Rachael Kilgour is a political singer-songwriter from the icy cold shores of Duluth, Minnesota. Focusing on both the personal and the political she’s released a new EP entitled ‘Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution’ that is so excellent that we’ll forgive her for using comic sans on her official website. Willing to play everywhere from barns to coffee houses, she’s criss-crossed America penning snapshots of hope and deprivation with sharp, topical lyrics and shared the stage with folk luminaries such as Greg Brown. Recently she spoke to Sound Influx about growing up in the cold, money-grabbing labels and loving both Woody Guthrie and M.I.A.
From Bob Dylan through to Low and Charlie Parr, Duluth, MN seems to do pretty well music-wise. Do you have any idea why that might be?
Um...no! Not exactly. We seem to have a lot of opportunities for everyone, no matter what your style or ability level and I think that's a pretty great model. Out of that many artists and that many venues, you're bound to find some amazing talent. Or maybe surviving a freezing cold Duluth winter helps spark the creative mind. Or maybe we're just lucky.
‘Whistleblower’s Manifesto: Songs for a New Revolution’ is a pretty provocative title. What does revolution mean to you? And do you think artists have a duty to address political events?
I believe our society is due for some drastic change - change led by the people. We could do better in many areas - our foreign policies, the racism, sexism and homophobia that are still rampant today, and my own personal favorite, the unequal distribution of wealth. Our economy is not functional in a way that benefits the majority of our society. I think it is disgraceful that a handful of people hold most of our wealth, and the rest of us haven't banded together to demand something different yet. My song "In America" specifically addresses this issue: "the bottom few could be privileged too, if they'd buckle down and try." I'm so sick of this idea that we are all responsible for ourselves - that a person should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make a life for themselves. It is simply not true. Sure, there is a certain amount of ambition that person needs, but in many regards, are paths in life are predetermined. I don't think the way our system works today is sustainable and I'm fairly certain that we will experience some sort of collapse eventually, and maybe that will lead to real change.
To your second question, yes, art is an incredibly powerful way to address political and social issues. But not everyone is called to make art about it. For some people (including myself at times) art is deeply personal and it is hard to sing about anything broader than your own personal life. I totally respect that. On the other hand, I think we tend to be a nation of narcissists and sometimes it's a good thing to push yourself to think about and write about things beyond your own personal experiences.
What are your favourite political songs and why?
I grew up listening to a lot of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and the political music of the 60's and 70's and I liked all of it. Some of my favorite songs are by Malvina Reynolds - "Little Boxes" and "We Hate to See Them Go" are two ridiculously awesome songs. In "We Hate to See Them Go" she imagines an America where the "gentleman of distinction" sign up for the army and go off to war. Here's a verse:
"The bankers and the diplomats are going in the army, It seemed a shame to keep them from the wars they love to plan. We're all of us contented that they'll fight a dandy war, They don't need propaganda, they know what they're fighting for. They'll march away with dignity and in the best of form, And we'll just keep the laddies here to keep the lassies warm"
I also really like the songs "Banks of Marble" by Pete Seeger. The verses highlight some of the low-paying, hard-labor jobs that left (and still leave) families struggling, and then finishes with the chorus:
"But the banks are made of marble With a guard at every door And the vaults are made of silver That the workers sweated for"
As for recent work - I think M.I.A. has some incredible messaging and I also really like Nellie Mckay and Ani Difranco.
Why do you think that the political left has better music?
Because we are right of course. The political left has, for a good long time, been primarily focused on the struggles of the underdog. That's just plain and simple WAY MORE inspirational. Save the rain forest, equal rights for women, government services for the poor, freedom to marry for everyone, stop killing people in pointless wars, end racism... I think our consciences are tied to the issues quite strongly and that leads to some impassioned music. Plus, I think we've just relied on that avenue of expression for a longer time so we're better at it.
According to your Facebook page you’ve chosen not to sign to a record label. Why was this? And do you think record labels, which are out to make a profit, can ever adequately produce political material?
You nailed it. I am definitely open to working with a label, but I haven't yet found one that is in line with my ethics. I would never agree to compromise my beliefs in order to make it as an artist. Clearly I am not out for profit, as evidenced by my sad little bank accounts. I think there are a handful of labels out there that might be a good fit for me in the future, and I'm grateful for the good work they're doing.
Your wife sings harmony vocals for you. Was it fate or good luck that your voices happen to go together so well?
Not sure how to answer this one. I guess both? I do love singing with Adeline. We've navigated a long road of collaboration for the last seven years and it's had its ups and downs. Of course working with your spouse is a challenge for anyone, but the thing at its core - the singing - has always been wonderful. When we first met we started out singing old covers like Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan on our dates. It was very sweet. Adeline overcame some pretty severe stage-fright to back me up. She's the best harmony vocalist I've ever worked with. She can come up with a harmony part the second she hears a song for the first time. I think it is superbly attractive.
From your press material I was expecting more of a singer-songwriter approach so I was surprised to find you had a full-band. How did your backing group come together? And are you thinking about what the whole group might be doing when you write a song?
Actually, I do a lot of performing solo. The full band is fantastic, and I play with them as much as possible, but it usually only works out for bigger shows and for recording. I always work with Jeremy and Jake Hanson. They are extremely talented brothers out of Minneapolis and they are wanted by everyone and their mothers - which makes it hard to nail them down for a show. Jeremy plays drums in the band Tapes N' Tapes and Jake is the guitarist for Halloween Alaska and Mason Jennings and they both play for Haley Bonar among many other groups. I don't think a bit about what Jake and Jeremy will add to a song - they are so good they rarely need my feedback. My writing self is a simple, solo singer-songwriter. I usually play a new song for Jake and Jeremy and then they'll throw a handful of options out for me and I'll pick my favourite.
Are there plans for a full length album?
Not quite yet. I think full length albums may be on their way out. I guess I haven't decided where to go next with it, but I'll keep you updated.
Is there a concept that ties your songs together?
I guess most of them, particularly the songs on this EP, are meant to inspire people to be their best selves. I go at it differently in each song - sometimes it's a snotty satire and sometimes it's an appeal to listeners' emotions. Mostly I want people to think when they hear my songs, and think hard.
If you could change one thing about modern day America what would it be?
That we would put our financial resources into eradicating poverty instead of into war. And on a personal level, that individuals would think less of themselves and more of what they can do for their neighbours.