Margo Cilker: From Farm to Concert Stage | Arts & Theater
By Brian D’Ambrosio for the Missoulian
There’s a telling statement from Margo Cilker’s most popular song, “Tehachapi,” that provides insight into the mind of a woman transitioning from buoyant performer to committed musician. It’s an enduring image that seems to capture not just the artist but his entire singular being.
“And the day I stopped trying is the day my heart stops growing.”
Indeed, she tried hard and fought hard, brimming with curiosity, succeeding in time, and her heart grew with the music.
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“I’m going through a toxic combination of loving music and loving traveling enough that I can tolerate living in a van,” Cilker said, in a phone call from the California Coastal Redwoods between gigs.
The outdoors is undoubtedly where she likes to be the most – in touch with the raw texture of life. Ironically, however, she rode a wave of positive airplay that culminated in the grim loneliness of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, my radio promotion was kind of my way of interacting with people,” Cilker said. “I kind of set myself a goal when I made the record (‘Pohorylle’) that I wanted it to be very accessible on radio, give or take a few words.”
Cilker was born and raised in suburban San Francisco, but her mother is from Humboldt County in Northern California. So she grew up commuting between the Bay Area and Humboldt. As a child, she loved listening to the radio and there were a few stations in particular that still hold fond memories. Ultimately, radio play helped push her debut album “Pohorylle,” released in the fall of 2021 on Portland’s Fluff and Gravy label, to great heights.
“That’s why it meant a lot to me to have deejays talking about my music and putting it on (Sirius) XM Outlaw,” she said. “It’s helped me a lot to spread the word. I’ve reached so many different people with my music through (Sirius) XM Radio. A lot of it is still word of mouth. I grew up singing in a choir and in church, so I’ve been playing church music all my life. I kind of peeled off and said, I’m going to do my own thing.
Beginning of ‘Pohoryl’
“Pohorylle” is a gracefully bold debut: Cilker writes in a lucid conversational style that suddenly wakes you up like cold water thrown in your face, with lyrics referencing moments of transition, the inevitability of change, and the the uncertainty of memory. Indeed, events now force her, willy-nilly, to play the role of spectator of grandiose and memorable events. But the sense of timing is acute. For many years, she has been building scaffolding brick by brick, spreading mortar and laying stones.
“I’m not new to this,” Cilker said. “I’ve been playing my original songs in cafes, bars and brewery tours for 10 years. … My first tour was the West Coast Bay Area, up to Bellingham, Washington, and I drove to Bozeman, where my sister lived. And then I moved to Hamilton to work on a farm. In three months in the Bitterroot and I was playing everywhere. I was going up to Helena and going away for the weekend. I would play the Farmers Market in Hamilton and those little shows that go back to building your fan base. Philipsburg. Eureka. Small outposts.
Although music has always been something permanently attached to Cilker’s life, his time in the Bitterroot has been particularly profound in guiding his transition and development as an artist. Working on a farm provided much grist for the songwriting mill, as well as a sustained relationship with Montana.
“I was in choirs, I sang in church growing up, and then I made it a hobby,” she said. “On Bitterroot Farm, my business was an upstart and the farmers were kind of building their thing. Our two businesses happen to have operated in parallel for the last eight years or so. They made amazing improvements to the farm and I did my job. It’s as if our careers were advancing. I don’t think I have the physical strength for farm work, but I have a different capacity for hard work, I guess. We are still good friends and I am grateful to them.
Cilker said she was also grateful to the people who supported her in her activities and on whom she was allowed to rely during the fallow periods of economic uncertainty and more difficult and larger-scale problems. of recent years.
“I was really relying on my support system to get through the pandemic,” Cilker said. “But even before that, I always had to learn to ask for help. And it’s good that you can do that with art. So many people in my family who helped me, they welcome me and gave me accommodation and food. I’m very grateful to have the family network that I have and a lot of people don’t have that and it was devastating to see.
In more ways than one, she is at a crossroads.
