Sunday, October 26, 2008

Margo Hennebach: Have You Ever Heard an Angel?

All images from the Internet

This is the fifth part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, January/February 1995; an update follows.

Have you Ever Heard an Angel?

Mad Agnes: Margo Hennebach, Mark Saunders, Adrienne Jones

It was sunny when I traveled up to Cold Springs, New York. Woodstock II was happening just across the Hudson. The first Woodstock was a celebration of both rock and folk music. Since the second was only rock (if you want to call that rock), I went to the folk. I interviewed Margo Hennebach.

We sat on her porch having salad culled from her own garden and talked about her recent self-titled album, released on the 1-800-PRIME-CD label. As the interview officially started, Margo picked up her guitar and quietly strummed away (when not running off for the ringing phone). Playing music for relaxation is nothing new for her: she possesses a Masters in Music Therapy from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in England.

Margo Hennebach, 1994
Music was an early love for Margo, a native of Queens, New York. She is an accomplished pianist, guitarist, and vocalist, who has performed publicly since the age of seven. Classically trained, her attraction to the folk genre began while studying at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, where she became involved in a folk music club. “They were way into Celtic music,” she recalled. After moving to England for two years, she became further familiar with traditional songs by joining in the national pastime of hanging out in pubs. “I think I’ve always known how to sing it, I just didn’t realize it.”

Michaelean, 1996
Bringing her training to the traditional sounds brought further appreciation of its appeal: “It’s sort of wailing, and sort of crying and singing all at the same time. It’s interesting inflections with the voice that sometimes reaches high in the chest voice, sometimes in the head voice. Melodically, it seems very ornamented sometimes, but other times it seems very simple and pure. I also like harmonically moving in the modal areas. We might be going from a D chord to a C chord and back again. And I like the drive. I like the rhythm.”

Possessing an eclectic music background that includes classical, opera, Mariachi, and Tex-Mex, Margo is not tied down to one style of folk, which is evident in her CD. The songs are folk-based, but clearly there are outside influences evident in her work. “We’re still using this term ‘folk music,’ even though we’ve already pushed the envelope of what that actually means.” When asked if the category should be widened to include World Music, as it has at many folk festivals, Margo contemplates, “Sometimes, as songwriters, we like to call it contemporary acoustic music. I don’t think too much about what to call it; I just make it.” And make it she does. Her CD is an assortment of stories of life – some hers, some others.

Big Love, 1998
A somewhat introspective, bittersweet look at life, the collection contains some potential breakthrough pieces, such as “Have You Ever Seen an Angel,” thoughtfully about he loss of someone close, or “Winter Snows,” which examines a relationship from intimacy to break-up. “I like to say that there are not more happy love songs out there because when someone is happy and in love, they’re not in their boudoir writing songs,” Margo says with a big smile. “We just want to be happy when we’re happy. We don’t want to think about ‘what is the process of being happy?’ We just want to jump into someone’s arms. Whereas when we’ve broken up with someone, when we’ve lost someone close to us in our lives, that’s when it’s easier for us to contemplate. That’s a place that I find a lot of my material.”

Comfort and Joy
The recording is overall very emotional. Stepping into the Western corner of folk, one song that stands out is “Fool’s Gold Paradise.” I tell Margo how touched I was by the lines, “I am grateful for you hands/I love them so/You know they understand/The sounding of my soul.” Actually, nearly all the songs stand out, which is quite impressive. I query Margo about her songwriting processes: “I’m not a facile writer,” she confesses. “So, to start to try to write some of those things that mean so much to me is like transforming this thing into words. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible.” And just what makes a song a complete entity? “Bob Dylan sets a poem to music and sometimes the music is almost a little incidental to the words that he’s trying to say. For me, there needs to be like a marriage of the music and the words, otherwise I lose interest. Later in life I discovered that a song is a perfect art form: just to try to bring that sort of otherworldliness of the music to something very practical that has the kind of limitations of it that language has. The songs that I know that are what I consider perfect, I think that’s just incredible.”

