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Jillian Rae Plays for the Love of the Game

May 1, 2019

On a brisk Friday in March, I greeted Jillian Rae who was seated at a high top table at the downtown Minneapolis Barrio. This is her “go-to lunch spot”. Despite being our first time meeting, she gets up to hug me right away and as a hugger myself, I am relieved. There is a warmth radiating from her and she talks to me the way you would an old friend.

A product of the Minnesota Iron Range, Jillian’s parents divorced when she was five, after which, she lived primarily with her mom. She was six years old the first time she saw someone play violin “live, in person”, and needless to say, it was love at first sight. After nearly a year of persistent begging for a violin and lessons, her mom finally gave in.

…my mom got me a violin and she enrolled [me in lessons] with the teacher that I saw play and she was like, ‘ok, if you’re gonna do this, if I ever have to ask you or make you practice, you’re done. You’re gonna do this because you want to but I’m never gonna make you do it’ And that was just how it was. I practiced because I loved it, I would hardly wait to get home from school and take out my violin. I was true nerd I guess.

Playing and performing non-stop since then, for Jillian, being a musician isn’t simply a job or hobby, it’s her life, her identity. She went to college at St. Cloud State, majoring of course in music. Post-graduation, she moved to Duluth where she made her first and only attempt at a 9-5 grind. It lasted just long enough to know it wasn’t the life for her.

I did work a desk job for less than a year when I lived in Duluth. But that was also the same time that I started playing in bands, like original music bands, not just fiddle covers with like, little old guys in St Cloud, which was also SO amazing. But yeah, I don’t think I ever thought of that as a career path. I was like, lets see if I can hack out this desk job 9-5 thing and I had insurance for the only time in a my life for a job that I had. So that was cool but by the end of it, they hired me knowing that it’s like, I wanna try this out and I’ll give it my all but this isn’t something that I wanna do forever.

After that, she packed up and headed to Minneapolis. The first thing she did was find work teaching private music lessons at Schmitt Music in Edina. For many working musicians, teaching lessons is a no brainer way to sustain some regular income. And it was something Jillian had always done aside from playing and performing. But unlike other musicians, she sees it as much more than a meal ticket. She has a genuine love of sharing her knowledge and fostering creativity in her young students. It’s clear she values the importance of building community and giving back the best way she knows how. Coincidentally, Josie Just also taught at Schmitt during that time and shared Jillian’s passion for teaching. As they became close friends, the two learned that during the interview at Schmitt when they were asked what their goals were as music educators, they both responded by saying they hoped to open their own music school some day.

Some day came in January of 2011. Josie and Jillian left Schmitt and took a handful of students with them to start The Music Lab in Minneapolis. While the task of opening their own business was daunting, Jillian contends it was much easier to do with a partner. Fast forward eight years and the school has since flourished, employing over 20 instructors, who teach any and every instrument one can dream of, from piano to didgeridoo. In addition to private lessons, they also have summer camp programs. As the school continued to grow and thrive, Jillian found balancing The Music Lab’s workload with that of her band, Jillian Rae, becoming more and more difficult. She had a choice to make because by doing both, neither one was getting the 100% love and attention they deserved. In the end, Jillian made the hard decision to sell her half of the school to co-founder/owner Josie Just.

…it was a hard decision but being that Josie looks at the school as her baby just as much as I did. I probably wouldn’t have done it if she wouldn’t have kept it going but it’s still a thing, it’s still going and I still teach there. It just seemed like the stars aligned and that was the direction to go. Now my title is, I’m the co-founder, I’m no longer the co-owner.

Co-founder and instructor at The Music Lab are only two of Jillian’s many titles. Lead singer and creative mind of Jillian Rae, fiddle player for many bands, including but not limited to: Corpse Reviver, Steve Kaul & The Brass Kings, Brian Just Band, the list goes on. As much as the physicality of playing so much becomes more and more exhausting, she wouldn’t have it any other way. To hear her talk about it, you’d think she does it out of necessity rather than desire. She used the adage ‘I can sleep when I’m dead’ when asked about her motivation to play so much.

