DULUTH – The backroom of Blacklist Artisan Ales’ brewhouse is a terrible place for a good cry. Duluth folk artist Rachael Kilgour doesn’t care.
She’s determined to debut a song about how she inherited her late father’s battle with depression, even with daylight pouring through the window, happy-hour chatter bleeding in from the main bar and her recently widowed mom sitting in the audience.
“I haven’t heard it in its entirety. It’ll be hard,” said Jean Kilgour, chatting with neighbors as her daughter ushered folks to their seats. “But she needs to do this. Music is how she expresses herself. I may cry, but who cares?”
If Mom does break down, there won’t be many witnesses. The 34-year-old musician’s schedule, which includes a set Saturday in the basement of Minneapolis’ University Baptist Church, consists largely of solo shows for a few dozen people. At one recent gig in Connecticut, six people showed up, two of whom rarely looked up from their cellphones.
But the industry is starting to take notice.
Renowned talent agent Jim Fleming, whose clients have included Ani DiFranco, Judy Collins and Tom Paxton, has taken her under his wing. Accolades at major festivals have led to showcases at the Kennedy Center in Washington and Lincoln Center in New York City.
In November, Rolling Stone put her single “Holy Are We,” a bitter rebuke of homophobes, on its list of “10 Best Country and Americana Songs of the Week,” alongside Dolly Parton’s latest version of “Jolene.”
Listen to Kilgour’s 2017 album “Rabbit in the Road,” a tangled-up-in-blues farewell to her former wife, and you’ll be convinced Kilgour is the finest purveyor of tear-jerkers to emerge from northern Minnesota since Bob Dylan.
“When she starts playing a song, you think, ‘Oh, that’s really pretty,’ and then comes the moment when you realize how impactful the lyrics really are,” said veteran artist and mentor Catie Curtis, whose songs have popped up on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Dawson’s Creek.”
“There’s a fearlessness in her writing. She’ll take difficult material, whether it’s about relationships or politics, and she’ll say stuff that will make people uncomfortable but that they’re going to remember forever.”
That’s certainly the case with the brand-new number she introduced about halfway through her recent hometown set. “My father loved me when he could not love himself,” she sang with her eyes closed and the hint of an Elvis snarl. Her mop of hair flopped to the right so severely, it’s a wonder she didn’t topple over. “I want to be just like him and nothing like him at the very same time.”
Her angelic voice started to crack. Could she get through the number without falling apart?
She’s a rebel
A tour of Duluth in Kilgour’s 2006 Toyota Corolla starts with a drive to the childhood home that her father, Bob, assembled in Frankenstein-like fashion, between building other people’s houses.
Next door is Lowell Elementary. The youngest of the three Kilgour kids would trudge there in snowshoes, even though it’s less than a block away. “I just had to have them to put in my locker,” she said. “I wanted to be different.”
She took full advantage of Lowell’s free music lessons and became a first-class violinist. But she was also inspired by big brother Joel, whose passion for social justice spoke to her as much as Itzhak Perlman did.
“As a 10-year-old, I just wanted to get his approval,” she said as she headed toward a hospitality center for Duluth’s homeless men that Joel helps run. “I’d be leading tiny elementary-school protests on things like, ‘Don’t cut down trees.’ I was good about standing up for people. I wasn’t good about saying, ‘Hey, I want to be your friend. Do you want to come over?’ ”
Joel Kilgour confirmed stories about his sister’s rebellious streak. But he still seemed a bit perplexed about how she ended up playing in front of strangers for a living.
“She wasn’t the kind of kid who craved attention,” he said. “She shied away from that as much as she could.
“But I hate heights, and every chance I get, I go to high places to challenge myself. I guess Rachael has a little bit of that in her, too.”
Kilgour didn’t fully ingratiate herself in the folk scene until the summer after her freshman year at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where she studied music education. She landed a job on the East Coast, babysitting the children of a camp director whose partner just happened to be Catie Curtis.
“At first I thought, I have the best nanny in the world. She’s great with the kids and she can sing harmonies,” said Curtis, who would go on to coproduce Kilgour’s “Rabbit” album. “But by the next summer, she had written some songs. That’s when I realized I was witnessing the blossoming of a real talent.”
All by myself
Kilgour’s early albums were recorded with a romantic’s heart, celebrating her marriage at a relatively young age, and an activist’s agenda. Her 2013 EP was even called “Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution.”
Then she got a divorce.
“I found myself writing all these songs about how sad I was, and it felt super-selfish,” Kilgour said. “I mean, who hasn’t written a breakup song? I thought, ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done with my time.’ But when I started singing them in public, I recognized that songs about breaking up and sadness are inherently political, as well. It was really healthy, standing up for myself in a way I never had before.”
“Rabbit in the Road” is a screw-you masterpiece designed for listeners ready to move on from Taylor Swift. On the title track, she wonders how an ex could be kind enough to put an injured bunny out of its agony, but couldn’t show a similar mercy toward her lover.
“Ready Freddie” delves into her complicated relationship with her stepdaughtere.
“You say ‘forever’ like it means something, like you have never said it before,” she sings on the aptly named “Deep Bruises.” “But honey, nobody believes your broken record anymore.”
Her next album, “Game Changer,” due Feb. 1, is more optimistic as it celebrates her three-year relationship with fellow Minnesotan Sara Pajunen, a violinist who specializes in Finnish folk music. But the ballads still pack a punch. On the lead single, “Holy Are We,” she tells haters that “if my greatest sin is to love her, you can send me to hell.”
She also has written four songs about her dad, who died in September 2017, including one about how the health care system let him down as he suffered from dementia so severe he forgot how to tie his own shoes. She hopes to have a concept album ready for 2020.
She’s splitting her time between Minnesota and Boston, where the folk scene is more vibrant, and trying to conquer her shyness so she can peddle herself to industry bigwigs in New York and Los Angeles.
But on this early evening in Duluth, she’s just trying to get through the set in one piece. She makes it — barely.
She wraps up the new number, “My Father Loved Me,” without a major hitch, but during her performance of “Ready Freddie,” the tears start to flow.
“I’ll very often have to stop a song because I’m crying,” she said offstage. “It’s endearing to a certain point, but I can’t do it on every single song.”