One of those songs is covered on the CD, the lilting “Caledonia,” by Doug MacLean, which she recorded before hearing the original version. “I had heard Rod MacDonald perform it. I got some of the words sort of different from the original. I guess that is sort of the process. I float it a little more (than Doug); I make it a little more ethereal.

Live at UH, 2002
The whole process of folk music is based on an oral tradition, so many versions of the songs abound. Margo appreciates that. “In classical music…you would not think of altering a note. ‘This is how Mozart wrote it, this is how you play it.’ In the folk tradition…it’s only natural that things would get changed, like my version of ‘Caledonia.’ Some of the words are different because I learned that through the folk tradition, through someone else doing their rendition. Meanwhile, people are learning my rendition and that’s making them spin off other ways of singing it. You don’t know if that is getting further and further way from Dougie’s song, or in a way maybe it’s closer because it means that we all have a personal relationship with it. I find that really exciting. A different artist is going to make you see something a little different than others.”

Magic Hour, 2003
Margo has a personal philosophy about other performers’ and writers’ songs: “As an artist, I’ll never want to cover a tune the way I’ve heard it done. I’m too rebellious by nature. The only reason why I’d wanna cover it is that I can lend something else to it; I can really involve myself in it. Even if that means doing ‘Oh, Suzanna’ and sticking in a little whistling part.”

“Oh, Suzanna” is a reference to a performance by Madwomen in the Attic a few weeks before this interview at Maxwells, in her old neighborhood of Hoboken, New Jersey. Madwoman in the Attic is a trio consisting of Margo and two other Connecticut-based folkers, Diane Chodkowski and Adrienne Jones, who use the group to try out songs and to just have fun with folk “oldies” and newer covers (e.g., by Richard Schindel).

Who's Mad Agnes?, 2005 DVD
With a solo album out, appearances on numerous compilation albums, and a new album due out early next year, Margo is happy to see folk music spread its wings. “The Hoboken people are now working on our second batch of tapes, albums and demos. The stakes are a little higher, so there’s a lot more attention and care. And I think the music is getting better and better all the time. I would love to see there be a movement, and it’s happening. Music is taking place all over, with people in their own backyards making music, opening up their homes and are bringing people in to have home concerts; sort of taking control of the music a little more. People are deciding, ‘Well, we don’t need to go to a club to make music. We’re just gonna do it ourselves.’ And eventually a community is formed and created around that. Then a coffeehouse exists and that moves perhaps to a theater. It keeps getting bigger and bigger as more and more people get drawn to it. I’m amazed at all these places I can go to, and people will hear music. They won’t know who I am, they won’t know any of the performers who come through, but they learn to trust that people come to their towns and make music for them. I think there’s going to be a maturity in the music that I already hear happening now. And I think that’s going to keep happening.”

Revenants, 2006
After our lunch and talk, Margo gives me a tour of an ancient cemetery and then directs me to the train. On the walk back, it starts to pour. Reassuringly, I was just as drenched as those at Woodstock II, except for me, it was in the name of folk. A good tradition.

* * *

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen Margo play. In fact, I’ve had the pleasure to see all three members of her present trio, Mad Agnes, play in one form or another, but always with Margo as the center. Margo (vocals, piano, synth, guitars, bass) I’ve seen a few times solo, in Madwoman in the Attic with Adrienne Jones (vocals, guitars, bass), as mentioned above at Maxwells, and with her husband Mark Saunders (vocals, acoustic, electric and National steel guitars, mandolin, bass) at Fast Folk and the Sidewalk CafĂ©. I’m looking forward to seeing the Mad Agnes, who mixes folk and humor into a good-natured show.

Revenants (2006-7)
Who's Mad Agnes? DVD (2005)
Magic Hour (2003)
Live at UH (2002)

Comfort & Joy (2000) PrimeCD
Big Love (1998) PrimeCD

Michaelean (1996) PrimeCD
Margo Hennebach (1994) PrimeCD

There Is No Rose (2002)
Voice In The Mirror (2002)
Talking River (1999)
All My Days & Nights (1995)


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