Three years ago, Margo Cilker was starting to struggle. “To paint the picture,” she says, “I was in a super weird place.”
Living in rural Eastern Oregon, the singer-songwriter had spent the better part of the previous year trying to find a label to release Pohorylle, the debut album that she’d poured her heart into, but nothing was taking. She’d also been unable to tour for the past six months due to the pandemic, so Cilker was taking the time to reflect on it all: the years she’d gigged her way around the country, the time she’d spent living and playing music in Spain, her decade-plus of soaking in singer-songwriter influences and playing shows to sparse coffee-shop crowds wherever she could, hoping that something might come of it all.
That type of processing, Cilker says, “can only come when you stop moving. If you ask most touring songwriters they’ll be like, ‘Fuck no, I don’t have enough time to process everything I go through.’ How could you?”
Out of that period of deep uncertainty and rumination came Valley of Heart’s Delight, Cilker’s stunning second album. Much has changed since then for the 30-year-old singer-songwriter, especially after her debut finally found a home on Portland’s Fluff & Gravy Records in 2021. Pohorylle went on to become an unexpected word-of-mouth roots favorite, landing Cilker tours with Drive-By Truckers and Hayes Carll and earning her a nomination for International Album of the Year at the UK Americana awards (alongside Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Brandi Carlile, and Charley Crockett).
Valley of Heart’s Delight is, in many ways, a continuation of the musical project Cilker began on her debut. She re-enlisted the same collaborator, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Sera Cahoone, to once again drum and produce. Cahoone saw the second album as an opportunity to deepen their creative relationship while doubling down on what worked the first time around. “Margo was like, ‘Why break something that’s not broken?’” says Cahoone, who laid down basic tracking for the entire album with Cilker in just two days.
But as a songwriter, Valley of Heart’s Delight represents a profound leap forward, exploring darker territory that both sharpens and widens her scope as a storyteller. “I could tell that Margo was really going through a lot,” says Cahoone. “I know that was an interesting time [for her], and the songs almost felt a little darker, a little more serious.”
Songs like “With the Middle” and “Mother Told Her Mother Told Me” represent newly vulnerable emotional territory, so much so that Cahoone had to help convince the singer-songwriter that the former song wasn’t cheesy. The latter was one of several originals that found Cilker exploring family — specifically, as she says, “the recurring pain of having close relationships.”
“Music causes me so much anguish and brings me so much joy,” she says, “and that’s the same as family.”
Those themes of familial bonds and their complications found their way onto “All Tied Together,” the closing ballad that Cilker wrote shortly after the August 2020 death of one of her favorite artists, Justin Townes Earle. “I had been ruminating a lot about that shit and dealing with a lot of family stuff, and that’s why [his death] rocked me a lot,” she says.
“All Tied Together” is one of two songs on the record that references the late songwriter’s father, Steve Earle, another of Cilker’s heroes. The other one, tucked away towards the end, is the album’s centerpiece, “Sound & Fury,” a powerful statement of purpose that Cilker says came pouring out of her, and that sounds nothing like anything she’s ever written. In the song,she channels her own inner Woody Guthrie as she weaves a larger, ever-expanding story about her home state of California and the racial history of American roots music.
“I don’t know if the recording can contain what that song is meant to do and be,” she says of “Sound & Fury.” “But sometimes, on a record, you have a song like that.”
IT TOOK CILKER more than a decade studying her heroes’ work to write a song like “Sound & Fury.” As a teenager in the late 2000s, she began playing shows in Northern California towns like Mountain View and Sunnyvale. At that point, the area surrounding Santa Clara Valley, where she grew up, was already known worldwide as Silicon Valley. In many of Cilker’s songs, there’s a barely-detectable, beneath-the-surface mourning for her home region’s transformation, over the past half-century, from a land of apricot orchards to one of corporate tech campuses. (“#makelosaltoscountryagain,” as Cilker put it herself back in 2018.)
In high school, and later, at Clemson University in South Carolina, Cilker would mix her in-progress originals into sets where she covered a mix of folk standards like “Long Black Veil” and “Boots of Spanish Leather” with contemporary classics like Jason Isbell’s “Alabama Pines.” She was paying close attention to the crop of Nashville-based songwriters she viewed as carrying forward the songwriter tradition she had studied and devoured: Caitlin Rose, Tristen, Andrew Combs, Caroline Spence.
The next extended phase of her life was far more nomadic. “I was constantly putting bands together until I had to leave town again,” she says. “And then, wherever I ended up, just finding a new band.” She traveled back and forth from northern Spain for a period of several years, at one point forming a Lucinda Williams tribute band called Drunken Angels in the Basque country city of Bilbao.
Those years rambling around the Western hemisphere find their way plainly onto Valley of Heart’s Delight, which sounds like both a record of traveler’s songs and a collection firmly rooted in Cilker’s adopted Pacific Northwest home. “I Remember Carolina” is a delirious travelogue of past misadventures that culminates in Cilker rhapsodizing about the “best burger in Texas” (for her money, it’s Adair’s Saloon in Dallas).
That song and and “Steelhead Trout,” a rousing, John Prine-conjuring ode to the freshwater fish written by her friend Ben Walden, represent rare moments of free-flowing levity. But the bulk of Cilker’s latest collection is the result of long periods of revision. Cilker spent much of that tougher period of October 2020 engaged in what she calls “song resolution,” an integral part of her writing process where she pays “visits” to her in-progress songs like they’re children.
“I’m like, ‘How is this one doing?’” Cilker says of her revision process. “It’s like daycare: They’re all in a circle and I’m like, ‘Well, what did Johnny get into? What the hell is wrong with her?”
Now Cilker is gearing up, once again, to present herself and her new songs to the larger world. She’s wary of the expectations that come with being a rootsy singer-songwriter: the way you’re supposed to dress, the loaded ideas, in Americana, of what makes a credible backstory.
Cilker calls it “the hamster wheel of trying to keep up with all of the, ‘This is who I am, and let me prove it,” rather than letting her songs speak for themselves, which is what she’d far prefer. “Literally anyone who ever comes near country music — like, if you have a friend with a pedal steel — you’re under the microscope of authenticity and how real you are and all this shit.”
(“Margo is not trying to be anybody but herself, and I’ve always appreciated that about her,” says Cahoone. “She’s her own authentic weirdo.”)
Conversation turns to the Band, one of Cilker’s most common comparisons, a group of Canadians whose portrayals of the old South became the building block of what’s now known as Americana music. Cilker takes it a step further: “And then you have Joan Baez, a Mexican woman from California, singing ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ — and you’re like, ‘Wait, why do I feel this deeply?’”
These days, Cilker says, she’s closer to being at peace with all those contradictions. “It’s been really fun to realize,” she says “that what matters is what speaks to people when I write songs from a place that’s real to me.”