...what they're saying
Hamline University "Oracle" - article and CD review
"As a songwriter and as a musician, Margot Wagner is a complete package"
The relatively isolated community of Fargo, North Dakota was placed on the musical map several years ago when a blues guitarist named Johnny Lang elevated himself above the local scene and into stardom. The following years, however, brought nothing but bitten tongues from those who once described the city as a musical Mecca. But in the past year those tongues have risen from silence, praising a newfound champion in...Margot Wagner.
Wagner carried none of the undiscovered talent credentials usually associated with young artists possessing her maturity and flair for music. Instead, she was just another ambitious high school student, planning for a college degree in French and international relations. Curiously, her passion for the French language unwittingly directed her towards the musical profession, when she strummed her first guitar as a foreign exchange student in France two years ago. Already a trained singer and pianist, she picked up the instrument quickly, learning folk songs in both English and French.
Time passed, and her talent grew; still, Wagner still remained intent on attending college. She was accepted to and enrolled at Macalester on a full ride scholarship. All the while, though, music was driving her in the opposite direction. She began writing lyrical compositions for both piano and guitar, and was soon discovered through playing gigs at area coffeehouses. After recording her debut album, Open Blue Sky, Wagner's popularity rose across the Midwest. College disappeared slowly into the horizon, and touring became a full-time occupation. Earlier this year, Wagner released a strong sophomore effort, Firefly.
Firefly opens with "Cup of Kindness", an acoustic-driven, upbeat composition featuring a full band. The instrumentation on the track is sparse, understanding silence as well as sound, a style that continues throughout the album. As the disc progresses through "Thirteen Dollars" to "Thin Ice," Wagner plunges headfirst into melancholy commentary on everything from relationships to feelings of confinement within herself. The lyrics are predictable at best, but the vocal work, dancing and weaving lightly across the chords, continue to drive and intrigue the ear.
Just when it begins to seem that Wagner is intent on taking her music closer to complete despair, the mood changes. The album grows thick with the breath-taking "Ne Dis Pas," with a blend French and English vocals soaring above simple, melodic piano lines. The international influence continues with "Hong Kong," and then drops abruptly from the radar as again Wagner turns inward for inspiration in the title track. Taking the single most important topic to folk and arguably any other genre, Wagner delicately explores love and loss.
From here the songs begin to blend into one, both in lyrics and in music, and my attention began to stray, but not for long. From the opening chord of the last track, "The Birds in Paris," to the final note, Wagner achieved, at least to this listener, the ultimate goal for any musician. The song froze my thoughts and drew me close the first time I heard it, as I was driving home one night.
I listened, captivated, from the opening acoustic rhythm to the introduction of an orchestrated string section. From there, the introspectively tinged lyrics captured a lush, landscape, imitatively highlighting each raindrop. I heard her passing thoughts and lingering regrets between each note. That night I drove circles around my block, listening, before finally stopping and stepping out into the evening rain, feeling a distinct connection, and also "wondering if it's the same rain all over the whole world." "The Birds in Paris" alone makes the album, but it, like Margot Wagner, is worth more than a single listen.
Margot's style is contradictory; it comes off as soft-spoken, shy even, yet there is a definitive sense of confident assertion in her songwriting and lyrics. To describe her music as Tori Amos meets Jewel is a sell-out for two reasons: one, her voice, although similar in style, demands more praise for originality; two, unlike Jewel, she's definitely no hack on acoustic guitar. Her syncopated rhythm guitar work is impressive, but more notable are her sensitive filler riffs and solos, staying true to the roots of folk guitar. Building off this strong base are her vocals, emotionally charged, occasionally wild, but always controlled. Add to this her intuitive piano skills and the fact that on Firefly she wrote and produced every song, and the sum of the parts is a definite whole. As a songwriter and as a musician, Margot Wagner is a complete package.
