Photo: Tom Sheehan

A Chicago Soul in Transit: An Interview with Ryley Walker

On Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, folk-jazz sound-poet Ryley Walker makes a strong case for singer-songwriter status, distancing himself from the "fingerstyle guitarist" moniker that has followed him around for some time.
Ryley Walker
Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Dead Oceans

“Dude, I gotta play. Is 20 minutes okay?”

Ryley Walker was in motion. Passing through Nottingham, England for a performance, the Chicago-bred singer-songwriter had only a few minutes to speak before he was expected to leave for a show. It’s an expectation that follows him around for most of the year, pushing him from place to place, dictating his days, vitiating him at times and, at other times, enlivening him with that unique sense of head-wringing transitoriness that can only come from touring as a young artist with something to prove. However, in contrast to what most itinerant musicians claim, Walker doesn’t find life on the road and all that it entails (passenger-seat musings, reflections on far-off loved ones, feelings of detachment and sociocultural remoteness) to be all that inspirational.

“Lyrically, it’s always about being back home,” Walker told PopMatters, his speaking voice a charming compound of laid back jazzman and caffeinated, firing-on-all-cylinders intellectual. “Being at home makes me think more than it does on the road, when I finally get to spend time with buddies at bars. When I walk home at 2:30 in the morning, that’s what inspires me: that walk back from the bar when I’m by myself, it’s January in Chicago, and my guard is up because I don’t want to get hit in the head by a baseball bat or something.”

Chicago. City of wind and water and concrete. City of Midwestern heat and Midwestern chill. City of sudden crime waves, byzantine streetscapes, and skyscrapers bookending skyscrapers. City of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Gene Krupa, Wilco, Tortoise, Chance, and Kanye. This is Walker’s home and the fountainhead of his inspiration for Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, his third LP and latest on acclaimed indie imprint Dead Oceans, not the sun-dappled, vaguely European countryside that seemed to emanate from the pores of 2015’s Primrose Green. “That’s what I was going for: something slow, something focused, something American-sounding,” he said. “I didn’t want to make another English folk-rock record; I wanted to sound like I’m from Chicago. That’s why there’s this laid-back, jazzy, even poppy tone in some of these tunes; that’s the Chicago sound.”

Listen to “Sullen Mind”, arguably the record’s finest composition, and this sound floats toward you like one, final trail of smoke from a dying cigarette. Walker’s voice — a weathered mumble forged from short shrapnel-syllables and wailed note-reveries — is suspended above a swirling crawl of acoustic guitar, electric organ, and jazzy hi-hat patters. It’s one of the few tracks where you feel actually transported to Walker’s hometown: a setting of drunken chatter, alleyway revelations, neglected apartments, close friends, and memories that bring both neuron-firing euphoria and noxious regret.

It’s also the most restrained track on the album; not in the sense that it’s subdued or sonically predictable, but in the sense that Walker seems to be actively holding something back throughout the course of the song. A desperate longing for another body, a lacerating grief over a lost love, a masochistic anger at his own inability to move on — any of these feelings could exist behind the crumbling wall of his vocal, perhaps all of them do. Lyrically, the song is structured as a late-night conversation between two old friends (“I’m cast in a corner bar and you’d tell me”), but, by the time each chorus crescendos to its conclusion, it’s clear that Walker has stopped listening to his interlocutor and started to drown in a tidewater of solipsistic melancholy: “And with a sullen mind, I laid down / And with a sullen mind, I’m out of here.”

While Walker cites local, Chicago-based acts as Golden Sings‘ primary influences, he drew from an eclectic range of artists to arrive at the record’s stormy jazz-folk sound. Alice Coltrane, Heart, Talk Talk, and Mark Eitzel of American Music Club all factored into Walker’s songwriting approach, resulting in a compositional style that favors space over sonic density and ambiguity over lyrical directness. But the artist who perhaps had the greatest impact on the record was its producer: former Wilco bandmate Leroy Bach, known especially for his work on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) and A Ghost is Born (2004). “He’s a great multi-instrumentalist. I didn’t even know Leroy through Wilco, I knew him through being the guy who plays free jazz every night at a club in Chicago,” Walker said. “We’d hung out for a long time. He’s made so much more music outside of that band, which is so brilliant.”

Walker also openly discussed another one of his forebears, although one that had more of an impact on the belted-out soul incantations on Primrose Green than the controlled, colloquial, almost respiratory vocal work on the new LP. “Van Morrison is a huge influence. He’s great,” Walker said. “He’s a total madman. He’s unrelenting, vocally. He has a gut that comes out in everything.” Yet, despite Morrison’s hold on his musical imagination, Walker felt that this “unrelenting” vocal technique was a bit beyond his grasp. “The vocals on the last record aren’t my favorite. I was stretching too hard. I was trying to slam dunk when all I can do is maybe get a free throw line shot,” he explained. “All the lyrics on this new record are very conversational; they’re not like some divine line of poetry. They’re like how normal people talk. That’s how my voice goes too; that’s what is natural to me.”

Aside from aggregating his influences, sharpening his sound, and staying truer to his hometown roots, Walker had another objective for the record, one that took precedence over all others: “I don’t want to be a singer or a guitar player. I want to be a songwriter.” Indeed, Walker’s reputation as a virtuosic fingerstyle guitarist has been hard for him to shake, but, while the guitar playing here is just as effortless, evocative, and attention-grabbing at it’s ever been, Golden Sings marks a huge stride forward toward this goal. In the end, for Walker, real musicianship is more about authentic expression — avowing one’s impulses and digging into one’s selfhood — than instrumental skill: “I just want to put nice things into the world and give back as much as I possibly can and be a nicer person. It’s about enjoying today; I think.”