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.

Writing from Reality

Overall, Wagner feels the new songs are more clearly defined than those on the first record.

"For the first one, I hadn't really planned on making a CD, ever," she said. "I wasn't really sure of myself at all. I prefer the second one because I feel more connected to it."

More than just a girl-with-a-guitar, Wagner stands out from her contemporaries by playing piano on several tracks. Wagner had favored the guitar since picking one up in France to help with the songwriting process, but she reacquainted herself with the ivories for the Open Blue Sky sessions at the urging of Mike Coates of Barking Dog Records.

"I never had an actual piano piece until we were in the studio," Wagner said. "I did about two takes of 'As in Autumn,' and Mike Coates came in with this strange look and said 'You're not doing this on the guitar.' So I wrote up a piano part really quickly. It's opened up doors. The piano was my first instrument, but now playing piano live is so much harder because I've gotten so used to the guitar as a writing tool, and as a traveling instrument it's so much easier."

Eleven of the songs on Firefly are about things that have happened in Wagner's life or things she has observed. She doubts that she has a Ben Folds-style concept album in her future (although she has recently penned a song about a friend called "Arnelle"). Despite the perceptiveness of her lyrics, Wagner claims that songwriting doesn't always come easy.

"I get lots of writer's block," she said. "Right now I have three or four songs where I just have the music but no words. I try not to be hypocritical; I try to write from reality. With most music today, the words mean nothing at all, so I try to avoid that."

Surprising Maturity

Many people find themselves surprised by the maturity of Wagner's lyrics. One of the songs on Firefly surprised even the singer herself. "The Birds in Paris," the album's closing track, explores a confusing relationship with no easy answers.

"I was changing strings on my guitar, and it was raining out," Wagner said. "The rain changes my mood, and I write lots of sad songs when it's raining. I wrote it really quickly and later, when we were recording it, I was able to step back and look at the lyrics. It struck me that sometimes I feel so empty and devoid of everything except for this bit of music I'm trying to get out. It's strange to realize something new about your own song."

Wagner's smooth, crystalline voice belies the emotion behind each song. In fact, she still finds it difficult to talk about "Some Words," a powerful song on the first record where she gets noticeably flustered as she sings. Although fans have their favorites, Wagner herself doesn't have a particular song at the top of her list.

"That completely depends on my mood," she said. "Some songs, if I'm not in the right mood, it's almost annoying to have to play them. It's hard for me to transition so quickly within a performance. Sometimes it can be really emotional performing. It can be weird to go from a song where I'm totally exposing my feelings to one where I'm all 'ha ha' and it doesn't mean anything at all."

On the Road

The decision to pursue a music career rather than going to college (she had been accepted to Macalester in St. Paul) wasn't an easy transition for Wagner, either.

"It was an extremely difficult decision, and I still question it a lot," Wagner said. "Last fall, I was really depressed, and I didn't know if I believed enough in my music to thrust myself into this unsure atmosphere of being a musician. I'd see my friends going off to college and doing all these fun things, learning new things, and I was always very into school. I miss school a lot. It's especially tough playing at colleges."

Like music, traveling seems to be in Wagner's nature. In addition to exploring France and meeting a Chinese friend (a topic explored in Firefly's instrument-laden "Hong Kong"), Wagner regularly tours the Midwest. In addition to tip money and a handful of CD sales, she always comes back to Fargo with some interesting stories.

"When I played in Madison, Wisconsin, I was setting up beforehand, and I only had one pair of pants with me, and I completely ripped my butt out of them," Wagner said with a chuckle. "So I did this show, and it was fine because the audience couldn't see. But I was standing against this window. It was really embarrassing."

Ripped pants notwithstanding, Wagner plans to stick with music nd touring for at least another year. She's not the type to plan things out 10 years in advance. However, it's probably a safe bet that her fascination with learning about the world will be with her forever.

"I just want to get out there," Wagner said. "There are so many more things to see, places to be and different mindsets and ideas. Living in the Fargo-Moorhead area, we are really secluded and isolated, and we don't get exposed to the more strange, bizarre ideas and different things in the world."

For more information on Wagner, check out www.barkingdogrecords.com.


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