Role Models: Nora O’Connor is Comforted by Margo Guryan

A tribute to sunshine pop and the late artist.

I’m not a scholar on Margo Guryan — or any artist, or “anything,” really. I know a little bit about a lot of stuff; that’s what you get with me. 

Carl Newman of The New Pornographers introduced me to her 25 Demos (seen in some places as “27 Demos”) and I was converted into a big fan immediately. This is where I first heard her song “It’s Alright Now.” I was obsessed with the chord progression and the eeriness of her voice, singing, “It’s alright now, be careful not to touch me. Don’t tell me what you’re thinking and don’t ask me how I feel.”  

With Margo, I just love the way her music makes me feel. She was a talented artist and writer, and a reluctant performer. She was a pioneer of the whispery voice and molting vocals in the studio. She slipped out of the public eye quickly, but had established quite a body of work and experience by a young age. 

Margo was a classically trained musician, thoughtful and contemplative. I, on the other hand, learned how to play from watching friends at bluegrass jams in the early ‘90s; I’m impatient and write and work very quickly. I also eat too fast! It could be envy I am feeling, that her songs are so sophisticated. But mostly, I am grateful to study her music and expand my knowledge about song form and chord progressions. I actually slow down when I listen to her music — I stop, I breathe, I chill!  

She made an amazing record, Take A Picture, in 1968 but she wasn’t willing to tour and do the  deal. She wasn’t about to be told what to do or how to be or act or dress — can’t blame her. Seems only recently that young women are coming up in music who weren’t told their whole lives, “you can’t do that.” The album soon went out of print, but in the early aughts she received royalty checks from a Japanese label, Trattoria, that kept that record alive for bootleg collectors. Eventually, Franklin Castle Records reissued Take A Picture on their label.  

I am so comforted by Margo’s music. I absolutely love sunshine pop. The production quality gets me too. I’m not here to imitate it but pay tribute to it and turn people on to new — at least to me — music. I knew I wanted to make a record of original tunes but I was open to the idea of a cover if the  spirits moved me. After spending a good bit of time with Ms. Guryan’s music, I felt the urge to  take a stab at it. When I decided to record “It’s Alright Now,” I wanted to respect the original  version while using my own voice and style. I didn’t want it to be mimicry or gimmicky. I set out  to sing the way I sing, using a similar technique of molting vocals. We kept the Wurlitzer up in  the mix and added acoustic guitar. Alex Hall — my co-producer, engineer, and drummer — has a set of vibes in his studio and he plays them beautifully. After a couple of passes, we loved the way it sounded and kept with it. I’d wanted vibes on the record and we did it! We recorded vocals, Wurlitzer, and bass (played by Casey McDonough) live in the studio. Then Casey came back and overdubbed the acoustic guitar, and I enjoyed molting the vocals and finding my own groove on the phrasing of the lyrics. 

There is so much music out there, fully realized with strings and horns and recorded with the best studio musicians — and the world has no clue, because the record industry decides that we can only listen to a handful of artists at a time. I’m blessed to be married to a record collector who spends his weekends finding treasures in the dollar bins. Sometimes this is the only place you’ll find a Margo Guryan record, though she has had a bit of renaissance in the last 20 years. I’m not the only one who knows where the goods are. 

Nora O’Connor is a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist based in Chicago. Her latest record, My Heart, is out October 7, 2022.