Weekly previews: Margo Cilker beats the odds, Maddy O’Neal enjoys the ride

A fortuitous partnership results in "a brilliant LP that calls to mind the mood of vintage alt-country classics."

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While fully acknowledging the privilege of being a white Americana artist with a supportive family and no student debt weighing her down, Margo Cilker admits she’s been incredibly lucky in her musical pursuits. Even before signing to Portland label Fluff & Gravy Records and recording her debut album, the singer/songwriter from Enterprise, Oregon has had the kind of experiences that even some lifer musicians haven’t come close to. 

A few years ago, for example, Cilker booked a couple of shows in New York City to coincide with a trip she was taking. At one of her gigs, she met a band from the U.K. who were instantly taken by her down-to-earth songs. So much so that they insisted she fly to England where they would set her up with a tour and serve as her backing band. (She eventually returned the favor, bringing them to the States for a run of shows in 2019.) “It’s crazy,” Cilker says, laughing at the memory of the experience. “It’s just absurd.” 

“A lot of it is just turning over any stone,” she continues. “I was in a good place where I was able to just go out and chase the muse. Just say yes to everything. Then I got totally burned out, exhausted. And that’s when I started writing this album.”

The album in question is Pohorylle, Cilker’s first full-length (more on that title below). Written and recorded just before pandemic settled into our world, the album is a major step forward for this still-young artist, both musically and sonically. For the latter, she gives all the credit to producer Sera Cahoone. 

Seeking the feel and mood for her first major statement as an artist, Cilker found a video of Cahoone and fell in love with what she heard. The two were connected through a mutual friend and Cilker was soon hunkered down in John Askew’s Vancouver, Wash. studio space, Bocce, with Cahoone playing drums and support from  (among others) The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee on keys and Son Volt associate Jason Kardong on pedal steel. 

“Sera was incredible,” Cilker says. “As a first time producer, she knew how to do everything, and she completely shone in her role. She had a vision and stayed true to it.”

The culmination of that vision is a brilliant LP that calls to mind the mood of vintage alt-country classics like Hollywood Town Hall or Freakwater’s Old Paint. The music flows and tumbles like a Sunday sightseeing drive along some dusty backroads, with Cilker slowly spinning out tales of calloused hearts and wandering souls, Everly Brothers-style close harmonies provided by Cilker’s sister Sarah.

Now, about that album title. It’s pronounced “poho-real,” and Cilker first saw the word as the name of a shop in San Sebastian that sold high-end backpacks. But upon digging into it further, she learned that it’s also the maiden name of Gerda Taro, a Jewish photojournalist who escaped Germany right before the rise of the Nazis and was later on hand to capture crucial moments in the Spanish Civil War. She was killed on the frontlines of that conflict in 1937. 

“It was a nod to the time when I felt like nothing was going to stop me,” Cilker says. “Against all odds, Gerda Taro escaped Nazi Germany to be a creative and a passionate working person in the 1930s. It’s a great legacy and incredibly inspiring.” 

Margo Cilker opens for Marty O’Reilly and the Old Soul Orchestra on Thursday, October 21 at Mississippi Studios (3939 N Mississippi Ave., Portland, OR). 8 pm. Tickets: $20. Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test taken no later than 72 hours before the show date required for entry.

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Maddy O’Neal

The pandemic took a particular toll on artists who produce, perform, or spin electronic dance music. Few other genres are so reliant on a live, in-person audience feeding off of and responding to the engulfing volume and rhythms being fed to them by someone behind the decks or a laptop. 

Maddy O’Neal certainly felt that loss. The Denver, CO-based artist has been on a constant upward trajectory in the years since leaving the downtempo duo Krooked Drivers. With her 2016 debut album Introspect, O’Neal macheted through the thicket of big bass drop bros and gimmicky acts with her sharp productions that layer hip-hop, jazz, and soul atop her sleek, bass-heavy beats. The seeds she planted with that release have grown into the colorful midtempo bursts on 2018’s Dream State and the prickly textures of her 2019 EP The Rush

Even as she struggled with the loss of touring, O’Neal kept a relatively level head. She spent much of the past 18 months reaching out to her fellow electronic artists as a show of support. Many of those conversations turned into collaborations, as the majority of the music that O’Neal has released of late has been a partnership with another producer–like “Zest Please,” a shot of acidic groove made with French artist CloZee, and “Let Go,” a groovy paean to liberation featuring an impassioned vocal turn from Torii Wolf and some production assistance from Oakland’s ant-ten-nae. 

