Whether it’s her parents’ pool or with her group of friends in Upstate New York, one thing is for sure – Margo Ross is inspired by where she feels best. We talked about that as we explored her musical journey thus far. From overcoming being tone-deaf until she was grown to working with Ian Hershey on her debut, ‘Prairie Life,’ out June 11th. All of that and then some is below!
Kendra: Were you at all interested in pursuing music before your sister gifted you that banjo?
Margo Ross: Oh definitely. Funny story actually, I was completely tone-deaf until I was 18 or 19. I was always asked to lip-synch in musicals – it was so sad! My parents had to listen to me sing ‘Mulan’ in my bedroom all through middle and high school before I could stay in a key. But I was pretty obsessed with singing/songwriting/music/ theater from a very young age, writing lyrics and melodies since I was seven or eight.
I went to a small school in Iowa that had no music program. They had a lot of theater happening, but no band, no chorus, etc. I was very content as a kid and didn’t think twice or realize that learning to read music, sight sing, or master an instrument was a thing. It just wasn’t on my radar at all. So I did a bunch of musicals and took instrument lessons here and there, but I never stuck to anything.
The banjo my sister gave me was right around the time I finally could sing in key, and I was at college on the east coast where I hadn’t made any friends yet, so I just locked myself in my dorm for months watching YouTube tutorials and teaching myself to play. I finally had a way to back up these lyrics and melodies that were always in my head, and the rest is history.
Kendra: Now, look at you, a whole debut album ready for the world to hear this June! ‘Prairie Life’ drops June 11th and is about a lot of things, but in many ways an homage to where you were raised and that’s Iowa. So if you had to compare the overall feel of this record to one place where you’re from, where would it be and why?
Margo Ross: Hmmm good question! There are a few places but my parent’s swimming pool/ backyard rises to the top, I think. My parents moved to Iowa after living in New York City for 20 years. They came to this small town to buy a house and were so taken aback by how cheap it was, they decided to tear down this barn in the backyard and replace it with a swimming pool.
This swimming pool was my life as a kid! Some of my best memories from my childhood are when I would sneak out of my room on a hot summer night, and go skinny-dipping in this pool. The concrete path would be hot, the water would be the perfect temperature, and a super-moon would be shining through the trees around the pool, and my imagination would just run wild floating there alone. It was my place of worship, essentially. I think a lot of the feel of the record comes from a sense of deep nostalgia for those moments I felt so connected to a sense of home, and to myself. That’s also where my deep love of reverb and cricket sounds comes from!
Kendra: I hope you said somewhere honest because that’s what this record sounded like to me. No bells and whistles, no smoke and mirrors, just your heart surrounded by notes. Have you always been someone who isn’t afraid to bare their soul in their art?
Margo Ross: I love that. I don’t think I really have a choice! I feel like every artist develops a specific style of lyricism – what comes really naturally to them. That’s always been how lyrics fall out for me. I think the reason I love songwriting so much is because it’s a means of finding my way to the truth or boiling something down to its essence to understand it better. It’s always been a form of therapy for me in that way, and I’m sure that contributes to my lyrics being on the raw/honest side of things.
Kendra: Speaking of honesty, that comes through so well in “God I Wish That We Could Still Be Friends.” It’s not too often you hear a song that tells this perspective of a breakup. Was penning this therapeutic in any way?
Margo Ross: Yes! All my songs feel therapeutic in some way. Again I think I set out to write this song as a means of understanding why I still hurt around this person, even though so many years had gone by and I didn’t want to be with them in a romantic way. Finishing the song felt like closure, and really did lift a weight off of me. Especially the cathartic breakdown that randomly came to me while I was at the piano. It was me expressing that I was letting go and that it was a positive thing.
Kendra: A song I kept ironically finding my way back to was “Lost” probably because of the simple yet weighted line, “What about my future?” Are you someone that tends to live more in the moment to avoid stressing about tomorrow?
Margo Ross: I’m so glad because that song sticks out so much to me but in a good way. It’s a really nice respite from so many sad-girl songs and is one of those songs that came to me so randomly but encompasses so much of my childhood experience and who I am. I’d loveeee to say that I don’t stress about the future, but oh how I do so much all the time. I’m Jewish and a Virgo – terrrrrrible combination for worrying about the future.
I will say that this pandemic liberated me from my usual future worries in a really incredible way. I was living in New York City at the time of the first lockdown, and I had such an interesting experience. Amidst all of the heartbreak and fear happening, I felt this incredible relief that no one could create or be productive, that I no longer had to feel behind or less worthy or guilty for just existing and not doing something super important or productive in every moment. It caused me to seriously reflect on how my previous attitude had been debilitating me for years, and what’s most important to me in my life.
What rose to the top was nurturing my closest relationships, sharing my art, and just being happy. I said goodbye to an incredible chapter with NYC, a great love, and relocated upstate for the foreseeable future, and ever since have just focused on how I can be most happy in the moment every day. It’s been pretty revolutionary.
Kendra: When you worked on this record with Ian Hersey, was there anything, in particular, you learned from his methods that you feel will continue to be a gift to you years from now?
Margo Ross: I don’t know how to emphasize this enough – Ian is the best. I had had a few bad experiences with male musicians/producers, and I had sort of settled on the fact that I needed to only work with women, or just endure this very poor behavior. Working with Ian was, for lack of a less corny word, so healing. He was so respectful and patient and encouraging, and just a true ally.
There’s such a thing in the music world where if you’re a woman and you don’t know every little technical term or concept or process, you’re somehow less-than. It’s so ridiculous. Working with Ian, he simply knew I wrote some fucking good songs, and that he was there to be a translator, and that with his help we’d bring them to life, end-of-story. That’s how it should be always!
I think the biggest gift Ian gave me was giving me the space to trust myself. As we started the process, I wasn’t necessarily expecting that I would know exactly how I wanted every song to sound, but very quickly I realized that I did. I had such specific rhythms or riffs or bass lines in mind for each song, and Ian just super diligently made it all happen – he put in so much work to get out exactly what was in my brain.
Then in the moments that I had NO idea what I wanted to do, he was there to fill in the gaps with his insane multi-instrumental talent. I would tell him that I wanted a riff to sound sexy, or to sound like someone wandering up a hill, and he would just take and run with it and come up with something perfect. It was an ideal co-producing situation, with Ian also being the engineer, instrumentalist, and mixer.
Kendra: Lastly, it’s getting a little easier with the vaccine rollouts, but it’s still kind of hard to have a definite answer when it comes to future plans given the current state of everything, but as far as what you can control when it comes to your career and creativity – what do you have planned in the coming months for yourself?
Margo Ross: Ah the great unknown. As I was saying before, focusing day today on what makes me the happiest has ironically given me such a clear/better picture of what I want my future to look like, and a lot of motivation to work towards that.
I’ll definitely be planning a tour with my closest friends in a band – I’m really excited about that. It’s also high time that I start doing more Instagram lives and putting out covers, you know, give the pandemic content consumers what they deserve. And of course, I’m working on my next EP, but that’s hush hush.
In the meantime, there’s this amazing, pandemic-award-winning outdoor venue called High Voltage in Mountaindale, New York – It’s the cutest town with this incredibly dreamy enchanted forest type deal. I’ll be playing sets there about once a month, so anyone in New York reading this, come on down! Fewer things make me happier than playing music in a forest with twinkly lights.