There are roughly 150 people in the upstairs room of this east London pub, gently poaching in their own body heat. Really, though, everyone here is miles away – transported to a small town in New Mexico, or to Bilbao in the rain, or to the expanses of the Pacific north-west by an extraordinary American singer-songwriter whose talents tower in inverse proportion to the size of this bijou venue.
Just when it seemed like every country and western byway had been exhausted, strip-mined for all its hardship and romance by everyone from Hank “Ramblin’ Man” Williams onwards, this young US troubadour has pulled off the unlikely trick of remaking that dusty, worn trope anew. “If you asked me, babe, I would tell you what I wanted,” Margo Cilker sings on Bilbao Precipitation. “It’s just an open road and I the only soul upon it.”
Every single one of Cilker’s songs sounds like a time-worn standard, built around her limpid vocals and her fluent acoustic guitar playing. You can pretty much sing along to any of them on first hearing. Her sound is fleshed out by a band tonight: drums, upright bass and an electric guitarist, Max Crawford, whose succinct but eloquent solos only add to Cilker’s vivid storytelling. Her songs, she says, are pit stops at “all the little juke joints along life’s way”. It’s patter straight out of central casting, but delivered with a knowing smile.
Born in the San Francisco Bay area, transplanted to Oregon via North Carolina and a spell in the Basque country, Cilker creates tunes that embrace the road, then resist it, then embrace it all over again. “Now I fight the urge to ramble / With every three-egg breakfast scramble,” she confides on Broken Arm in Oregon, “and I marvel at hot water as it leaves the tap.”
Despite a deep knowledge of the canon, Cilker isn’t a product of Nashville; when pressed, she has called herself “a folk singer in the west”. With a series of criminally little-known EPs under her belt, Cilker sat out the pandemic on a ranch in eastern Oregon, playing her songs to cowhands and veterinarians. She finally released her debut album, Pohorylle, in 2021 – a flawless gem of a record that provided instant succour and the promise of more expansive times to come.
Tonight, Cilker’s delivery recalls many forebears – Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the early Hurray for the Riff Raff. She quotes Creedence Clearwater Revival, covers Caroline Spence and Tift Merritt and nods to Little Feat. But Cilker’s world-building is emphatically her own, her perfectly formed song stories in thrall to the itinerant musician’s calling, to whatever wisdom lies round the next bend.
Each uprooting brings with it a cocktail of anticipation and regret. “If I love it, then I leave it,” she muses. On Chester’s, named after a bar, Cilker raises an eyebrow at domesticity. “I’ve made my bed on the side of the road,” she relays, “seen my good friends get married and then feel alone.”
In among these seductive tales so redolent of place – of California dogwoods, of chilli for breakfast and canyons strung with barbed wire – are stories of people: Kevin Johnson, a sort of southern everyman, or Cilker’s own partner, who stands before her “untrimmed”, in his “work boots worn thin”. Everyone else she knows, it seems, has “gone crazy or died”.
Pohorylle, her album’s title, feels like another exquisite place name – like Tehachapi, California, which lends its syllables to one of Cilker’s bouncier numbers. (“Will you think of me on your way back to Tehachapi?” she wonders amiably of an errant lover.)
In fact Gerta Pohorylle is the real name of the photojournalist Gerda Taro, who died documenting the Spanish civil war. Taro worked alongside her partner, Endre Friedmann, jointly under the now famous pseudonym Robert Capa; Taro’s part in the work of “Robert Capa” remains niche knowledge.
More stories of underappreciated women hide within these easy-going songs. “Heard a woman go on record/ Sayin’ there’s one night that wrecked her,” Cilker sings, “when a young man closed his hand across her mouth.” She has said that she was watching the 2018 Senate confirmation hearings around the time she wrote Broken Arm in Oregon; you suspect the woman in question might be Christine Blasey Ford, who accused US supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. There is so much going on in Cilker’s simple songs – odes to wine, to men and women, to song, in which her granular specifics thrum with the power of universals.