Margo Cilker’s Pohorylle is a sublime full-length debut lit by a voice as raw as sunshine, real as rain, and freshly seeded with just the right shake of explicit wit. Threaded with melancholy, turns of twang, and familiar yet no less mysterious characters, Cilker wanders confidently through a narrative that reaches across her 28 years with waypoints in California, Eastern Oregon, the American South, and the Basque Country of Spain.
It’s a songwriter’s quilt, assembled with care and deftly bound by producer Sera Cahoone, who also loaded the sessions with an impressive cadre of musicians. Frankly, Pohorylle is the kind of album you wait for, and once it arrives, it’s tough to set aside.
Cilker, a Golden State native currently residing in Enterprise, Oregon with her husband Forrest Van Tuyl (a working cowboy who also performs under the banner of An American Forrest) took the time to talk about her origins and inspirations, forming a Lucinda Williams cover band in Spain, and to indulge the question, “Who is Kevin Johnson?” Pohorylle is available now from Fluff & Gravy Records.
AI- What got you started writing and playing music?
MC- I come from a church background with music. I grew up singing in church, and my grandmother’s very musical. Music was always an important part of my life, and then when I was lookin’ for a college to go to, I ended up choosing to go to Clemson in South Carolina (laughs)…
No kiddin’? That explains the South Carolina reference in “Broken Arm In Oregon”!
Exactly! I dug into the roots music revival that was happening with Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, just that string band thing, but [also] songcraft. It kinda lured me in, and then when I was 18, when I went to college at Clemson, I was just tryin’ to find coffee house shows and started going to open mic nights. I saw Jason Isbell at The Handlebar in Greenville before that place closed. That was in like 2012. I got to see some awesome live music at that time, you know, just in a tiny club. Seein’ him there, it was just really cool!
So from Clemson all the way back to the West Coast, when did you throw your full weight behind tryin’ to do this professionally?
Well, I kinda just limped along doing not music. At Clemson, I was studying anthropology, and then I was also studying Spanish. I went to Spain for my junior year of college, and I just fell in love with Spain! I recorded my first EP there. While I was in Spain, I found music wherever I could. I was playing every night of the week! I was in a Lucinda Williams tribute band over there (laughs)!
Oh, that’s awesome!
It galvanized my identity as a musician, and over there, I just found so much passion for Americana music. It was just really cute, you know, the commonality between us was like talking about country records and talking about The Band and stuff like that.
Everything that I read talking about this album, talking about you, Spain, of course, gets brought up a lot. So California Dogwood— that was recorded in Spain? Or there was an EP prior to that?
There was a small EP prior to that– but I was like 21 or something! I was so young when I did that stuff! I consider those my starter EPs, you know? But California Dogwood, I recorded the basic tracks in Mendocino County, California, and then I overdubbed stuff in Spain for that.
Spain being a huge influence on the California Dogwood EP too, and then there’s been the focus on this new album. The story goes that when you came back from Spain, you wrote “That River” shortly thereafter. Is that how it went?
I’m always coming back from Spain (laughs)! But I did, I wrote that after a trip there. There are these small towns in the Great Basin, and they were settled by Basque sheepherders in the early 20th Century. So it’s just fascinating, and obviously, it made me homesick for Spain when I’m driving through this little town and I see this Basque last name on the football field. It’s like, “What are the odds?” It’s just so random in the middle of nowhere, this tiny little town I’m driving through, there are these little glimpses of this other side of the world that I know so well. So that was just an interesting inspiration.
So you still continue to spend a great deal of time there when you have the opportunity?
Yeah, I’m always schemin’ getting back over there. I’ve got close friends and family– adopted family. It’s become a big part of my life for sure.
Well, diggin’ into the album proper, this has been drivin’ me insane– who is “Kevin Johnson”?
(Laughs) That’s the million-dollar question!
Good! I’m not the first person to ask!
Kevin Johnson is not a specific person. Anyone can be a Kevin Johnson (laughs)! But it is inspired by someone in South Carolina. I’m sorry! Throwin’ all the blame on South Carolina (laughs)! The song speaks for itself, but Kevin Johnson is just a random name.
Fit the meter?
I love “Broken Arm In Oregon”, and there’s a lot goin’ on in that song. There appears to be a head injury of some sort, an assault, and then the line, “A locket’s lost on me.” I know songwriters hate it when you ask them to break down their songs, but that’s exactly what I’m gonna do!
You’re right, there’s a lot in that song (laughs)! I wrote that song when I had fallen off of a horse a couple of miles up a mountain trail. The horse was spooked and I didn’t have control over it. I disembarked (laughs) and I fell and I cracked the bone in my shoulder. It was pretty scary! I was convalescing with a broken arm in a sling and I could barely play guitar, but I was stuck at home and doing a lot of reflecting.
When I wrote that song, I was watching the Brett Kavanaugh [hearings] and that… Just a feeling of heaviness. I guess it just comes from a place of like, “How on earth do I keep going sometimes when there’s so much pressing down on me?” Somehow, I still maintain my curiosity and my fervor for living. It’s kind of about keeping the spark alive, even though it’s a lot sometimes.
