A small clan of followers discovered Margo Guryan over the years and were instant disciples of her sweet sounding voice and faultless pop-songs that made up her debut album Take A Picture. Spun from those same whispers that created the delicately woven sounds of Vashti Bunyan, Gary Higgins, Linda Perhacs back in the day, Margo’s songs took a special place with their poppy innocence.
Drowned in the exuberance and carefree chords of the same decade that changed music forever, Take A Picture suffered the unimaginable punishment of ending up in bargain bins instead of gracing the summits of the musical elite. Margo would never be mentioned in the same sentence as some of her peers, until recently. At least with the resurgence of interest in pop gems that were left to wilt under harsh neon lights, the rightful artists are gaining some of the credit they deserve.
Going back to the beginning, I heard that listening to the album “Pet Sounds” is what started you on your music journey.
MG: “God Only Knows” did indeed start me on my ‘pop-rock’ music journey. (My “music journey” had actually started many years earlier via the classical music and pop songs I heard as a child and the contemporary jazz I fell in love with during my college years.)
What was it about the Beach Boys that caused you to want to pursue music yourself?
Though I had pursued music much earlier (I was signed to Atlantic Records 10 years prior to the Bell Records album), that Beach Boys song did cause me to change direction. Melodically, “God Only Knows” is a beautiful song…and harmonically, it showed me how following the bass line could alter and expand ordinary chords. It was an “aha!” moment.
What is the songwriting process like for you. Do you mostly write on piano to begin with and then collaborate on arrangements and such, or have a very specific idea of what is needed beforehand?
The process always begins with an idea: it can be a phrase or a melodic snippet. (Words and music…notes…are very much the same thing to me: toyed with and put together in a new way.) Then I work out the idea on the piano. In most cases the arrangement comes together along with the song. Though I have written words for the songs of others, It is very hard for me to collaborate. Though I’ve tried, the only song I can think of collaborating on is “California Shake”…with Richard Bennett.
How did you get signed?
I was signed to April/Blackwood (the music publishing arm of Columbia Records) by David Rosner. David was responsible for overseeing all of my demos…and also for arranging the recording contract with Bell Records.
A lot of great artists have covered your songs which must be a fantastic compliment, which of them do you think did the most successful job? I personally love Marie Laforet’s version of “Sunday Morning”.
My favorite “cover” is Jackie DeShannon’s version of “Think of Rain” (link below)
I like it best because of it’s original (and quite different) arrangement. Most people tended to copy my demo arrangement (often leaving out the rest in the first measure … thus altering the whole intro). I always hoped the demos would serve as a guide to the songs and was always disappointed when they were merely copied.
You also wrote the lyrics for “Lonely Woman” by Ornette Coleman. How did that come about?
After attending the Lenox School of Jazz, I was signed to MJQ Music by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller. Having been a part of the group which included Ornette Coleman at Lenox, John and Gunther gave me Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” to create words for.
My friend and I were DJing in Tel Aviv a few years ago, and half way through the night we played Sunday Morning, and the whole room erupted in strange smiles. People turned and looked at us and we had absolutely no idea what was going on until someone came upto us and explained that the song had been covered in a commercial in Israel. Can you explain how that all came about?
At about the same time that “Sunday Morning” came out in the U.S., Shula Chen recorded it in Israel with Hebrew lyrics. Her title (“Bo Habayta”) meant “Come Home”. It was discovered many years later by some clever ad person at Tnuva Cottage Cheese and used in a commercial. The music became so identified with the product that they continue to use it to this day!
Did you tour much in the days following the release of “Take A Picture” or were you always more focused on working on the music in the studio and recording/writing rather than the live stage?
I never toured! I never wanted to be a performer. As a matter of fact, after “Take A Picture” came out I was asked by the label president to begin performing in order to promote the record. After I told him that I didn’t wish to be a performer, all promotion stopped and the record tanked.
Since recording and releasing those records you have mostly lived a more “quiet” existence teaching piano rather than pursuing a career in music. How did the sudden resurgence of interest in your music affect your daily life, if any.
I still enjoy a “quiet” life. I can’t say much has changed except for the many new friends (real and virtual) I’ve acquired. Some are extremely talented and bring me much joy.
I always though the song “Love” was one of the best you ever wrote, partly because it stuck out on an otherwise “straight forward” record, but also when after a couple of minutes it opens up and your voice comes in and changes the entire direction of the song. How was that song received in the 60s?
“Love”, which is comprised of five questions, was received in the same manner as the other songs on “Take A Picture”: it wound up in the 30-cent bin!
Was the writing process for that more of a jazz-inspired structure or was it improvised and adapted in the studio.
The song itself was not jazz-inspired. I did want to write one that was ‘harder rock’ than the others, but the form was created in the studio…mostly by John Hill (who produced the record). He recorded improvised sections in 7/4, 6/4, 5/4 and finally 4/4 (where the song kicks in). The he cross-faded those sections to form the song’s intro. (Brilliant, I thought!)
Are you still teaching/writing music?
I’m still teaching, but have lightened my schedule to include only the most talented children. If they’re studying music only because their parents are ‘making’ them, I don’t want to inflict that pain on them. As for writing, not so much. I don’t connect very well with today’s music. Perhaps this will change.
Despite the prevalence of incredible artists back in the early 60s to late 70s are there some singers/songwriters of today who you are inspired by?
Oh, yes…there are some wonderful people creating music out there. Sara Serpa is a wonderful singer/composer who I’ve met and hope to see and hear often in the future. And Vardan Ovsepian is an amazingly talented composer/pianist whose work I find overwhelming (You must listen till at least 1:48 when he displays his jazz “chops”. :-)):