Interview: Margo Cilker

Get to know the country folk singer songwriter, whose debut album Pohorylle has begun to turn heads the world over

On her 2021 debut album Pohorylle, Oregon-based county singer Margo Cilker conjures vivid tales. The vignettes within her songs span southern soil, Californian farms, Basque hotels and the rivers and mountains of the Pacific Northwest — places the songwriter has roamed over the last decade, while working tirelessly at her craft.

Pohorylle is both a realisation of these years and a marker of her next stage as a performer. Before her flight to the UK for a run of shows, we chatted with Cilker about these developing years and her own take on country music.

We saw you at The Great Escape in Brighton the other month, and you joked about playing in a church with such a stiff and quiet audience. Do you find the crowds act differently over here
to back home?

That’s an interesting question. Over here it really runs the gamut; I just played a show in Reno, Nevada, and that was one of the most loose performances I’ve had because the crowd was there to have a raging good time, whooping and hollering and drinking, and I hadn’t played a show like that in a long time. But it’s not to say that it’s just cultural between our different continents, I think it just depends on quite a few factors. I always try to build a rapport with the audience, that’s something I consider part of my job. When I get off the stage I’m trying to meet people on a middle ground, and it matters to me how they’re feeling; they say that with their body language, whether they’re chiming in or not, you know? My touring schedule is bonkers, but obviously I do enjoy it.

The Great Escape is all about playing in random places like a night club or vintage clothes store, so I think you lucked out with a beautiful church like that. What’s the strangest place you’ve played?

I’ve done shows on a trailer on a farm, and that’s always fun. They just have this 50-foot trailer and then the band sets up on the back of that. Also when I was in the Basque country I played a show in a grocery store. This beer company started hosting pop-up shows around the city of Bilbao and they had me in this department store up in the wine section, just playing songs. That was probably the freaking weirdest one.

Margo Cilker - That River (Official Video)

Naturally, country music over here feels like an import, and most Brits might assume country music to be from the south, but tell me a bit more about the music from the North West, where you’ve spent recent years. How has it informed your songwriting?

Well I grew up in California, and I guess there’s so much crossover between folk and country and blues. If you listen to Linda Ronstadt, she was just a roots rock musician. The Eagles were her backing band. The Eagles aren’t a country band, you know? They just are what they are. I grew up going to church and singing in church, so around lot of gospel music and that tradition, so I think in a sense that pushed me towards country eventually.

I did actually move to South Carolina, so I was in the south when I started writing songs. People like Jason Isbell and Gillian Welch influenced me a lot at that time. I don’t know though, country is such a tricky, nebulous thing. But I settled into this music scene in the North West, and my producer Sera Cahoone, to give you an example, is this indie-country artist. There’s elements of country to her music, she plays Hank Williams and Buck Owens songs at her shows, but she’s herself. It’s very laid back there, there’s not a pressure to fit a certain mould. You get to do what you want. Like okay, you have a hobby playing country music? Awesome. There’s a whole bunch of other weirdos up here doing whatever hobby they have [laughs]. It’s a very liberal community and a very open place to practice whatever kind of art you want to.

Margo Cilker - Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl) Official Video

You mentioned the Basque Country earlier. Tell me a bit about your time there…

I moved there in my third year of university, I was studying Spanish at the time. I went there to study and stayed on for a whole year and ended up moving back there after I left school. I was gigging like crazy over there, playing music almost every night, wherever they’d let me play. Like I said, grocery stores! I was hustlin’, I’ve never hustled that hard probably. 

We were just celebrating roots music from the 70s, we were just jamming to The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Band, Ronstadt. Mostly 70s music. I guess I had a niche in the market there, because there weren’t a lot of other singers from the States over there. 

You had to sit on the album for a couple of years before its release, right? Did you have to just lock it up and try and forget about it, or were you constantly listening and re-evaluating?

In 2017, I basically toured myself into the ground and had to move back to California, back to my roots and restart. That’s when I was working on a farm and met my partner, then relocated to the North West and started to write the album Pohorylle. It was wrapped in the fall of 2019, then the pandemic struck and we just bunkered down in Oregon.

Musically the album was where it needed to be, so I wasn’t too antsy about it. But I wanted this release to be special and different; I invested a lot into my album so that it would push me into the next tier, you know? That, coupled with Sera instilling patience in me, telling me it was gonna be okay to wait. She definitely was my anchor through it, as a producer the role kind of switched! She was the one calming the artist. We all have people in our younger stages of music telling us everything’s not the end of the world, that it’ll all work out. That’s what she gave to me, so that was very helpful getting through the pandemic.

Was there a moment when you realised this was all falling into place to lead up to what it is now?

I don’t know if there was. Obviously the reception of an album is not something you’re in control of, and it was all distorted because of the pandemic too. I was grinding and ready to work really hard on the album but then nothing was guaranteed. Life as we knew it was over and the industry was completely gutted. Once it was out and people said that they liked it, I guess that’s when it clicked. That meant a lot, just having friends write me and tell me that they have my CD in their car or listen to it at work.

The album feels like a collection of vignettes, little glimpses of life. Is this something that comes naturally to this form of music, or something you take inspiration from in film, literature etc.?

I really like to paint a really specific picture with my songs, as you mention, and I think an interesting exercise would be avoiding painting a precise picture, you know? I always have a setting in my songs, I guess I’m trying to capture a moment. That’s just kinda what I do.

In ‘Wine In The World’ you yearn for endless time. Do you still feel that regularly?

I think I was 25 when I wrote that. It still feels that way, absolutely. I wrote that song when I was dealing with the mortality of my friend, who was diagnosed with ALS. He lives in the Basque country, and I have another close person in my life who’s older and lives there too. I’m constantly sacrificing my relationship on one side to be in another place, but I truly believe these relationships are real. They’re as deep a relationship as I can have, and whatever drove me to explore the other side of the world, whatever pushed me in that direction, I’m just glad I let myself go. I don’t regret making the friends I’ve made, I don’t regret having an open heart.

The point of that is that it’s challenging, it hurts to be vulnerable, it hurts to let yourself love people and enjoy life. Enjoying life is sometimes scary, feeling deeply can be scary. Allowing yourself that feeling of rapture, wanting the things you want, whether that’s drinking wine with someone you love or whatever it may be.

Margo Cilker plays Manchester, London and Bristol from 30 August – 1 September, limited tickets are available here. Pohorylle is out now, stream it here.