cover story - High Plains Reader - 10/11/01


meet margot wagner

To any other young artist, Margot Wagner's fledgling career would be something of a dream. A CD released before high school graduation, followed by a summer peppered with road trips and tours and the prospect of a series of upcoming dates overseas all seem like a healthy appetite for a poetic soul. For the 18-year-old folk singer, however, it's more like a second thought.

Two years ago she was a happy high school junior heading off to study a year abroad in France. She didn't think too much of the songs she wrote over there, some little ditty to help her remember French poems for exams, or of the tape she sent her mother for Mother's Day. Nor did she think much of her mother's urging to follow up that tape with a real studio session.

Now Wagner finds herself back home in Fargo, having to make some difficult decisions about her music, her education and her future which will include a performance at the Plains Art Museum next Thursday, Oct. 18th.

"This whole entire making a CD thing was never really my idea. I had never thought about making a CD. It never even crossed my mind," she explains while sitting in the cafe at the Plains Art Museum. Between sips of tea she describes how after her return from France her mother urged her to re-record the songs in a studio and how, when she didn't take the initiative herself, her mother, Kim Wagner, took the tape over to Mike and Linda Coates at Barking Dog Records.

Mother knows best.

Margot's life has been surrounded by music and by the age of four she was singing alongside her mother in front of small groups. By five she was taking piano lessons and continued in what she describes as "very strict classical training" for the next decade. In high school she studied violin for two years all the while taking active parts in choir, Trollwood, and other musical theatre productions. By the time she got to France in 1999 music was such an important part in her daily life that she went through withdrawal without her instruments.

"In France my host family didn't have a piano and that just came as a shock to me. I didn't realize how much I'd missed that. I handled that OK for about a month, but by the second month I just said, 'I'm going crazy here. I need to be making music.'"

Her host family found a beat-up old classical guitar and Margot taught herself to play. She bided her time figuring out the music in her head and even putting tunes to the words of French poets to help her remember certain works for oral exams. One version, "Ma Boheme" by Arthur Rimbaud, serves as the opener on her CD, "Open Blue Sky." Another poem by Victor Hugo about the drowning of his daughter was too sad and didn't make the cut.

Of the 12 songs that did make the cut, a bulk of them were written during her stay in France and reflect a romantic sense of love, art and a European sense of the bohemian lifestyle. There are scenes in cafes and train stations, pockets without pennies, cold walks kicking down empty cobblestone streets in the rain, long and lonely nights spent looking out windows thinking of lovers, and internal ruminations on life. She attributes the nature of the lyrics somewhat to being removed from her family and friends, but mostly to the area where she lived, an area where it rained seemingly every day.

"I was a little bit homesick," she admits. "I turned to music for some solace and to get through some hard times."

Still, she looks at the year spent in France as playing an important factor in her development. She's hesitant to characterize it in such cliché terms as "life defining" but concedes that it did help her mature and looks forward to returning.

"I'd say that being an exchange student is the best thing that I've done for my life right now. It separated me from my family and everything that kept me safe. It was a comfort issue and I went out of my comfort zone completely and did something different. I just think that exposure to different ideas, different mentalities, different ways of life and the different art and architecture made me feel like I was born again. Everything was new and fresh."

Talking to Wagner it's easy to forget you're talking to someone only a few months removed from the 2001 graduating class of Fargo South High. She is poised and articulate. She talks about poetry, art and classical music with a worldly intensity that seems to manifest itself in a ball of unfurled kinky blond hair and eyes that don't pierce as much as encompass and transfix. Parents who have gone to see their own children sing in choir have found their eyes drawn to Margot [on the choir risers].

That energy and enthusiasm carries over onto "Open Blue Sky," an impressive debut for a performer at any age. While sticking to traditional themes and subjects of past folksingers, Wagner wisely switches gears from song to song, changing tone, tempo and instrumentation. The changes are subtle enough so as not to register alarm to the listener, but effective in keeping the album moving forward as a cohesive piece, held together by the power of her vocals. Her lilting voice spikes during the chorus of "Ice Storms" just as it does during "7:53" though the cello in the first song gives it a somber and dramatic feel while the sax work of the second shades a more relaxed tone. "As In Autumn" showcases how tender and delicate her voice can be before pumping up the volume on the surprisingly rocking "Some Words."