I saw you talk about that notion with the title of the album Pohorylle— the birth name of Gerda Taro and her having the perseverance to continue, to keep going.
My struggles certainly pale in comparison to hers…
As most of ours do!
Most of ours do, exactly! But her drive to just keep uncovering things and to keep exposing things, that’s definitely inspiring. I thought about too, how brave it is when people show tenacity just in their personal life. There’s a lot to be said for going down in history, but as we saw with Gerda Taro, her legacy is almost completely erased from history! That’s part of why I wanted to draw attention to her and the fact that she released her works under a pen name, under Robert Capa. It was this whole saga of her and her partner using this pen name. I guess what I’m trying to say too is I just think people are remarkable, and I’m sure if you listen to my songs, you can tell I think a lot about relationships, a lot about sibling relationships. People are really what make me tick. I think personal growth is a huge accomplishment and sometimes it’s totally overlooked. I support people growing. I love the idea that people can become a better version of themselves, and it takes so much work that nobody ever sees and nobody ever gets credit for.
Tell me about Sera Cahoone How did that relationship begin? And then the decision to have her at the helm?
Sera Cahoone is a name I’d heard, and I’m sure I’d heard her music over the years on good radio stations. After I really decided it was time for me to record this album– I had the songs that I felt strongly about and it was like, “Let’s do this!” So I was trying to think of who I’d want to work with, and I definitely envisioned having a producer. I didn’t want to produce it myself. I didn’t want to be badgering the engineer about shit (laughs)!
Oh no, I totally understand that!
It’s an interesting conviction to even want to hire a producer. I don’t know how I decided that, but honestly, I stumbled across a video of Sera and just her demeanor… I could feel the joy that she has in her life and songwriting, and just the way she was emanating love through her art. I was like. “That’s what this is about.” My friend Bart Budwig knew Sera from running sound for her like 10 years ago (laughs) and they’re still buddies so he put me in touch with her. She heard the acoustic demos and she was like, “Yeah, I’m on board. Let’s do this!”
And she got together quite the crack crew for those sessions as well as I was gazing at the liner notes!
Yeah, it’s almost like I’m bashful about it ’cause it’s amazing! She’s got great connections!
Your sister, Sarah, appears on the album with you singing backup. I actually saw videos on YouTube of you two performing together. As a matter of fact, my five-year-old daughter is a ridiculous Caroline Spence fan, and I saw the video of you doing “Hotel Amarillo” with Sarah. So you immediately get credit with my daughter in that arena!
That takes the cake! That’s so cool! I love Caroline Spence, and actually, that Nashville songwriting circle, I’ve never been able to meet them, but Erin Rae, Caroline Spence, Michaela Anne, that was a huge inspiration to me through the years of an example of good songcraft.
Not to mention the comradery that comes along with that, which songwriting is often such a solitary pursuit. I think that people will often forego any opportunity to mix it up with another writer because of that. To see that group in particular and others shows it can be extremely productive and supportive.
So the album, you made it before the pandemic got into full gear– you had it recorded and ready to go, right?
I did, yeah. I recorded it in November of 2019, and then March of 2020, we had it all mastered and ready to send out to shop around to labels and it was like, “Okay, it’s go time!” (Laughs)
No, it’s not!
And so that was pretty sketchy (laughs)!
So what did you do to survive 2020? What was filling your time? I know that wrote at least one song, “From Wichita to Reno”. What else?
I babysat! Our best friends out in Enterprise have a three-year-old– and I was best friends with a three-year-old! It was a pretty wholesome way to pass COVID, honestly! It was really nice to hang out with a small person.
Tell me about it! I had one of my own! “Tehachapi”, love that song and I love the horns. I saw that was not your original concept for that song, and I also saw that you call it the one that you are careful not to play early, lest anyone become accustomed to that particular upbeat style!
I don’t know what I’d have put on there! Sera totally surprised me with overdubbing the horns on there! It was awesome! She was laughin’ and like, “You’re gonna love this! It sounds crazy, but you’re gonna love it!” She was right! I mean, it’s a joyful song. Anyone who hears that song gets that it’s kind of a looser one than the rest of my songs. It’s still got some heartfelt notions in it, but it’s a “hell yeah” party song!
So what comes next? You got the album due imminently, and then what’s the plan?
The plan is just to be available for opportunities that come my way. I’m excited to get back to playing some live shows, and then just continue being a working musician. You know, it’s funny to work so hard just to fill my time working as a musician (laughs)! It’s amazing how much work you have to do just to be able to do the work!
Just to get to that 90 minutes! Yeah, everything you have to do just to get to that 75, 90 minutes on stage is Herculean!
But my circle of friends and the musicians in my scene, it’s beautiful to watch us all. We’re all flourishing right now and we’re moving up together. It’s really beautiful to see that happen. I’m really proud of all my friends and there’s just a lot of good things happening!