I’ve been playing and performing music since I was 7, 8 years old and that’s all I’ve done with my life. It’s what I love the most. Especially, when it’s somebody else’s music, that they’re the creator and you’re working with that creator, adding whatever it is you can bring to the table that they want you to do. There’s a super cool place of creativity that that lends–that’s not at all the same as writing your own songs. I just really like collaborating and I just like performing. Like if you were to just call me up and say, ‘Hey Jillian, do you wanna sit in with me at the 331 tonight at midnight?’ I’d be like, sure I’ll wander down there with my violin. Cause what else would I do? Sit on my couch? That’s a way better option!

Being a constant player in the Minneapolis music scene for the last several years has solidified Jillian’s place as major pillar in the community. She’s played all over town and got national exposure as a fiddle player for the Okee Dokee Brothers. Her first album Heartbeat was released in 2013 and she found success right out of the gate.

Unintentionally while writing what is now her follow-up album, “I Can’t Be The One You Want Me to Be,” there were a handful of songs she felt worked better as a separate package. Those songs became her EP Wanderlust which was released in 2017. Wanderlust is a collection of road songs, “lovely little acoustic bits” she calls them, that didn’t quite fit into the bigger picture of what her then, unnamed full length was turning out to be. Refusing to be chained to any particular style or genre, Jillian still wants her albums to have a cohesive theme, to tell a story. She is huge proponent of the album format and doesn’t see herself ever pumping out single after single. For I Can’t Be The One, she says the theme is essentially ‘fuck it’, meaning we have so many expectations coming as us from all sides and the message from these songs is, who cares? Given that mindset, the songs on I Can’t Be are assuredly darker and more introspective than her previous work. One stunner titled “Miserable” came to her after trying Xanax for the first time, when she was in a depressive state. Being open about her anxiety, occasional panic attacks and coping with burnout are important to her, a soldier on the battlefield to erase stigma associated with mental health issues. She hopes that by putting her own struggles out there it’ll help other people feel comfortable doing the same.

The album title is also a middle finger to any expectations out there for what kind of music she should be making.

…you know being a violinist, I think the big thing was, I’ve always been given advice from men in suits for example, older men in suits, like ‘pick a lane, you play violin, fiddle, Americana, this that and the other thing’ and I do love Americana music, I love playing bluegrass but when it comes to what I write, like, I like it to be a reflection of what i listen to.

By taking cues from her biggest influences like Wilco, Feist and Andrew Bird, the resulting product is a heartfelt, honest bunch of tunes that will surely stick to your insides. Spreading real talk over unforgettable melodies and hooks, at times going right when you’re expecting a left, these songs are refreshing and timely.

When asked about her end goal or when she’ll feel as though she’s “made it”. She wonders out loud if any artist truly ever feels that way.

When I was in college, I said to myself, I will be a successful musician when I can make a living and pay my bills with music and just play as much as possible.I think no matter where you get there’s always somewhere you want to push yourself to. I think I’m in a really lovely place. You always want to reach more people and make more things. I think what I’m reaching for is not an end goal, I just want to get my music to people who haven’t heard it yet.

One potential goal she mentioned, was writing an album dedicated to her rescue dog Ernie. So far she’s only come up with bits and pieces of songs here and there but the idea of a full album is on the radar. Ernie is a pit-lab mix that Jillian and her husband adopted when he was about three years old. If you follow her on social media, Ernie is a fixture there. Two years ago when he needed surgery to remove some suspicious lumps, Jillian set up a GoFundMe to help them with the cost. Fans came through for her and now Ernie is healthy and doing well. The generosity from the community is not lost on Jillian. A truly kind heart, she often scans the other GoFundMe pages and when she’s having “a good financial month” she likes to give back to the people who were there for her when she needed it.

Beyond her musical talents, Jillian is a truly kind hearted person. A kind person who enjoys saying the F word a lot, but promised to tone it down for this story. Jokes aside, her genuine love and devotion to her craft is palpable. Music critics love to talk about authenticity and who has it and who doesn’t. It is absolutely undeniable that Jillian’s authentic love for music comes from a pure and vulnerable place.

That said, to really get to know Jillian, the best way is to see her perform live. She will accompany her Friday, May 31 album release of “I Can’t Be The One You Want Me to Be” with a release show at the Cedar Cultural Center, one of her favorite venues in town.


By Sarah Osterbauer

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