There is a telling assertion picked from Margo Cilker’s most popular song, “Tehachapi,” that provides insight into the mind of a woman undergoing the transition from free-floating performer to committed musician. It’s an enduring image which seems to capture not just the artist but her whole singular being.
“And the day that I quit tryin’, that’s the day my heart stops growin’.”
Indeed, she has been trying hard and fighting tough, brimming with curiosity, succeeding in time, and her heart is growing with music.
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“I’m experiencing a toxic combination of loving music and loving traveling enough that I’m able to tolerate living out of a van,” said Cilker, on a phone call from the California Coastal Redwoods in between gigging.
Outdoors is no doubt where she most loves to be — in touch with the raw texture of life. Ironically, however, she has been riding a wave of positive airplay that crested in the dark solitude of the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, my radio promotion was kind of my way to interact with people,” said Cilker. “I kind of set a goal when I made the record (“Pohorylle”) that I wanted it to be very radio-accessible, give or take a few curse words.”
Cilker was born and raised in the suburbs of San Francisco, but her mother is a native of Humboldt County in Northern California, so she grew up shuttling between the Bay Area and Humboldt. As a kid, she loved tuning in to the radio and there were a couple of stations in particular that still retain fond memories. As it turned out, radio play helped nudge her debut record “Pohorylle,” released fall 2021 on Portland label Fluff and Gravy, to great altitudes.
“That’s why it meant a lot to me to have deejays talking up my music and putting it on (Sirius) XM Outlaw," she said. "That helped out a lot with just getting the word out. I’ve reached so many different people from my music through (Sirius) XM Radio. A lot of it is still word-of-mouth. I grew up singing in choir and in church, so church music I’ve been performing my whole life. I kind of peeled off and said, I'm going to do my own thing.”
Debut of 'Pohorylle'
“Pohorylle” is a gracefully gutsy debut: Cilker writes in a lucid conversational style which wakens one up suddenly like cold water dashed on the face, with lyrics referencing moments of transition, the inevitability of change, and the uncertainty of memory. Indeed, events are now forcing her willy-nilly into the role of spectator of great and momentous happenings. But the sense of timing is acute. For many years she’s been building the scaffolding brick by brick, spreading mortar and laying stones.
“I'm not new to this,” said Cilker. “It’s been 10 years of playing my original songs at coffeehouses, bar rooms and brewery tours. … My first tour ever was the West Coast Bay Area, up to Bellingham (Washington), and I drove to Bozeman, where my sister was living. And then I moved to Hamilton to work on a farm. In three months down in the Bitterroot and I was gigging all over. I went up to Helena and I’d go for weekend trips. I would play the farmers market in Hamilton and those tiny shows that do amount to building your fan base. Philipsburg. Eureka. Little outposts.”
Though music has always been something permanently attached to Cilker's life, the time in the Bitterroot was especially profound in guiding her 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, singing in church growing up, and then making it as a hobby," she said. "On the Bitterroot farm, my business was an upstart and the farmers were kind of building their thing. It just happened that both of our businesses have run parallel in the last eight years or so. They have made amazing improvements on the farm and I’ve been doing my work. It’s like our careers are in stride. I don't think I have the physical strength for farm work, but I have a different kind of a capacity for hard work, I guess. We are still dear friends and I’m grateful for them.”
Cilker said that she is also grateful for the people who have supported her in her pursuits and whom she was allowed to lean on during the fallow periods of economic uncertainty and the harder, broader scale problems of the past few years.
“I really depended on my support system to get me through the pandemic,” said Cilker. “But even before that, I’ve always had to learn to ask for help. And that's nice that you can do that with art. So many people in my family who’ve helped me, they'll take me in, and have given me a place to stay and food. I'm very grateful to have the family network I have and a lot of people don’t have that and that was devastating to see.”
In more ways than one she is at a crossroads.
“I think I've just been holding on for dear life,” said Cilker. “You can see my schedule and it'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. It’s what I eat, breathe, and sleep.”
