Ryley Walker: Primitive Picker For The Modern Age (INTERVIEW)

Chicago’s Ryley Walker is a folk singer whose unique brand of musicianship is a melding of styles, from the fingerpicking schools of Bert Jansch and Pentangle to the blue-eyed soul of Van Morrison and the free-jazz guitar of Sonny Sharrock. He can discuss any number of these influences, and although he doesn’t claim to have some all-encompassing knowledge of them, his hunger and interest in their pursuit is quite obvious when he speaks. That hunger informs the blend of music that Walker produces: a mix of the “primitive” style of guitar playing and soulful, introspective lyrics that alternately can mellow-out and ramp-up.

Ryley Walker’s new album, Primrose Green touches on a little bit of all of these genres. He took some time to speak with me about that album, songwriting, and some of his influences.

Are you still in Chicago?

Yeah, I’m headed to Indiana here in a little bit for the next gig. But we had kind of a little stopover back home.

How did your show go last night?

It was really fun, man. It was really good. Jammed a lot, had a lot of big moments. It was really fun for us.

Are you on tour with a full band, or are you playing solo acoustic gigs?

It’s a trio, like a keyboard guy and another person on electric guitar so it’s kind of a low key band. 

You’re on tour with Kevin Morby, right?

Yeah, yeah. Kevin is on tour as well. They’re a good band, they’re just getting into a groove right now, too, so they’re really starting to gel.

Have you collaborated — have you done any cross pollination while you’re out there on the road?

We haven’t done it yet. We’ve been talking about it. We’ve tried to sketch it out, and I think before the end of it we’ll work on something together and make it happen.*

*A few nights later, at a gig in Brooklyn, Walker did sit in with Morby’s band

Your current tour is in support of the upcoming album Primrose Green. Are you playing a lot of songs from it?

I’ve been doing like half [of my set from] the new record and about half from the next record. I like doing that. It’s kind of fun to keep things fresh, working it out and working new stuff out so that I can record it later this year.

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Can I get a glimpse into your songwriting process and how it evolves?

Yeah, you know, jamming is kind of a big part of the songs. I think they all just come from jamming mostly, that’s kind of what works out for me, at least. I don’t know how anybody else does it. For me, you know, you have a record and you work it out and you play it in front of an audience. After awhile it becomes an idea, that idea becomes a jam, and it becomes a vicious circle. It keeps going.

Do you do most of your writing with an acoustic instrument?

I only have an acoustic guitar right now, so yeah, I only write acoustically. No plans to play electric stuff anytime soon but maybe, you know. But I always write from an acoustic guitar.

You did a record with Daniel Bachmann two or three years ago. What got you guys to collaborate?

It’s just guitar music. He came through Chicago a few years ago, and I saw him play and we just hit it off. Musically we like the same stuff, so we said “Yeah, we should make a record together!” We were just drinking beer and hanging out, and it seemed obvious.

It almost seems too obvious, but it sounds like you guys are both listening to some of the same stuff.

Yeah, that’s how we became good friends, by talking about music we both loved. I would say so.

It feels like a continuously evolving school coming from some of the same people.


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I guess even way back there would be a generational thing, with guys like Fahey and then came Takoma and then Basho built on that, and continued to build on that. Do you feel like you are a part of that same thread? Do you observe that, and try to rectify it within your own work?

Not really. That’s kind of where fingerstyle guitar stuff starts and ends for me. That’s where it started, playing Fahey – worshiping that kind of stuff. But I think that’s not who I am. That sort of music is a total lifestyle for the most part. If you play American [Primitivism] guitar, you’re half guitarist, half ethnomusicologist. A lot of those guys are super into buying roots records. It’s just not my lifestyle. I love that music, but not as a gig.

Are you doing any covers in your sets?

A couple. It’s always fun to toss in a couple. I have a Van Morrison cover.

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So you have ten songs coming out, and you’re already working on a new album. How long is the creation cycle for you to get an album out?

It’s kind of a nice rhythm right now. I think [to get] a record out, there’s probably like six or seven months to write them and then you record and then you have one set for the next year, you know? So I recorded this record and it was done by May of last year and I’m already ready to do the next one. So by the time I have a new record out, I want to have another record done.

Do you feel good about this one coming out right now?

Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I don’t think theres’s too much I dislike about it. I don’t really listen to it anymore, I’ve heard it so many times through mixing and whatever, but the songs are fun to play live. I’m still discovering a lot of new stuff within them that’s really fun to do. So yeah, I dig it.

You’re going to hit the festival circuit this summer. You’re doing something with Wilco’s Solid Sound out in Western Massachusetts.

I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve never been to that festival before. 

Primrose Green is out now on on Dead Oceans. Look for Ryley Walker on his U.S. tour dates this summer:

05/08-10 – Austin, TX @ Austin Psych Fest Presents LEVITATION
05/11 – Atlanta, GA @ 529
05/12 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle Back Room
06/02 – Los Angeles, CA @ The Echo
06/05-07 – Vancouver, BC @ LEVITATION Vancouver
06/09 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
06/11 – Santa Cruz, CA @ The Catalyst
06/12 – Sonoma, CA @ Gundlach Bundschu Winery
06/17-21 – Toronto, ON @ North By Northeast
06/18 – Montreal, QC @ La Vitrola
06/26-28 – North Adams, MA @ Solid Sound Festival
07/17-19 – Chicago, IL @ Pitchfork Music Festival

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