Margo Cilker’s sophomore album, Valley of Heart’s Delight, refers to a place she can’t return: California’s Santa Clara Valley, as it was known before the orchards were paved over and became more famous for Silicon than apricots. Margo is the fifth generation of Cilker’s born there, and in this 11-song collection, family and nature intertwine as guiding motifs, at once precious and endangered, beautiful and exhausting. The trees here are family trees, or they’re apricot trees, but suburban sprawl isn’t looking good for either. Cilker moved from California to the Pacific Northwest in her mid-twenties and wrote much of Valley of Heart’s Delight while living in Enterprise, Oregon, a small town near the Snake River and powered by the river’s massive, publicly-funded hydroelectric dams. The dams (part of the same system Woody Guthrie was hired to write about) provide clean electricity to much of the western US but make it extraordinarily difficult for anadromous fish (such as Steelhead Trout) to return from the ocean and spawn in their native streams. Valley Of Heart’s Delight feeds off of this tension – how we live in and off of nature, how we live within and without family, and why we return to the places we were born.
Cilker and producer Sera Cahoone’s work on her critically acclaimed Pohorylle debut earned its accolades for lyric-focused production and understated musicianship. The pair maintain this approach on Valley of Heart’s Delight, bringing back the same crew to the same studio in Vancouver, Washington: Cahoone (Sub Pop, Carissa’s Weird, Band Of Horses) drums and produces, John Morgan Askew (Neko Case, Laura Gibson) engineers, Jenny Conlee-Drizos (The Decemberists) provides piano, organ, and accordion, Rebecca Young (Lindsey Fuller) plays bass, Kelly Pratt (Beirut) on horns, and of course, sister Sarah Cilker contributes harmonies. Those in need of more twang will appreciate the addition of Paul Brainard’s (M. Ward, Richmond Fontaine) pedal steel and telecaster work, Annie Staninec’s (Mary Gauthier) fiddle, and the mandolin and high lonesome harmony of Portland country standard-bearer Caleb Klauder. Cilker also branched out in her song-collecting, reeling in a cover (“Steelhead Trout”) by Idaho native Ben Walden, ostensibly because of artistic and thematic reasons, but also because, in Cilker’s words, “it’s a damn good song and I wanted to record it.” Walden also sings and plays harmonica on the track.
Cilker’s debut record was released in late 2021, a year swinging wildly between cloistered days of lockdown, social engagement roaring back to life like the former ‘20s, and the Greek alphabet entering the vernacular to turn us inwards again. This tumult was echoed in the artistic life of Margo Cilker, trying in vain to predict what kind of a world her first record would be released into while writing what would become her second. As it turned out, the world was welcoming of Pohorylle. The unpronouncably-titled, darkly-jacketed, quietly-released record ended up a darling of critics and fellow songwriters and notably ended up on albums-of-the-year lists in two different years (strange times indeed). The debut was also nominated for UK Americana Album of The Year alongside Brandi Carlile and Robert Plant, and earned Cilker a slew of festival performances and tours supporting American Aquarium, Hayes Carll, and Drive-By Truckers. Between tours, Cilker made time to record Valley Of Heart’s Delight, and its release on Fluff & Gravy Records (Loose Music in the UK/EU) will be followed by a US headline tour with her longtime road band.
Margo Cilker currently lives near the Columbia River in Goldendale, Washington with her husband, songwriter and working cowboy Forrest VanTuyl, as well their dog and some horses.