Brian Voerding, Entertainment Editor
October 4, 2002 - The Oracle, Hamline University; St. Paul, MN
Wagner, all of 19, gets it right on sophomore release - CD review
What some people accomplish in 19 years is fairly astounding. This thought has crossed my mind more than a couple times in the past 24 hours. I'm 19, and what do I do? I drink too much Jack Daniels, go to concerts, and have a 2.0 GPA. On the other hand, some of my 19 year old peers are doing much more ambitious things: one of my friends is helping his professor research for an upcoming book, my ex-girlfriend is applying to a prestigious summer fellowship program at Duke, and the kids in the NCAA tournament struggle to balance classwork with the pressures of competing under the close scrutiny of Billy Packer and millions of fans.
Singer-songwriter Margot Wagner is 19 years old too. The Fargo native was admitted to Macalester last spring but deferred admission so she could release her debut album, Open Blue Sky. Since then Ms. Wagner has been touring the Midwest and spent a couple weeks touring in France. Now, nine months later, she has decided to put her full energy into music, putting college on hold for an indefinite period of time and releasing her second album in less than a year, Firefly.
At a show in February, Ms. Wagner told me, quite accurately, that she thought the arrangements and songwriting had dramtically improved on Firefly. Ms Wagner has expanded her repertoire beyond the good, albeit slightly pedestrian folk/pop mix that characterized her first album. The music on Firefly is distinctively hers, and she's proud of it saying, "People have said that 'Smudged and Smeared' sticks out with a different feeling." With her more distinctive sound, Ms. Wagner has made comparisons to other, more acclaimed artists considerably harder--she can no longer be characterized by simply referering to her as another Jewel, Alanis or Ani as I did when writing about her this fall.
So what should one expect from Firefly? For starters it is Ms. Wagner's trademark voice. It is rich and still the highlight of her music, capable of a wide range and soaring above the instruments. That brings us to arrangements, which are catchy and generally upbeat. There are some really good full band tunes on Firefly ("Cup of Kindness," "Hong Kong," "Day Lily") that benefit greatly from the improved arrangements. The solo efforts are still riveting as well; "Kindred," while displaying a markedly different tone than the Boss, might remind some people of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska because Ms. Wagner simply plays her guitar and records her own voice twice to add harmony -- it's a really good song.
Final verdict: Margot Wagner has followed up a strong first album with an even stronger sophomore effort. Firefly, marked with Ms. Wagner's beautiful vocals, new emphasis on piano (a la Ben Folds Five), and tight, strong arrangements, holds its place with just about any other album on the market. The full band pieces mesh well with the more stripped-down tunes. This is one ot the better albums I've heard lately.
Peter Gartrell, music columnist
April 5, 2002 - The Mac Weekly, Macalester College; St. Paul, MN
April 5, 2002: NDSU Spectrum runs major feature story and review
Wagner releases a new album and still refuses
to act her age
John Hansen - Arts & Entertainment Editor
Photo: Rick Gion, Photo Editor
FEATURE STORY: April 5, 2002
"I'm 18, I get confused every day. I'm 18, I just don't know what to say "
Alice Cooper's immortal lyrics might accurately describe a lot of 18-year-olds. But if they describe Fargo singer-songwriter Margot Wagner, well, she's really good at hiding it with a façade of outspoken confidence.
There are several explanations for the cool, carefree attitude of this 2001 Fargo South graduate. She acted in several Trollwood plays in junior high and high school. She's been singing since the age of four and playing piano since age five. And she's never been ashamed to follow her passions - she's traveled to France twice in the last two years simply because she enjoyed studying the French language in high school.
That isn't to say that Wagner has it all figured out. In a recent interview at the Trentino, the singer admitted that she used to get nervous on stage. She eventually let it slip that "I don't really know what I'm doing."
