Margo Cilker
Photo: Jen Borst / Fluff & Gravy

Margo Cilker Finds Her Inner ‘Valley of Heart’s Delight’

Margo Cilker serves as a stand-in for all of us, which is why she can get her audiences to sing with her in concert and enjoy Valley of Heart’s Delight‘s details.

Valley of Heart's Delight
Margo Cilker
Fluff & Gravy
15 September 2023

At a recent show, singer-songwriter Margo Cilker had her audience join her on the chorus to her comedic dirge, “Crazy or Died”. Everyone sang along with the lines about the fact that all the people one admired had passed away or gone nuts. Even if that was not one’s personal experience, the crowd responded as if we were living during the worst of times and participated in the call and response. The post-COVID world of irrational wars, divisive politics, climate crisis, you name it—everything sucks—had the crowd commiserating together in search of community.

Cilker sounded sincere, but her performance had a strong element of irony. She understood that the best response to our collective situation was humor, if of a dark sort. The best of us may already be dead or insane, so what can one do? The present sucks, but maybe that has always been the case. As “Crazy or Died” noted, if Jesus Christ returned today, his fate would be no different than it was in the past.

Cilker has a lonesome ache to her voice. This adds a pathos to the humor she employs to make her points. On her new album Valley of Heart’s Delight, she’s funny, not funny. She may be a beggar for love and find herself dismayed by all the sound and fury surrounding her, but she doesn’t feel overwhelmed by her fate. Cilker is more interested in finding the good in herself than complaining about her situation.

The first-person protagonists of Margo Cilker’s sophomore release generally find meaning and hope in nature. The title song refers to the region of agricultural California where she grew up. What were once apricot orchards are now part of the area’s expanding suburbia. Five generations of Cilkers have lived in the region. She has moved on. Things have changed. Then again, the apricots were not native to the place. The musician understands nothing stays the same and still feels nostalgic for what was.

Cilker now lives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, where she wrote the material that appears on her latest album. The one cover song, Idaho native Ben Walden’s tribute to the “Steelhead Trout”, fits well with her environmental concerns. (Walden also sings backup and plays harmonica on the track.) The trout has to fight the manufactured hydroelectric dams to spawn and still survives because of its tenacity. This also fits in thematically with the other people depicted in Cilker’s original compositions.

Several of the songs concern locales outside of the Northwest United States. Geography and place are essential to Margo Cilker. Her protagonists both shape and are shaped by where they exist. In the delightful ramble, “I Remember Carolina”, Cilker journeys across the geography of her memory to recall the good and bad locations in which she has lived. She may no longer know the name of the restaurant that serves the best hamburgers in Texas, but she remembers the important things like the Alamo because that’s where her ex currently lives. She has a dry wit and makes her references work on multiple levels, such as the fisherman she fell in love with but caught and released. Even on tracks named after places such as “Santa Rosa” and “Lowland Trail”, she’s more concerned with herself than the locations.

The musical accompaniment changes from song to song. Sera Cahoone, who produced Cilker’s well-received first album, also produced this one at the same studio in Vancouver, Washington. Cahoone also plays the drums. He brought many of the same instrumentalists best known for their work with other bands, including the Decemberists, Band of Horses, and Beirut. Cahoone also added some new ones, such as Paul Brainard (M. Ward, Richmond Fontaine) on pedal steel and telecaster and Annie Staninec (Mary Gauthier) on fiddle. This gives Valley of Heart’s Delight a sonic connection to her original record and gives the record a new sound.

Margo Cilker serves as a stand-in for all of us, which is why she can get her audiences to sing with her in concert or make listeners pay attention to the details in Valley of Heart’s Delight. She trusts in her visions of the outside world to tell the story of what she finds within her heart.

RATING 8 / 10