Calgary musician, composer featured on Conan O'Brien's podcast

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Back in February, Margaret Dahlberg was travelling from Montana back to her home in Calgary and listening to Conan O’Brien Needs a Fan, a popular podcast featuring the former late-night talk-show host.

She was suddenly struck by an ambitious idea: She should be on this show.

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Dahlberg had been a fan of O’Brien’s since his earliest days on television. In 1993,  he was the somewhat left-field choice to replace David Letterman for Late Night on NBC. Up until then, O’Brien had worked primarily as a writer and a number of critics thought his tenure would be short-lived.  But thanks to the devotion of a generation of college kids who loved his comedy and awkward charm — Dahlberg would have been in her early 20s at the time —  O’Brien stayed on the air for what would eventually become a multi-decade career.

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She has stayed a devoted fan and had been listening to his original podcast, Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, since the pandemic. He would interview high-profile entertainers and politicians – including Tom Hanks, David Letterman, Adam Sandler, President Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama. He eventually launched a subset of the podcast entitled Conan O’Brien Needs a Fan. Once a week, he would interview an admirer with an interesting backstory. Dahlberg loved this part of the series and was listening to it while driving through the mountains that day.

“I always thought it would be fun to be on, but I couldn’t think (of a reason) why,” she says. “What would be my premise?”

But on that trip, she began reflecting on some of the new projects she had been working on since the fall, including two new creative and business endeavours. That includes Intuitive Personal Soundtracks, where she, as a pianist, combines her improvisatory composing skills with her intuition and creates deeply personalized compositions for clients, which often prove therapeutic. She also started Miss Tweeties Music In Nature, classes that are held outdoors for children and have them using sticks, pebbles, puddles and other natural “instruments” to create music through all types of weather.

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Somewhere between Montana and Calgary, Dahlberg convinced herself that all this would make her a good fit for Conan O’Brien Needs a Fan.

“It was one of those ideas that hit me so hard that literally when I got home and unpacked the car, I sat down on my computer and learned how to apply,” she says. “Four or five days later, I heard back.”

Dahlberg’s episode is now available. Recorded in mid-March and released on April 24, it is somewhat confusingly titled Ding Dong v. Ring Ding (more on that later). It finds Dahlberg chatting via Zoom about a number of topics with O’Brien, his assistant Sona Movsesian and producer Matt Gourley. Eventually, this includes discussing her philosophies behind intuitive composition and Music in Nature. As it ends, she demonstrates her gifts for the former by composing an on-the-spot musical motive inspired by her initial impressions of O’Brien. It has since been turned into a seven-minute composition called Lucky Star which can be found on Spotify and other streaming services. 

There are a number of comedic tangents, of course, including one where some non-sequiturs lead to a lengthy discussion on the comparative merits of two chocolate treats: Drake Cakes Ring Dings and Hostess’ Ding Dongs. Dahlberg is not involved in all of this discussion after technical difficulties led to her being temporarily dropped from the Zoom call. In fact, it happened twice.

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“I’m sitting with Conan O’Brien, chatting with him in my big moment, and all of a sudden I’m spat out back onto my laptop,” she says. “I’m clicking the link thinking ‘Will this even work? Will I have access still?’ It’s right in the middle of the interview. I got back on and they were very gracious about it and we kept chatting and then it happened a second time, which you can actually hear. They say ‘Oh she’s gone again. Let’s keep talking about the Ring Dings’ and then they made jokes about CalgaryInternet.”

Still, Dahlberg did manage to talk about her new businesses and found she was on the same page as O’Brien when it came to one of the guiding principles behind Music in Nature, which is that you can build resilience in children by encouraging rough-and-tumble “risky play” outdoors.

Dahlberg is a long-term early childhood educator in music. Born in Calgary, she is a classical pianist whose performing career was cut short by a car accident in the 1990s that injured her wrist. She has been teaching piano privately ever since. When her teenage children moved out and she suddenly found herself an empty-nester – O’Brien’s speculations about how she suddenly became an empty-nester are also irreverently funny – Dahlberg decided to expand her practice by focusing on intuitive composition and the music in nature classes. She was happy to plug her business, but that was not the primary reason she wanted to do the podcast.

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“I’ve listened to it enough times where I knew it was a shot in the dark,” she says. “It’s either going to help my business or it’s just going to be a heck of a fun experience. I knew I was going to be at their mercy for however they respond. So I was ready for anything and excited for anything and I also had certain things in my mind that I reminded myself to advocate for. I jumped right into intuitive composing the moment I had a chance and said as much as I could before I got cut off. When they asked me to play them out (on the piano), instead of just agreeing I tried to advocate for those things. I knew going in that this had to be an authentic desire to be on this podcast with Conan. I couldn’t be ‘I know what will make me more successful.’ I knew I had to go in there because I love him, I love the show and that it would just be a great interaction. I didn’t want to go in there with an agenda, other than a hope that maybe it will help.”

It has. In fact, staff from the Calgary Public Library heard the podcast and invited Dahlberg to put on an event.

“What it did was give me a product,” she says. “This is a concept when I talk about it, but when I can say Conan O’Brien interviewed me about it, there’s an assumption that if Conan is willing to interview her, she must be authentic in some way. Then, of course, listening to it, I’m hoping they can hear that this all makes sense. It’s no longer just this weird concept of music in nature or intuitive composing.”

For more information, visit margaretdahlberg.com and musicinnature.com. For more information on Conan O’Brien Needs and Friend and Conan O’Brien Needs a Fan, visit teamcoco.com.

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