However, when it comes to music, it seems Wagner can do no wrong. Local media and music fans were tripping over each other praising last year's debut album Open Blue Sky, and Wagner's latest effort, Firefly, might be even better. She'll officially release the new album at a CD release party at 5:30 p.m. today at the Plains Art Museum. Nine area musicians who contributed on the album will join Wagner for the free show.
Read the entire article here.
NDSU Spectrum Album Review: Firefly
Margot Wagner unveils greater depth on new
by John Hansen, Arts & Entertainment Editor
When Margot Wagner released her debut album, Open Blue Sky, last year, many listeners were taken aback that such mature, perfect songs could come from an 18-year-old. With the follow-up, Firefly, perhaps people can just enjoy the music. With softer hooks and more challenging lyrics, Firefly plays like a sequel that deepens the themes of the original.
As Wagner fans will expect, the new album is a seemingly effortless lyrical and instrumental journey through various stages of relationships, with lots of weather metaphors and worldliness thrown in. While Open Blue Sky included two tracks sung in French, Firefly takes the world tour a step further, with songs about Kindred, North Dakota and China along with two France-oriented songs (Wagner hasn't figured out how to sing in Chinese yet--see, she's not as flawless as you thought).
Firefly works nicely as a soundtrack to listen to on an endless loop as you watch life pass by (something one can imagine Wagner herself doing; her spot-on insights make it seem like she is living outside herself). Some listeners might be content to accept these songs as pleasant background music, but examining Wagner's lyrics reveals an intriguing hint of turmoil under the façade of her crisp, clean voice.
The opener, "Cup of Kindness," is certainly upbeat, as it features Blake Hofferber from local band davis? pounding the congas (many local musicians contributed on the album, with Wagner providing the guitar and piano). But even this song is tinted with melancholy, as Wagner reflects on a lost acquaintance. In "Thirteen Dollars," Wagner imagines running away, wondering how far she can get on $13. "Thin Ice" is about a precarious relationship: "We're so far apart that we're touching...We're so shattered that we are together."
As noted, Firefly takes listeners around the globe. "Ne Dis Pas," with some verses in French, evokes a sense of being lost in a lonely, foreign land. The high and low piano notes, combined with Tim Nelson's moody viola, provide the emotion of the piece.
"Hong Kong" continues the tour as rich, unusual instruments (melodica, djembe and cedar flute, to name a few) bring a listener to China, home to a friend whom she receives postcards from but wishes desperately to see in person again.
In "Kindred" (as in "You took me out to Kindred, just to watch the grain elevator in the sunset") Wagner returns closer to home, working through a relationship where both parties seem to have their feelings bottled up ("I am the one who stays scratching at my window/Just trying to say my own hello").
The world tour wraps up with "The Birds in Paris," featuring sad strings and deliciously laid-back pacing. Lines like "I am holding a guitar right in my hands, and I would sing you a song if I only knew how it should end" emphasize the sense of confusion which has subtly transplanted the crisp confidence that Wagner is known for.
Perhaps "Mourning Dove" provides a hint of where Wagner will travel in the future. She sounds like one of those VH-1, Disney-movie-soundtrack divas as she sings lines like "You got stuck in my head last night like a happy-sad song."
Normally, getting a song stuck in your head is annoying. Margot Wagner songs are an exception.
John Hansen, Arts & Entertainment Editor
April 5, 2001 - NDSU Spectrum college paper; Fargo, ND
High Plains Reader Album Review: Firefly
Margot Wagner's new disc Firefly does a rare thing as far as albums go; it actually gets better in the middle. While most albums are set up to catch the listener quickly with the best song or two the artist has produced, followed by several songs of meaningless filler and a slam-bang final song to trick you into thinking you enjoyed it, Firefly just gathers momentum as it goes, with the strongest tracks smack in the middle of it all.
