I discovered local singer-songwriter Rachael Kilgour when I went to see a dance in Duluth round and she played a couple of songs from her self-titled debut album between dances. This is "discovered," not in the sense that Columbus "discovered" the Americas and was credited with discovering continents and people who had been around for millennia, but "discovered" as when you learn that you really, really like the taste of blueberries or the paintings of Johannes Vermeer.
Kilgour is the youngest daughter of a family as whole-heartedly committed to social and political issues as they are to each other. Consequently it is not surprising that Kilgour, in the grand tradition of Harry Chapin standard of doing one concert for himself and one for the other guy, donates 50% of all of her live show profits to a local cause of charity. Her debut album, released earlier this year, collects a dozen finely-crafted songs in which the singer-songwriter plays guitar. The album features art by Kilgour's wife, Adeline Wright, who also provides vocal harmonies on most of the songs. The opening track, "Bluebird," is a lovely little lullaby written to and about their daughter, and ends with young Galalee singing the final touching refrain.
"Tell Me Washington" sets up being true to the one you love as the holy grail of any relationship quest. "Go" is about turning the red lights in a potentially great relationship to green, while "Baby, Maybe" is a song looking at the wreck of a relationship with unabashed relief, acknowledging "I knew I was too good," and concluding: "Thank god you were blind/And I made up my mind/To be happy without you." "Sorry" is an apologetic song of regret equally appropriate to relationships that have hit potholes or dead ends, while "Cheat and Lie" speaks to doing anything to get back what you have lost. When you rip these songs to your computer you could easily rearrange them in a sort of narrative chronology depicting the quest to find a soul mate. If this were a movie that ends on top of the mountain looking over into the promised land of happily ever after, "Here I Am" is the scene right before the fade to black. The yearning to be known and loved by another is central to "Sun's Going Down" as well.
Even Kilgour's political songs remain intensely personal. As she observed in a recent concert, while she is aware of global issues, right now her "world" is relatively small. Consequently, she might start off in "Cheap Grace" castigating movie stars who pose with starving children in Uganda for not doing more, but turns the same critical eye on her own "trying to pretend like I'm trying to try." "Passion and Forgiveness" asks pointed questions about the limits of forgiveness. The song wonders about finding the ones that flew the planes into the Twin Towers and Saddam Hussein in heaven and reminds people who find limits to their own ability to forgive others there is the danger the same thing might be done unto them.
The album ends with "Adeline," an ode to the woman she loves and "this plan we never planned," followed by a final call to action in "Sing Out Together" that underscores the need to think about more than just yourself, which is clearly a central theme of Kilgour's songs. Because the songs "Bluebird," "Passion and Forgiveness," and "Adeline" are explicitly self-referential, there is a tendency to want to put all of the other relationship songs in a personal context. But the point is moot because the rule of thumb has always been whether songs were emotionally true, not literally true, and on that score Kilgour repeatedly hits the bullseye with her heartfelt sentiments and acute perspectives.
As I listen to them, Kilgour's songs echo chord progressions of Dar Williams
and Sheryl Crow
, the singing of Melanie
, Shawn Colvin
, and Sarah McLachlan
, and the political sensibilities of Joan Baez
and Judy Small
. None of these references are intended to be seen as influences or even antecedents. I engage in such name dropping because it struck me that usually I reduce such descriptions of new artists to one or two points of comparison. But Kilgour defies such encapsulations because there is just so much here that I really, really like.
A signature aspect of Kilgour's lyrics is the selective use of rhyme in her songs. In "Cheap Grace" each stanza offers rhyming pairs only at the end of lines six and eight, so that you almost miss hearing them. Then in the chorus not only rhymes the title phrase with "sweet taste," she also makes each chorus unique. Every time a chorus repeats there should be a progression of meaning, but few songwriters see the need to make subtle but significant changes in each one. There is a charming sophistication to the rhyme and reason of these lyrics that you cannot really appreciate until you print them up and just read them as poetry. Not since Aimee Mann
have I paid as much attention to the way a songwriter crafts her lyrics, but it is equally justified in this case.
I have seen Kilgour perform in public several times, most recently at the Spiritual Deli, where she was literally singing to the choir. Having now heard most of these songs performed live I can hear exactly how producer Haley Bonar has fleshed them out on this album with basic additional instrumentation complimenting Kilgour's singing of her lyrics, which sometimes downshifts to a tantalizing whisper. A cello provides a poignant counterpoint to "Bluebird," while Kilgour's own violin does the same duty on "Passion and Forgiveness" and a drum drives "Tell Me Washington." "Sorry" is the song most enhanced in the studio to provide a dimension you will not hear in live performance.
When I finally got to hear Rachael Kilgour do an entire concert for the first time, I found myself thinking that she was too good for Duluth, which was just a convoluted way of thinking that this is a local artist who is bound for bigger and better things. Be ahead of the curve of everybody in your neck of the woods and check her out sooner, rather than later.