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MARGO
GURYAN

by Francis Lung

Image by Neil McClung

In 2020, musician Francis Lung approached us about the prospect of interviewing Margo Guryan, the elusive 1960s singer-songwriter who had gained a cult following despite her minimal recordings. At the time, Margo was 83, and living in Los Angeles. She answered Francis' questions over email via her stepson Jonathan.  

Many moons later, before we had a chance to publish the interview, we learnt of Margo's passing. She died on 8th November 2021, and—as far as we know—this is the last interview she gave. Interspersed with Francis' own reflections on her life and work, there are brilliant quotes from Margo about her career, her creative process and her (strong) political views. There are also words from other musicians she inspired, including Tim Burgess, Anton Newcombe (of The Brian Jonestown Massacre), Etienne Daho, Shirley Manson (Garbage) and John Myrtle. 

In memory of Margo Guryan, September 30th 1937 - November 8th 2021

In 1968, a 31 year old piano teacher named Margo Guryan released her first and only album ‘Take A Picture’—a highly intelligent baroque-pop/jazz crossover characterised by catchy melodies, complex chord voicings, lyrical experimentation and Guryan’s gossamer-thin double tracked whisper. However Guryan’s refusal to tour (“I just didn't like being told what to do'') prompted her label Bell records to withdraw all promotional funding and the record was all but doomed to be forgotten. 

 

Guryan continued to write for others, having already had her songs sung by Harry Belafonte, Jackie Deshannon and even Harry Nilsson (though dissatisfied with his own version of ‘Think Of Rain’, it never surfaced), but ‘Take A Picture’ seemed stuck in time for a while; “For years, I didn’t listen to the songs, or play the album. Something like that becomes part of your past and you just accept it” she told the LA Times in 2002.

 

Since then, her legacy has undergone various resurgences, initially sparked by early reissues in Japan and more recently through streaming platforms. In fact, I didn’t hear Margo’s music by crate digging or from a muso friend’s tip-off, but via Spotify - which seems to recommend her music to fans of bands with glimmers of the late 60's in their eyes like Broadcast, Weyes Blood and Chris Cohen. 

 

For once, the Spotify algorithm seems to have done an artist proud - it has dragged young 60’s/70's revivalists right back to where that sound came from, and a whole new generation are discovering Margo Guryan for the first time. Her strong online presence - 11.4k followers on Instagram, 313,590 monthly listeners on Spotify alone - reflects this. It’s all run by Margo’s stepson Jonathan Rosner, who also manages her back catalogue.

Margo Guryan passed away on November 8th at the age of 84. I conducted this interview with her and Jonathan via email a while back, but for various reasons (namely moving to France and preparing for the birth of my first child) I had to shelve the project. Hearing the news of her passing I searched out her responses to my questions. I was understandably moved re-reading her words, not just by the fact that it was her last interview (to my knowledge), but by the wit and character in her sharp, short answers. Speaking to both Margo and Jonathan I caught glimpses of her process, her personality and their loving relationship. I hope you appreciate their responses and also a few fan tributes from some well-known artists.

 

I usually need a piano to finish a song.  

Although the idea for a song takes place in my head, working it out usually takes place at a piano.  

I've never composed anything entirely in my head. 

At a piano, I can go to many different places at will.” 

- Margo Guryan on songwriting 

“Linus of Hollywood was producing my first solo album and he mentioned that he knew Margo - I was a huge fan, and we would talk a lot about her music. It blew my mind when he said that he’d sent her some music and she invited me to her house to talk about her doing some string arrangements for the record. It didn’t work out with the album but it was an amazing afternoon that we spent - her house was everything you would expect, a beautiful piano - manuscripts and notes all around. It was a real honour to spend time there.”

-Tim Burgess

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“The words and music go together. I could never separate them. I don't recall any lyrics that I was fond of that never made it into a song.”  

