Jillian Rae's songwriting and fiddling come from the heart

Jillian Rae has no problem with Taylor Swift, but she's tired of the comparisons. She and the country-bred pop-crossover darling both have a knack for writing catchy love songs, but that's right where it ends. "I craft my songs differently," the 29-year-old Rae insists. "I definitely want to give myself a little bit more credit than just writing Taylor Swift love songs." How about a lot more?

For instance, just watch her play the fiddle. Rae also co-owns Music Lab, a music school in the Nokomis neighborhood offering courses and private instrument lessons. She personally instructs over 40 students weekly. She is currently an active member of six bands, and often lends her fiddle expertise to other groups. Last December she released her first solo album, Heartbeat. Rae and her husband, Eric Martin, also the guitarist in her band, recently purchased a home.

Over a cold soda at Turtle Bread, just blocks from her school, she scoffs at the gender-based double standard in how female musicians are often regarded by the media.

"All of a sudden I'm just in this box with Taylor Swift, but then Jeremy Messersmith is one of my favorite local musicians," she explains. "I love him so much. Obviously he's an amazing songwriter. He writes a record that's all heart-related, and it's just this cool, nuanced pop record."

Looking back on Heartbeat, Rae is content with the body of work as a whole, despite what she refers to as its "genre-hopping" nature. The songs, sometimes hopeful, sometimes conflicted and sad, are an honest testament to her own experiences with love, including the dissolution of her first marriage to her high school sweetheart at the age of 19. The two-year marriage and year-long period spent embroiled in divorce proceedings spurred much welcomed self-discovery.

"My song content does come from sometimes a dark place, sometimes kind of a gutsy place," she says. "The fact that sometimes I'm able to write it down, let alone sing it in front of people, to me is a personal triumph."

Rae began begging her parents for a violin in first grade after seeing a group of young violinists perform at a summer camp. It took a year to convince her mom, who was a bit skeptical, but Rae eventually wound up a member of the very group that had inspired her to play in the first place. "I was just one of those dorky kids who would come home from school just wanting to play my violin and not do homework," she remembers.

After receiving a music performance degree from St. Cloud State, she strayed from her classical roots to join bands. The romance between Rae and her violin has remained, despite obvious challenges.

"I kind of look at it a little bit sadly right now," she says, eyes cast downward beneath the brim of her hat. "I wish I had more time to devote to playing whatever I want, or just playing at home. As a kid when you have no responsibilities you can just play for hours.... I kind of want to learn how to bring that back into my life a little bit as an adult."

She happily declares, though, that she's had a small-time management breakthrough for her new EP. "I've worked on a lot since the Heartbeat release show, but it's been sort of just fragments of things here and there," she says. "I haven't been devoting time to sit down alone and sit at the piano, or sit with my guitar and violin and write. Now that I'm settled into the house I just actually started doing that a few days ago — actually finishing a song for a change. Working up concepts."

She hopes to record the EP after a flurry of summer touring and slots at two of Minneapolis's biggest summer concert events, the Stone Arch Bridge Festival and the Basilica Block Party.

"The fact that I'm playing Stone Arch is so huge for me," she says. "I'm so excited about it." Rae played the festival once before with the Brian Just Band. "That was a show that really stuck out. When I started this project I was like, man, I really hope I can do that with my band!"

Rae pulls her phone out to glance at the time. She has a lesson to teach this afternoon, a private session with one of her young students at the Music Lab. Just before she stands, a final thought forms. "I just never thought of doing anything else," she says. "I am music. That's what I do, and that's what my life is about."