Wagner, a Fargo South grad, is surprisingly as fluent on the guitar as she is with her voice, and she writes all the songs herself, a commendable feature in itself. The first highlight of the album for this reviewer was "Thin Ice," a soft-spoken, assertive song with lyrics just edgy enough to draw you tightly in: "We're so far apart that we're touching/We're so shattered that we are togetheer." From there, the album just gets stronger, with the memorable "Ne Dis Pas," a piano-driven ballad that just begs you to listen with its half French-half English lyrics; "Hong Kong," which combines a strong eastern influence with an addictive guitar line; "Firefly," the fantastically subtle title track; two strictly vocal and piano tunes, "Smudged & Smeared," in which Wagner's voice takes on a tone not unlike a softer Alanis Morrisette; "Cinnamon & Sugar," which includes a fantastic soprano sax solo by Russ Peterson, and "The Birds in Paris," which caps off the album perfectly. Looking back at what I wrote down as highlights of this album, I find that I wrote down tracks 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 13. I am not exaggerating the pleasant surprise this album gave me, it just happens to be that good.
March 28, 2002 - High Plains Reader weekly; Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN
meet margot wagner - cover story
To any other young artist, Margot Wagner's fledgling career would be something of a dream...now Wagner finds herself 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. 18.
...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...
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."
Read the entire article here.
John Lamb, Editor
October 11, 2001 - High Plains Reader weekly; Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN
College Radio Kudos...
Margot's debut CD "Open Blue Sky" doesn't sound like a debut, but that of a seasoned professional. Her musicianship and vocals transcend her young age. All of these beautiful songs come from an 18-year-old woman. It's incredible. Her lyrics are deep and meaningful, and the music is a perfect match. Her vocal sound is comparable to Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette and Jewel. She's quite a talent and we are sure to see and hear more of her in the near future. Her live show is also something to see. She takes her CD and cranks it up 10 notches higher in person. The way she plays onstage you can tell she is pouring her whole heart and soul into her music. She looks as though she is having the time of her life on stage. Like a kid in a candy store, Margot's face lights up when she plays. I highly recommend this CD to anyone.
October 20, 2001 - KMSC radio, Minnesota State University Moorhead; Moorhead, MN
High Plains Reader October 18, 2001 issue -- Best Bets
Have you heard Margot Wagner? Fargo's newest folk chanteuse sings as sweet and sorrowful as a bird in a cage. The title of her debut album, "Open Blue Sky," seems to be a metaphor for her career as well as an indication of the clarity of her sound. The disc showcases her musical strengths vocally, on guitar and piano alike, as well as her ability to craft memorable songs about life and love, art and humanity with a sense of maturity that belies her 18 years of age. Check her out for yourself when she plays the Rush Hour series this Thursday at the Plains Art Museum.
Accidental Musician - feature story
Margot Wagner never intended to become a full-time musician. The 18-year-old native of Fargo, North Dakota had a completely different future mapped out for herself. "I had all these goals," she said. "I was going to go into French and international business and maybe become a diplomat, and then what I really wanted to do was work with the Peace Corps for a while. So I had this all planned out, and I knew the colleges that I wanted to go to and I wanted to learn other languages." Instead, she currently finds herself on the road, a singer-songwriter with one CD under her belt, traveling around and playing for anyone who'll listen to her songs. "It's crazy," said Wagner, "because this whole thing, it's such a wonderful thing that happened and I never expected it to happen."
Read the entire article here.
Christine Dean, Music Editor
October 17, 2001 - Ripsaw News weekly; Duluth, MN
Folk singer Margot Wagner follows her passion for French, music - feature story
Folk singer Margot Wagner never thought the French poems she memorized for an oral exam would end up being recorded on a CD...Wagner, 18, had dreamed of earning a college degree in French and international relations and then maybe serving in the Peace Corps. A stint as a foreign exchange student in Chaumont, France, during her junior year led to her unexpected music career.
"My host family didn't have a piano,'' she said, explaining that she had studied piano in Fargo. "So they bought me an old classical guitar.''