Artistic ferment of the West
Cilker moved to eastern Oregon about five years ago and spent the whole pandemic tucked away in an itsy-bitsy place called Enterprise and she has since relocated to south central Washington. Enterprise offered her a way of escape into the solitude she sought as a writer, a way to take on the romantic role of castaway.
“The weird thing about songwriting is that you are also protecting your inspiration,” said Cilker. “But my inspiration comes from flexing different muscles. I have learned to trust my intuition above all else, and that keeps me safe when I'm traveling, keeps me inspired. Intuition affects building relationships and community. And I’ve come to trust where my feet want to be moving.”
And while her feet are racing fast and taking her to all sorts of unconventional places, it is the quiet spaces of the West that have become, to her, synonymous with artistic ferment and pilgrimage.
“There's a wealth of that knowledge in rural America,” said Cilker. “There’s all kinds of people that are choosing to live outside of cities, and there's no single profile for that kind of person. But there are a lot of shared values and people can be totally different in background and different ideologies, but they share certain traits, like, perseverance or determination, essential to weather the winter out there in places like eastern Oregon.”
It was classic 1960s and '70s folk and folk-rock music that Cilker was most attracted to when she was a teenager and she can’t precisely pinpoint when or why she drifted into the rural-leaning country scene.
“I just have a hobby of writing country sounds and it is what makes me tick,” said Cilker.
Music as a rite of passage
Cilker said that she had a grandmother who always had song within reach to lead the family, and whose memory remains inspirational to this day. If you have a gift, you share it, her grandmother instructed. If you have a talent, you step forward and volunteer it. You offer back to the world whatever it is that you are good at. These are mantras that Cilker has taken note of.
“Music was always very central, and I never saw it as this ornamentation," she said. "I saw it as a very fundamental part of life. Rites of passage. And it's an asset. There's music in weddings and funerals and when a group of people need to send a loved one over, I'll be there, guitar in hand, to sing “Amazing Grace” and hold space for that moment. It feels really good to do that, to help foster that spiritual connection.”
At the moment, Cilker is in the throes of the longest headline tour that she has ever done and the rooms keep getting a little larger each time around. As support, she generally finds herself in 300- or 500-cap rooms, but when she is headlining, she will dip back to about 150. While there might be fewer people, there is more expectation of the artist, more pressure for her to pull something superior off, and a whole different size and shape of weight to carry.
“But something I take comfort in is that when I'm headlining I can make this show whatever I want it to be," she said. "If I feel like letting the band go get a drink, I could do a set, a small set of solo songs. You know, I can say to my younger sister (Sarah), if she’s available or interested, come on up and let's just do some sister songs. That's the strongest advantage you can have is just your individuality and bringing something new to the table that only you can bring.”
Oxygen of action
And the fact that some folks are forming and contouring memories around songs such as “Tehachapi,” isn’t something that has gone unnoticed with Cilker.
“‘Tehachapi’ just happened and it comes from a sincere place,” said Cilker. “I’m playing that song on this tour, and everybody loves that song. And they start dancing when I play it. And it makes me feel bad that the crowd has to hang out all night to hear that song.”
As a brand, Cilker is on the upward trend and increasing in strength and the delight is in the details. She is enjoying 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. "It keeps inching forward. Sometimes, though, it seems like we're on the brink of collapse. So much of it is about trusting that the little things you put in motion now will pay off down the line. I've played the game of trying to stand out and the only way to really break in is just put your head down at work and use what you have to your advantage.”
Perhaps most importantly, beyond all the feed and fodder about growth, potential, and the number of ticketed seats, is that Cilker is a talent having fun. It’s patently obvious on the hit track “Tehachapi,” and even if not every song on “Pohorylle” is optimistic or cheerful like that one is, she still radiates the elation of surrendering them.
“I don't ever want to curb my enthusiasm for what I'm doing,” said Cilker. “And I don't want to dim that down. I want my love of music to shine brightly.”
Music writer Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at email@example.com