Linda Coates remembers when Margot's mother brought the tape by. She had worked with the Wagners before in the studio and even recalls Margot being a highlight of those sessions [singing harmony with her parents].

"What I heard on the tape was an extraordinary voice together with a musical and lyrical sophistication we weren't expecting. We offered her a label deal and got her in the studio as soon as possible to try to have a CD for release before school got out - as it was, we were able to make the CD release event on the last day of school."

Though most of the songs were written on the guitar, she still prefers to play the piano when possible, but due to traveling limitations and economics she can only tour with a guitar. While she enjoys the opportunity to get out and play her music to different crowds, she doesn't see the touring as glamorous.

"I tell people I'm on the road, I'm a musician and I'm traveling around, and they always go, 'Oh, that's cool. I wish I was doing that.' But I don't think people realize how rough it is It's really tough to be out on the road by yourself, driving around and going five hours away to play in a coffee shop where you don't know anyone. Sometimes the gigs are good and sometimes there are the gigs where only four people show up and don't get into it. Then there are the times when 200 people come and you think, 'this is the life. This is what I need to be doing.'"

She says that while crowds have been receptive to her music it's sometimes hard to form a strong bond with the audience, though the people she meets are usually pretty interesting.

"I was in Menomonie and this guy picked up my tip jar and..." She pauses and smiles. "Do you know how hard it is to do just this clean shaker thing, to be on the beat?" She pantomimes playing a percussive shaker, making the corresponding sound with her voice before breaking out with laughter. "This guy picks up a tip jar and does this rhythm thing perfectly on beat. Then he just left. So I never got to talk to him."

One advantage she finds to playing further away from the Red River Valley is the references and comparisons to former Barking Dog Records folksinger Brenda Weiler become less frequent.

"I think she's a great artist," she says enthusiastically before shifting in her chair anxiously. "I don't want to say it's been rough, but it has been. It's like I'm in the shadow of Brenda Weiler. And coming from the same studio with the same producer, it's definitely getting compared."

Logistical comparisons would be hard to deny. Though they are four years apart both in their age and debut, both young women cut their first albums on Barking Dog with the same producer, Mike Coates, before the age of 20. While both come from the same town the worlds they sing about are so very far apart. While Wagner's songs evoke the classic image of the folksinger reading poems in cafes, Weiler's often represent gender specific ideas and the edginess of urban contemporary folksingers more at home at poetry slams.

While she doesn't necessarily consider her an influence Wagner remembers seeing Weiler play and admires her peer's ability to summon certain emotions in live performances. Still she points out that the two discuss different issues:

"I would say that the songs on my CD are older songs, so to begin with I think I was really conservative and really held back. You know, you don't swear, you don't say bad things. It took me a while to get up the guts to get upset in songs and I think that that's something Brenda could do right from the beginning."

(While Wagner is understandably reluctant to talk about comparisons to another artist she smiles when describing how she and Shannon Curfman were in the same choir.)

Wagner says that she has enough material for a new CD and looks forward to getting those songs released though does admit that she has mixed emotions over the prospects of continuing on with the career of a folksinger. She admits to being overly critical of herself and says that it's been three months since she's last listened to her CD. She also admits that it's hard watching her friends go away to school, an opportunity she set aside when she delayed her enrollment [and deferred her full scholarship] to Macalester College in St. Paul.

"School was always important to me. For me to step back, playing all of these schools and colleges all the time, seeing all these kids studying and going to school, sometimes it's really what I crave. It was really hard to see all of my friends going off to college and then me having to go out on tour. It's hard because music is a passion for me. It's something I love to do. And yet, I question all the time if what I'm doing is the right thing to be doing. It was a really stressful decision for me and I have to make some more decisions coming up. I just originally thought, 'This is a time in my life when I don't have commitments and can take a chance on something like this. It's a great opportunity that's arisen, I might as well just go for it.'"

Wagner describes her decision to forgo college as being almost as painful as the first months she went without music in France. Still, she emerged from that trying time stronger and with the songs she's now playing. She'll be bringing those songs back to France in the latter part of November for a month-long visit, with hopes of playing some of the same cafes that inspired them. If the cycle goes full circle again Margot Wagner will return with a new batch of songs and a renewed interest in a career as a singer.

John Lamb, editor
October 11, 2001 - High Plains Reader; Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN


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