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Margo Cilker "Some bands make it hard work to get to know them – that's not for me"

Margo Cilker has enriched the canon of Americana with superb debut Pohorylle. We caught up with the Oregon singer-songwriter to talk Bilbao shopkeepers, Scandinavia and plans for a follow-up.

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Photo by Matthew W. Kennelly.

It's a smiling Margo Cilker who greets me just a few hours after her joyously received lunchtime set on a warm September afternoon at End of the Road festival in Dorset. As we walk, I thank her for her time, talk about Now Then, and explain my amateur hack credentials.

"Hey, no problem at all. I already admire your self-awareness," says Portland-born Margo as we find a spot to sit and chat, trying our best to filter out the raucous racket of post-punk outfit Modern Woman playing nearby.

She's three gigs into the UK leg of a 48 date UK, Scandinavia and US tour. I ask her how the reaction has been so far. "Great. Every time I come to the UK, I really enjoy it. I want a casual, friendly environment from my audience and that's what I get here. Some bands make it hard work to get to know them. That's not for me. I have to be calm on stage."

I mention that during her set, she looked knowingly at the audience and cited "difficulties" in getting here. Is she feeling the aches and pains of touring already? "Ah, that's just the logistics of getting around this country, you know – trains, planes and automobiles. It's been no mean feat to get here – wonderful, but hiccups along the way. We try to keep our heads above water, plus I miss my husband!"

Why Scandinavia for the second leg of the tour? She laughs, "Ah, that's because they were the only promoters who invited me! I love swimming and fish, it's beautiful, plus a friend of mine from Oregon lives in Oslo, so we'll meet up – it all means a lot.” End Of The Road has acted as an Americana showcase for numerous bands over the years, such as Courtney Marie Andrews and the iconic Lucinda Williams. Any peers that she's bumped into recently? "Yes, I often bump into Andrew Combs when our tours and festivals coincide here – he's a friend."

Cilker's inaugural album Pohorylle came out in November to much critical acclaim (see Now Then’s review), covering love, loss and community, all set in a widescreen American vista. The unusual title reflects her admiration for Gerta Pohorylle, a German-Jewish war photographer who was active during the Spanish civil war, and who is regarded as the first photojournalist to have died (at the age of 26) while on the frontline.

Pursuing that interest and her natural curiosity, Cilker spent a two-year sojourn in the Basque country in northern Spain, striking up friendships and connections that she values highly. "I learned to speak enough [Basque dialect] Euskara to get by. I had a love affair with the Basque country and I kind of seeped my way into the community and got to know them well – there are shops in Bilbao where the shopkeepers know me by name. I'd love to go back some day".

Cilker's travelogue background is a demonstration of her awareness and need to immerse herself in – that word again – community. She was famously dropped off at Victoria station in London after a European tour, and with a few quid in her pocket looked at the station departure board and saw a train due to go to Penzance. Her father had appeared once in a home-town production of The Pirates of Penzance, so she thought ‘why not?’ and travelled to the Cornwall town to see what it was like.

We talk about the album, and discuss the clever use of the personal and constructed experiences that underpin the songs, all of which have a subtly layered intensity that evidences Cilker's deep-thinking songcraft.

I ask if she set out to record a set of songs that explored a deep emotional gravitas, or did it just work out that way? "I think it just happened, and the songs naturally came out. I don't edit my subject matter, it's quite raw. Sometimes you've just got to let it out.”

And influences? "I was very into Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, you know – Greenwich Village stuff.” I mention that she cleverly sneaks the Joni Mitchell line "I live in a box of paints" into her song ‘Bilbao Precipitation’. "Yes I did, but Joni Mitchell, you know she was massive when I was younger." I reference the track ‘Kevin Johnson’, a lyrical list of all the virtues of a “good 'ole southern man", that cleverly disguises the paper-thin layers beneath which lurk an alternative view. "Yes, the song's about showing what these people represent and how folks end up feeling a certain way about the world outside when inside it's different."

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Photo by Matthew W. Kennelly.

Live crowd pleaser and album highlight ‘Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl)’ has an accompanying karaoke-style video in a local bar that atmospherically captures the coming together of people and community. Were the singers in the video local clientele? "Well," she replies, "they were a mix of local people and my friends, well friends and crew – they all wanted to be in it so, why not? It was fun to make. The thing I love about country and western music is that there's room for a cheeky side. I like the cheek of country.”

Cilker has a ‘house band’ policy at the studio she records at in Portland, with session players she's grown to know and trust. Production duties are overseen by Sera Cahoone, a producer she was alerted to through a 2019 video: "I was trying to pin down what kind of sound I wanted and stumbled across a video of Sera and just loved how she performed. I then listened to her last studio record and thought – that's the sound I want.”

With new material already embedded in her live set, I ask what the latest is on the follow-up to Pohorylle. "I have some songs ready to record, so will be getting on with that when I return. I like playing music with different people as I pick up little pieces from everyone I play with.” As we finish and I wish her luck with the new record, Margo's promoter comes over and mentions that she'll be playing a secret set later today at the Piano Stage. Solo, with just her acoustic guitar, she effortlessly enthrals the early evening audience. I later speak with her guitarist, who to my surprise comes not from across the pond but much closer to home – Brighton, in fact. "I'm just playing on the UK leg," he says. "But it's been a privilege. She's going to be a star.”

And he's right. She is.

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