Margo Cilker: “It’s me stepping into my womanhood and my artistry”

With its vivid songs of fortitude and determination, Margo Cilker’s debut Pohorylle introduces a powerful new voice to country rock. Rob Hughes charts her long, strange trip from church choirs in Silicon Valley to Americana roots-rock free-for-alls in Bilbao, via Leytonstone’s Ex-Servicemen’s Club and a winter retreat near the Columbia River Gorge. Her philosophy for this peripatetic lifestyle? "There's a lot of reckoning with the self," she explains

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Margo Cilker isn’t home right now. She’s on a ranch near the Columbia River Gorge in eastern Washington with her husband, fellow songwriter Forrest Van Tuyl. The couple are wintering here, having made the four-and-a-half-hour trek from their base in northern Oregon. It’s still pretty early – 9am in this outpost of the Pacific Northwest – but Cilker has been up and about for some time. “I was just getting the fire stoked,” she says, against a tasteful backdrop of panelled timber. “We decided to change the scenery for the winter. The Columbia River has been a passageway for humans for so many thousands of years. It’s spectacular. There’s just a really cool energy up here.”

Given Cilker’s inherent wanderlust, it’s fitting that Uncut catches her between stations, in a temporary space. The peripatetic pull of her life floods into every corner of her just-released debut, Pohorylle. It’s shaped by Cilker’s travels through the likes of California, Montana, Oregon, South Carolina, her beloved Basque Country and even parts of the UK.

“I have a very fluid notion of home,” she explains. “I’ve always been curious and I grew up in a very sheltered, suburban place, where my friends’ parents had white-collar jobs and it was all very cookie-cutter nice. I wanted to peek around that and see what else was out there. So I would just travel around with my backpack and guitar. I’m very at home in the old town of Bilbao, drinking white wine with my friends, speaking in Spanish. I’m at home in California under the redwood trees and swimming in the ocean. I suppose I’m always chasing that feeling of liberation. Pohorylle feels like a journey to where I am now.”

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It’s certainly one of the most auspicious debuts of recent times, full of wit, rich insight and poetic candour, an assured work that belies her tender years (she’s still only 28). Mussing up the borders of folk and country, Pohorylle filters time-tested tropes – roads, rivers, mountains, taverns, smalltown living and suchlike – through the lens of intense personal experience, making them sound vivid, fresh, alive. Cilker’s songs variously bring to mind those of Gillian Welch, Neko Case or Courtney Marie Andrews. Townes Van Zandt, too.

“Margo just killed it in the studio,” recalls singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone, who was enlisted to produce Pohorylle. “There were so many times when I was like, ‘How do you do that?’ She’s a great guitar player, but I was constantly impressed with her vocals and lyrics. I just resonate with the way she writes songs. She’s so witty, but there’s also such sadness and beauty in her words and music. She’s incredible.”

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