Wagner dabbled with its strings and came up with a few songs. She made up melodies to "Ma Boheme,'' a French poem by Arthur Rimbaud, and another version of the folk song "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.'' Soon she was singing them in French.
Read the entire article here.
Julie Hubbard, staff writer
October 19, 2001 - Duluth News Tribune, Duluth MN
Wagner sets sights on long musical career with stellar debut - CD review
Open Blue Sky...is downright brilliant -- an excellent debut for the promising 18-year-old singer-songwriter from Fargo, ND.
The 12 songs featured on Open Blue Sky are marked by strong lyrics that are draped over a smooth background of acoustic instruments..."Bring Back," "Picking Up the Pieces," "Open Blue Sky," and "Some Words" display the wide range of influences that Wagner possesses. The most unique of the four, "Bring Back," utilizes an unconventional combination of piano, guitar, bass, percussion, violin and accordion. It might remind listeners of a male performer who has a similar reputation for soulful song and thoughtful lyrics: Ben Harper. In contrast to the full complement of instruments, "Picking Up the Pieces" is stripped down to nothing more than a piano and Margot's vocals -- it almost seems as if she wants to prove that she's equally comfortable singing in a club or performing in a musical as her voice soars above the piano's accompaniment.
The title track, "Open Blue Sky," finds Margot lamenting, in gradual crescendos, the lack of answers for people who are dealing with death. The song, written after watching a close friend struggle with her mother's suicide, combines the powerful chords of an acoustic guitar competing with angst-filled words. The result is a series of emotional peaks and valleys.
...She might not be righteous like Ani DiFranco or angry like Alanis Morissette but Margot Wagner has the talent and depth of thought to carry her to similar levels of fame. And she's smart enough to score full-ride admission to Macalester, where she is deferring until next year. A line from "Some Words" sums up her intelligent brand of music -- she sings "such beautiful words that I listened."
Peter Gartrell, music columnist
September 21, 2001 - The Mac Weekly, Macalester College; St. Paul, MN
"Some people are blessed with the ability to find their gifts early in life-Margot Wagner is one of them...Wagner's songs blend elements of folk and pop and of America and Europe. The young woman spent a year in France...In her light, clear soprano, she sings of train stations, cafés, cobblestones and the bohemian life, and touches on themes of guilt, regret and growth. Witness this insight from 'Some Words:' "...Some words are not strong enough like I love you/Some words do not mean enough like I'm sorry/Some words are not soft enough, hey I'm leaving you/And some words do not last long enough like forever..." When I was 18, I sure didn't have the perspective to write lyrics like that."
Read the entire article here.
Andrea Berninger, Entertainment Writer
May 24, 2001-The Forum daily newspaper; Fargo, ND
"She has a voice that moves around like some kind of overtones from a shooting star!"
Lucie Marty, director - The Creativity Tank
North Dakota Public Radio
"Margot Wagner is just an amazing talent-another remarkable musician to come out of Fargo...Her songwriting is truly stunning."
Skip Wood, Producer of "Here and Now"
WDAY Radio - The Forum Entertainment Columnist
"It's refreshing to see somebody make a CD and start this career who actually has talent...I wish everybody could see you sing because your eyes just light up...[Margot] sounds better than Tori Amos-more like a not-so-angry Alanis Morissette...this is something special."
Tom Pantera, Entertainment Writer
June 8, 2001-WDAY Radio Arts & Entertainment Roundtable; Fargo, ND
"Open Blue Sky is released by Barking Dog Records, the label that has introduced the region to such popular artists as Brenda Weiler and Deb Jenkins...For those of you who have already heard Margot at one of her live shows, this is only the tip of the musical iceberg. Margot not only sings and plays guitar, but also plays piano, keyboard, and organ on several tracks... If you have not heard Margot, you don't know what you're missing."
Rachel Levitt, Entertainment Writer
May 18, 2001-The Sudhian student newspaper; Fargo, ND