We checked in with O’Neal recently via email to get a sense of her methods, her motivation, and her response to the madness of the past two years.

How did you survive the last 18 months? Did you go crazy working on your music or other projects, or did you just hunker down in front of Netflix and stress eat?

Oh man, I went through a lot of different phases over quarantine to be honest. I was extremely uninspired and terrified during the beginning of it all last year. Then about two months in, I oddly enough felt some sort of relief because I had been touring super, super hard leading up to it and I really needed a break to reboot and write new music. Anxiety was pretty much a constant theme over 2020, but I had trouble creatively for months on end because there was so much uncertainty and not a lot of inspiring experiences to draw from.

At some point, I realized we were in it for the long haul though and I picked up new hobbies like biking, working out a ton, quitting smoking cigarettes, learning new production skills. I really dove into DJing which wasn’t necessarily a focus before. I was using Ableton and playing “live sets” before. I tried to do things that I knew I would not have time for if I was touring full time. Not gonna lie though, that first four months there was a lot of Netflix and stress eating, for sure.

You’ve released a fair amount of music over the past few months, much of it collaborations with other artists. Were these in the works pre-pandemic, or did they all come together during lockdown?

Most of the songs I’ve put out recently are a product of the pandemic. Because of this initial writer’s block I had so many unfinished projects that I started but didn’t follow through to the end with. There was also this intense feeling of isolation and not being around other artists and that creative energy I was used to. I craved that creative connection—sharing ideas back and forth—so I started reaching out to other artists.

Even just chatting about their processes and almost checking in on people ’cause I knew it was a hard time for all of us. Some of these tracks were born from that. Some we started from scratch together [“Let Go”] and some I sent ideas over someone to see if they were interested in collaborating on the idea I had started [“Zest Please”].

What do you like about collaborating with other artists in this way? What’s the appeal?

It’s very easy to get in your head about your own creations. You work on a song for days on end and at the end of the day, you just have ear fatigue. Sometimes I’m like, “This could be the best thing I’ve ever made,” or it could be total trash. The best part about collaborating with other artists is just having another brain to bounce things off of. Having another perspective in the mix or to help push through blocks in the writing process. It’s always so fun to hear how your styles blend at the end, and you always learn something from someone else’s work flow too. The chemistry has to be there though so it’s tricky.

How do you feel like your sound has evolved from, say, 2016 when you released Introspect?

Oh man… That’s so funny because I just listened to some of those songs for the first time in a long, long time the other day, and it’s pretty cool to be able to hear how much I’ve grown since then. My mixing skills, for one, have improved exponentially. My style has evolved and my skill set and techniques…my producer “tool box” so to speak has just grown so much since then. Learning new techniques, expanding my knowledge of sound design and synths, moving away from sampling from vinyl as much automatically switched up my sound a ton as well. I started to work with vocalists and horn players, etc., etc., and I feel like my sound feels so much bigger / fuller now.

What does it mean for you to be getting back out on the road again?

It’s been crazy. The energy out there is exponential. To see people smiling and dancing and all gathering together again is pretty cool. It really makes it that much more special after having it taken away from us. I am so grateful to be able to share my music in a setting like that again. It’s a big part of it. It’s an energy loop we all needed.

Tell me a bit about your live show? Are you mainly playing your own material or mixing in your edits of other people’s tracks?

For the past, like, five years, I was playing primarily my own music. When I left my old project back in 2015 and started my solo venture I kinda felt like I had something to prove and I wanted to challenge myself to play all my own music. Since I use Ableton and MIDI controllers, it’s super fun to be able to break down my songs and play parts out on a drum pad, manipulate parts of my own music that you can’t do with just a master version of someone else’s. Before this last year I was a producer primarily and DJ second. This last year I have been mixing those two concepts after really getting my DJ chops up and incorporating more edits / sprinkling in bits and pieces of songs I really dig with my own tunes. 90% my own music in sets still though.

Where do you see yourself going from here? Do you have any grand plans for your music for the rest of the year and beyond?

Just enjoying the ride really. I want to continue to hone my sound and get to a point where I can curate more and more of my own headlining shows with production concepts of my own. I finally feel like I am ready for that stage of my project. I also have a secret side house project launching in 2022. We were supposed to launch it last year but postponed it. It’s called Housewives – a duo project with Megan Hamilton.

Maddy O’Neal performs on Friday, October 22 at Sessions Lounge (44 E 7th Ave., Eugene OR; tickets: $15), and on Saturday, October 23 at Star Theater (13 NW 6th Ave., Portland OR; tickets: $15). Both venues require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for entry.

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About the author

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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