Shawnee Kilgore: Welcome to the journey
by Brent Cole
After nearly 15 years of playing music, Whatcom County native and Austin, TX resident Shawnee Kilgore is ready to take the breaks off. The time is now.
Shawnee began playing guitar at the age of 14 – not as a means of expressing teenage angst, but for love. “I was in love with the lead singer from Silverchair,” she said with a laugh. “I figured that if we were going to get married, then I’d have to get famous. My mom had a guitar in the house and I figured why not?” She and a friend soon started a punk band, and though Shawnee wrote songs at home, the band never practiced. A year or so in, she began to shift her focus and started finding her voice – moving away from punk dreams to a softer approach.
Soon, Shawnee began playing the open mic at Stuart’s Coffeehouse (now the home of Bayou on Bay). Over the next decade, she became a fixture in the Bellingham folk scene, releasing two records and playing regularly. But something wasn’t quite right.
“Bellingham is one of those places that I loved so much but I didn’t choose to be there, there was a part of me that really needed to be somewhere new. You walk down the streets and everything you see and everyone you see if reflecting this version of you back to you and you aren’t sure if that’s who you are anymore,” she said.
So, Shawnee would leave town, thinking it was for good, often only to be back two or three weeks later. “I kept going on these trips and thinking that I’d be gone for a long time,” she stated.
In the summer of 2010, Shawnee had a friend in Connecticut who helped set up a cool tour back east. She then went to Los Angeles to visit friends and attended a music conference before setting her sights on Austin, a place friends told her about and figured it was her last stop. “Just go for the sake of going and then you can go home,” she thought. “When I ended up leaving, it wasn’t meant to be as definite as it turned out.
As soon as Shawnee arrived in Austin, things began to fall into place – a musician friend happened to need a house sitter for a month and a half. It was a great time for her to reflect on who she was and what she was about – and write music. “I wrote the EP all in that month and a half of being there,” she said.
Among the things Shawnee realized was how badly the Pacific Northwest’s gray and cold affected her. “Austin has sunshine – I have racked up the sunshine deficiency I’d built up.” She also fell in love with the Austin folk community. “No one is trying to impress,” Shawnee said. “Everyone is working hard, both at supporting themselves and supporting each other. They go out into the world to make a living and then come home to just relax and be themselves.
Shawnee also met her boyfriend, Will, and suddenly Austin was home.
While she had found happiness and a home, the lack of angst and misery made writing difficult. “So much of songwriting is taking the feelings that hurt or are uncomfortable to deal with and finding the hope and turning it into something beautiful. I didn’t really know how to work with it,” she said.
As she battled writers block, Shawnee began working with Austin friend and Whatcom County ex-Pat, Daisy O’Connor, writing a song a week. Soon she joined an online folk group that was tasked with writing a song a week – if you missed a deadline, you were out of the group. Only she and one other person made it through the year-long commitment.
Writing two songs per week helped Shawnee work on her voice. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said, adding, “When I have a deadline, I don’t get to argue, I don’t get to be lazy – a melodic spark has to happen.” While most of the songs ended up being throwaways, it helped her figure out how to write songs.
Fast forward to last year and Shawnee, after going through a serious bout of soul searching, begins work on the foundation of her next album by setting up a kickstarter to raise funds. One of the backers was Joss Whedon, the brilliant mind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and most recently, The Avengers. His reward for backing was a song personally written for him. About a week later, after he’d given her some ideas for a song, he reached out to Shawnee, wanting to collaborate with Shawnee writing the music and singing while Joss provided the words.
Initially, Shawnee wasn’t star struck – she wasn’t that familiar with his work. “It was weirder for Will,” Shawnee said with a laugh, “he’s a game designer.” The working relationship proved fruitful as they wrote five songs together (they’re shooting for six) with the single “Big Giant Me” making its way to Youtube and iTunes. “It’s almost weirder how not weird it’s been. The friendship and the collaboration have been so easy – right from the get go I’ve felt so comfortable with him. I would consider him a very close friend now.”
Whether by coincidence, influence or self realization, after working with Joss, Shawnee knew it was time to take the breaks off and really turn her music into a career – one that she loves and works at with all her heart and soul, but one that she also takes seriously as a means of income.
“Thinking about what I was doing for so long that obviously was NOT trying that hard to build a real career as a musician, some people live to be on a stage and I was never one of those people,” she said. “I mean, the great shows were great, but the not so great ones I would just as rather stay home. The stage is a magnifier of whatever you’ve got going on inside. Any insecurities or self doubt you’re feeling get blown up larger than life, and for a long time it was hard for me to subject myself to that because I was afraid I couldn’t stand up to it. The spotlight was an opportunity, both to shine and to fuck up. It’s taken me this long in my life to actually be ok with fucking up, to decide every day that it’s more important to take the risk than to stay safe. That’s a life changer.”
Part of this was working on the new album, which is being released this month. It took over a year to make while balancing the schedules of musicians, the recording studio and the producer, but for Shawnee, the wait was well worth it. “It was a journey for me – there were a lot of firsts on this record. I was more involved than the first few I did. I was there for everyone (her first record with a full band). I wanted to get a lot of people involved in it, which is also scary. I really wanted that feeling of community and connection – there are so many wonderful and talented people here.”
She added, “It’s time to play with a full band. It’s something I’ve been drawn to for a long time. I’m finally getting to the point in my life and career that if it scares me, it’s probably worth doing.”
The future looks to be extremely busy as she and Joss wrap up the EP and she will begin touring as much as possible. Shawnee also plans on writing a new record that incorporates the poetry of her father, who passed when she was nine years old, as well as making a ukulele album which she wrote prior to leaving Bellingham.
Of her future, Shawnee had this to say: “There’s the saying that people are more afraid of success than of failure, and there’s definitely a part of me that knows in my heart what I’m capable of if I can just get out of the way – and some days I’m still afraid like hell of that, but I’m finally to a healthy and happy enough place in my life where I actually want to learn the lessons, not just skip ahead to get to the good shit. I don’t want something for nothing. If you’re not making mistakes you’re not growing, and I’m really into growing. There’s a piece of paper on my wall that says “I choose to give myself permission to make decisions and mistakes that allow me to grow in love and be seen on a bigger stage.” No one else will ever give me that permission, or make those decisions for me. Personal responsibility has been a hard thing for me accept building a career as a musician, and I’m really starting to see what’s possible when I do. It’s one person, one song, one opportunity at a time and that’s such a real and beautiful thing.”
Catch her CD release show on Saturday, Sept. 5 at the Honey Moon. For more about Shawnee Kilgore, see her website at www.shawneekilgore.com.
Published in the September 2015 issue of What’s Up!