your process for writing this album?
RK: Like most of my writing, it happened slowly. A few of the songs came quicker with the start of a new romantic relationship, but mostly they took their time. My writing is very much a kind of selfish, therapeutic process – I write when I have something to work out or some intense emotion to express.
CE: You were born in Minnesota, are based in Boston, and recorded this album in North Carolina – do you take inspiration from the landscape around you? and what geographic universe would you say your songs are set in?
RK: I identify quite strongly with my hometown of Duluth, MN and I would say that some of the themes of kindness and commitment and self-betterment and civic duty are fairly Minnesotan ones. I do travel a lot for work, and actually split my living between the Boston area and Minnesota these days, and I think I find that people are people wherever you go.
CE: When did you decide that you wanted to make music for a living?
RK: There were actually two separate moments in my life when I made that decision. The first happened in college – I sang an original song at a performance for the first time and felt a completely new sense of self and purpose. I decided that night to discontinue a degree in music education in order to pursue songwriting and performance full time. But a short while later I was married and put music on the back burner (for most of my 20s) in order to help raise my step kid – it was a really happy time of family and community and I don’t regret it for a second. When my divorce came five years ago, I felt so directionless and alone and I really threw myself into this career with everything I had.
CE: What were your five favorite bands or musical artists that led you to music or influence how you write?
RK: As a kid I listened to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel and the protest songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. I grew into Joni Mitchell and Ani Difranco in my teens and some of the leaders of the late 80’s singer-songwriter revival (Dar Williams, Greg Brown, Iris Dement, Nancy Griffith, Catie Curtis, Lucy Kaplansky…) But one of my all-time favorites is Ferron – she’s an absolute queen of simple, confessional songwriting. Oops, that’s more than five!
CE: How long have you been touring and do you have a favorite venue or show that comes to mind?
RK: While I’ve been writing and performing for over 13 years, I really started touring on a national level about 4 years ago. There were some incredible experiences of course – Lincoln Center and The Kennedy Center – but my very favorite shows are the small ones. I think there is something special shared with an audience when everyone is close.
CE: What’s on your bucket list musically for 2019?
RK: I hope to get better and better at booking and promoting shows in a way that enhances the listeners experience. I want to teach audiences how to be very present and how to see their own messy selves reflected in my work! I’m also hoping to spend some time digging further into a songwriting project about my late father.
CE: Has being an out musician impacted your music career?
RK: In a lot of ways it’s been an afterthought in my life. I was very fortunate to be born into a family and community who have always accepted me and my relationships. It gave me the confidence to sing very openly about my life and I think bring some normalcy to lgbtq issues in a small way. If anything, I think being queer might have saved me from some of the very negative encounters young female musicians often experience in the industry – I very rarely find myself in an uncomfortable position with a man in power. That’s not to say it will never happen, but maybe the odds are more in my favor and it is something to be grateful for.
CE: What was the last album you bought, why, and on what format?
RK: Uh…this is awkward. I don’t often listen to music these days unless it’s live! One of the last things I bought was a record of the Jim Henson and the Muppets Christmas Album. And that was maybe 2 years ago! That said, I am eternally grateful for the good folks who buy an artist’s goods at the end of a show.
CE: If you could collaborate with any living musician – who would it be and why?
RK: I was actually really, really happy to collaborate with my own partner, Sara Pajunen, on this EP. Her violin arrangements knock me over every time I listen to them. I love the way she hears the world and the great care she takes in every endeavor.
CE: Anything else you’d want to tell me about Game Changer?
RK: I’m really proud of how Game Changer turned out – the simple songs themselves, the arrangements, the production (thanks to the folks at NewSong Music and Echo Mountain Recording Studios), even the album art! My friend Sarah Holst (www.sarahholstart.com) drew this elaborate set of bejeweled lungs for the front cover – it was inspired by the chorus of the title track “…fill your lungs with gold and rubies.”
Thanks so much for sitting down with me! Rachael’s new album is available everywhere on February 1, 2019. Until then enjoy this exquisite official video for the song “Holy Are We”