“I think I just held on for life,” Cilker said. “You can see my schedule and that’s more shows than I’ve ever played. I’m excited to spend my youth doing this. I’ve been working towards this for so long. That’s what I eat, breathe and sleep.
Artistic ferment of the West
Cilker moved to eastern Oregon about five years ago and spent the entire pandemic hiding in a tiny little place called Enterprise and she has since moved to south-central Washington. Enterprise offered her a way to escape into the solitude she sought as a writer, a way to take on the romantic castaway role.
“The weird thing about songwriting is that you also protect your inspiration,” Cilker said. “But my inspiration comes from flexing different muscles. I’ve learned to trust my intuition above all else, and it protects me when I travel, keeps me inspired. Intuition affects building relationships and a community. And I’ve come to trust where my feet want to go.
And while her steps race and take her to all sorts of unusual places, it is the quiet spaces of the West that have become for her synonymous with artistic ferment and pilgrimage.
“There’s a wealth of that knowledge in rural America,” Cilker said. “There are all kinds of people who choose to live outside the cities, and there is no single profile for this kind of person. But there are a lot of shared values and people may come from totally different backgrounds and ideologies, but they do share certain traits, like perseverance or determination, that are essential for facing winter down there in places like the east from Oregon.
It was the classic folk and folk-rock music of the 1960s and 1970s that most appealed to Cilker when she was a teenager and she cannot pinpoint when or why she drifted into the rural-leaning country scene.
“I just have a hobby of writing country sounds and that’s what drives me,” Cilker said.
Music as a rite of passage
Cilker said she had a grandmother who always had the song on hand to lead the family and whose memory remains an inspiration to this day. If you have a gift, you share it, her grandmother told her. If you have a talent, you step forward and offer it. You give the world everything you are good at. These are mantras that Cilker took note of.
“Music has always been very central, and I’ve never seen it as this ornamentation,” she said. “I saw it as a very fundamental part of life. Rites of passage. And that’s a plus. There is music at weddings and funerals and when a group of people have to send a loved one , I’ll be there, guitar in hand, to sing “Amazing Grace” and hold space for this moment. It’s really good to do that, to help foster this spiritual connection.
Right now, Cilker is in the throes of the longest tour she’s ever done and the venues just keep getting bigger each time. As a support, she is usually found in rooms with 300 or 500 caps, but when she is headlining, she will drop back down to around 150. Although it may be less crowded, there has more expectations of the artist, more pressure for her to pull off something superior, and a completely different size and shape of weight to carry.
“But something that comforts me is that when I’m headlining, I can do whatever I want with this show,” she said. “If I feel like letting the band go for a drink, I could do a set, a little set of solo songs. You know, I can tell my younger sister (Sarah), if she’s available or interested, come and let’s do some sister songs. That’s the biggest advantage you can have, it’s just your individuality and bringing something new to the table that only you can bring.
And the fact that some people form and shape memories around songs like “Tehachapi,” isn’t something that has gone unnoticed with Cilker.
“‘Tehachapi’ just happened and it comes from a sincere place,” Cilker said. “I play this song on this tour, and everyone loves this song. And they start dancing when I play it. And it hurts me that the crowd has to hang around all night to hear this song.
As a brand, Cilker is on the uptrend and gaining strength and the fun is in the details. She enjoys the freedom to be herself, living off the oxygen of action.
“My business has a lot of moving parts and it takes energy to get all the parts moving,” she said. “She keeps moving forward. Sometimes, though, it feels like we’re on the brink of collapse. A lot of it is about believing that the little things you put in place now will pay off down the line. I played the game of trying to stand out and the only way to really break through is to put your head down at work and use what you have to your advantage.
Perhaps most important, beyond all the flow and fodder about growth, potential, and seating, is that Cilker is a fun-loving talent. It’s obviously evident on the hit song “Tehachapi,” and while not every song on “Pohorylle” is upbeat or joyful like that, it still exudes the elation of letting it go.
“I never want to dampen my enthusiasm for what I do,” Cilker said. “And I don’t want to obscure that. I want my love of music to shine bright.
Music writer Brian D’Ambrosio can be reached at [email protected]