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Singer-songwriter finds success on the road after a tumultuous year

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Folk singer Rachael Kilgour of Duluth has been trotting across the country, attending workshops and festivals, and she has plans to record a live album in the coming weeks. (Clint Austin / / 4
Kilgour performs in the basement of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Sunday during the Jefferson Street Block Party. (Clint Austin / / 4
It’s been four years since Kilgour released her last full-length album, and she has a lot of new material. During the worst times of the past year, she wept out fully-formed songs. Kilgour plans to make a proper studio album soon, but she wants to do it right. (Clint Austin / / 4

Rachael Kilgour isn’t sure what to do about this apartment. The two-bedroom space is clean, bright and airy with light wood floors and enough space to, hypothetically, practice yoga in the living room. Her books, her old violin, her framed keepsakes are here on a blue bookcase tucked behind her couch.

“I really love this apartment,” she said. “I did a lot of growing up in this neighborhood. (It’s) a strong community of families and activists and practical gardens.”

Her home is on Jefferson Street near Loaves & Fishes, where her brother Joel Kilgour is an outreach worker. Rachael Kilgour, a folk singer-songwriter, regularly drops in to volunteer or just hang out — and has since she was 10 years old. Plus, the lifelong Duluthian can easily walk to places like the Rose Garden.

But lately Kilgour has been traveling a lot — to North Carolina, to New York, to Colorado for songwriting competitions, folk festivals, music conventions — and her rent money has been reallocated as a plane ticket fund. And there is no end to her travels in sight. In September she’s booked to open for Cheryl Wheeler, a folk mainstay, in Chevy Chase, Md.

Kilgour’s practical mother thinks she should give up the apartment, the musician told Facebook friends last week while publicly soliciting solutions.

“It’s cute. Cute is the whole of it,” Kilgour said of her apartment and laughed. “I do love it. It was important for me to claim a space of my own, and this is it, so far.”

It’s been a life-changing 14 months for Kilgour, who last summer went through a divorce from her wife of eight years. That resulted in living apart from her stepdaughter — though Kilgour doesn’t use the word “step.” There was much crying, some cathartic stage performances and so much writing.

“I got divorced in a painful, surprising and public way,” Kilgour said. “I felt like I had nothing left to do but this. There was a big loss and big grieving, which sparked big creativity.

“Artists are so lucky when s—- hits the fan. It’s nice to have an outlet.”

Then Kilgour, 30, did what she had never done before as a musician — at least on this scale: She hit the road.

First she went east and found a folk music scene in Boston that was unlike anything she had ever experienced. There are concert halls, folk music conferences, resources and people with a similar belief that music is something spiritual, she said.

Kilgour visited with Boston-based folk singer-songwriter-mentor-friend Catie Curtis, a longtime touring musician who was described as a “folk-rock goddess” by the New Yorker magazine. The two have been friends for a decade, and for a while Kilgour toured with Curtis, adding fiddle, backing vocals and an original song or two.

Curtis offered up sound advice: Sign up for as many songwriting competitions as possible.  

So Kilgour did — or at least a few.

“I have always been impressed with her musicality and her writing and her singing,” Curtis said in a phone interview. “And I started to notice two or three years ago, it sounded like she was honing her writing to a place where she had developed her own voice. What she was saying was uniquely hers and she was captivating audiences.”

Judges have seemingly seen something similar.

Kilgour won the LEAF Festival Singer-Songwriter Competition in May, earning a headlining spot at the North Carolina-based festival’s songwriter showcase in October. According to the official reports from the fest, she was the only artist to earn a standing ovation.

Kilgour called the experience reassuring. In Duluth, it’s never clear if people are connecting with her music or if they love her because they know her mom, she said.

“Playing in North Carolina was magical. You could feel the audience vibrating,” Kilgour said, and remembered thinking during the performance, “You guys don’t even have to be nice to me. You don’t even know my family.”

After North Carolina, she was a finalist in the Telluride Troubadour Competition in Colorado. She toured in Nova Scotia, New York, Massachusetts and Maine. She attended the Folk Alliance International Conference. She’s played stages, living rooms and campfires.

All over, the self-described introvert-extrovert found herself connecting with strangers, she said.

It’s been four years since Kilgour released her last full-length album, “Will You Marry Me,” which was described by a News Tribune reviewer as playing “like a love letter to her soulmate and to the world.”

She has a lot of new material. During the worst of the worst times of the past year, she wept out fully-formed songs. She always cries when she writes, she said. Kilgour plans to make a proper studio album in the near future, but she wants to do it right.

“I want to nail it,” she said. “I want to have a plan and a team.”

Curtis said she thinks the musician has what it takes to make it in the indie folk scene.

“I think she is feisty and brave in a way that serves her really well,” she said.

In the meantime, Kilgour needs something current. She will record a live performance with a mix of old and new songs on Friday at The Underground. She said she is hoping to release it before the end of the year.

Live shows, she said, are where she is at her best.  

Kilgour is an emotive and physical performer. She weaves, bobs and stomps. She sings with her eyes closed and when she’s not, she’s making eye contact with members of the audience. She’s relatable, making the level of vulnerability is hard to watch, but harder to not watch. And her voice is bigger now — at least that’s what people keep telling her. She thinks maybe it’s the crying, or maybe it’s just the natural course of aging.

It seems true. When she sings “Ready Freddie,” a touching tribute to a young woman, the sound fills the corners of her apartment — maybe even all of Jefferson Street.

“There was a very big shift in my life, and that’s what came out of it,” she said. “This power. A resiliency I wasn’t expecting. And creativity.”

Go see it

Who: Rachael Kilgour

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

Tickets: $12 in advance at; $15 at the door