-MG on lyrics 


 

Music was an important part of my life growing up - and I can't remember when it wasn't.  Starting from when I was a very small child, I was going with my dad and Margo to Neil Diamond and Elton John concerts - early 70s, sometimes traveling to go to these shows as my dad worked with both (David Rosner, Margo's husband, was a music publisher). I got to play maracas at the Winter Garden Theater during a Neil Diamond concert in, I believe, 1972 (at 5) standing next to Dennis St. John (Neil's drummer at the time). It was Neil's band  - that same lineup - playing on California Shake which Margo co-wrote with Neil's guitarist, Richard Bennett.” 

-Jonathan Rosner

“Sometimes, yes... and sometimes definitely NO.  

Lots of folks did my songs in a way I didn't like. (I won't name them!)   

A few times I've hated what they did, but I'll never tell.”

 - MG on whether she enjoyed people covering her songs

 

I discovered Margo Guryan’s album in the nineties. I immediately fell in love with her voice and the complex and sophisticated compositions. This album (Take A Picture) is a true masterpiece. I also discovered the demo album (27 demos) and I especially loved ‘Come To Me Slowly’, a fantastic song that I covered.

- Etienne Daho

“Tommy LiPuma (record producer) asked me to write a Christmas song for Claudine Longet, but with no snow, no tinsel, no mistletoe...in other words no Christmas references.  I came up with  "I Don't Intend...".  LiPuma approved it over the phone.  There was a UPS guy waiting in the studio for us to finish the demo so he could take it to the airport where it would be flown to Tommy.”

- MG on ‘I Don’t Intend To Spend Christmas Without You’

“Margo made me practice the piano - no easy task, and she had the patience of a saint. I remember when many of Margo's 1970s demos were written and recorded - those wonderful songs were part of my life at a very early age and I saw/heard them take shape. Margo still has the piano she wrote those on.  So, it was great growing up in a musical household. I'll bet I was the only child, ever, to get paid by their parents to sing Eek A Mouse songs in front of the guests.” - Jonathan Rosner

“I asked Howard Richman if I could use his Sight Reading Drill.  Howard improved my sight reading to such an enormous degree that I wanted to use his Drill with my own students.”

-MG on her favourite teaching methods

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I think Margo Guryan and her work is absolutely fantastic, stellar really. It’s funny because I wish I could radiate her positive bouncy jazz pop vocal/melodic sensibility as it aligns with my childlike spirit, but I don’t really have the same exposure other than the things I heard perhaps in my early youth, like Sergio Mendes, or Blossom Dearie. I love her madly, as do the musicians I work with daily, and we listen to her on tour, I play her music on my show, when I DJ and share it with my young son and friends. It passes the test, the family test” 

- Anton Newcombe, The Brian Jonestown Massacre

 

Dave didn't like "Oklahoma Toad" much at the time (loves it now)...he called it his Rock album.  And no stories from the production of that album.  But I'll always be grateful to him for introducing me to "God Only Knows".  We're still in touch.” 

  • MG on producing Dave Frishberg’s ‘Oklahoma Toad’

Margo really made you feel like you knew her through her music, she sang in such an intimate way with so much wit and humour - you feel like she’s your friend.

- John Myrtle

 

I don't really impose limitations on the amount of words I use in a song. 'Thoughts' is a song entirely made up of 2-word phrases. I attempted to write a song which could tell a story... very much as we think...in short phrases...and '16 Words' used (George W) Bush's own words. The idea behind each was different.” 

- MG on ‘Thoughts’ and ‘16 Words’

She inhabits the same space for me as iconic singers like Juliette Greco and Jane Birkin. A dreamy voice, Margo is also a largely unsung but incredibly talented songwriter and lyricist who has conducted herself throughout her career with immense integrity. I admire her very much."

- Shirley Manson, Garbage 

 

For the last question I asked Margo if she had any words of hope for readers, to which she replied -

 

With Trump gone, there's lots of hope.

 

Sincere thanks to Margo’s family, Jess at Hook Journal and all the artists who contributed kind words for the article.

Francis Lung is a musician. His latest record 'Miracle' is out now on Memphis Industries.