Ryley Walker is a freewheeling, couch surfing, guitar picking, folk rock sensation. His album Primrose Green has been compared to works from people like John Martyn, Tim Buckley, and Van Morrison. He is not an easy man to pin down, but we managed to chat to him in the midst of his perpetual touring…
Your music reveals a strong 70s influence; I hear a lot of John Martyn in it. What was the musical environment around you growing up?
I grew up around classic rock stuff; my parents weren’t too weird, they were pretty normal people, listening to AC/DC, Led Zeppelin… whatever was playing on classic rock radio. I discovered people like John Martyn about six years ago. I loved his attitude and his innovative playing – but he was kind of a motherfucker.
So were your parents’ listening choices something that spurred you on to learn guitar? How did you start playing?
I’ve never really been good at anything else I tried, I guess. My friends had some guitars laying around, so I picked one up one day, but I really sucked at it, so I thought guitar was stupid for a while, but I had it in my room, and I guess I just kept picking it up, and eventually it started to work for me.
Since then, you’ve played all sorts of styles from noise rock up to your current fingerpicking folk style, and released four albums. How do you go about writing songs?
I put out a record this time last year, and toured a lot on it, so I had a lot of dates on the road, just going mad, writing songs – and I try to play new songs on the road, so I’m trying things out. A lot of it comes from just putting the guitar in a tuning, trying things out, just playing with it; sometimes they stay around for a long time, but eventually some of those little seeds will grow into a big, beautiful fruit tree, you know? Every day is playing the guitar, improvising a bit; sometimes I’m living with those songs for six, seven months. I’m trying to be really conscious about my lyric writing process; I mean, you know, I’m not like Bob Dylan or anything, they’re just songs about personal situations. I just write from things I know, I mean, I like poets a lot, and trying to describe things that are beautiful, but lyrics are really hard, man.
Tell us about the band you’re working with currently, on the record and on tour.
Well, the band is comprised mostly of Chicago jazz musicians, and they’re all good friends, not hired guns or anything. As soon as you get to know people in Chicago, it’s easy to do that. The band changes a lot on tour; like the other day we had the full band, and now it’s just me and Brian on guitars, but we like to change it up a lot. When we have a full band, there are a lot of crazy different sounds; we’re adding a lot of different instruments; somebody new will start the song each night, and it’ll sound different. It’s not hard to do at all, we didn’t like, sit down and discuss it, like “What are we gonna do live?” We just jammed the songs, and really, that’s still what we’re doing.
So this album has been pretty well received; where do you want to be in 20 years?
20 years from now, man? Jesus, I’ll be 45; I dunno, maybe I can buy a car by then? That’d be nice. I don’t really have any possessions, so yeah, I guess it’d be nice to have a car, and maybe a computer?
It’s funny, isn’t it, how things have changed? Not so long ago, it seemed like if you didn’t have a record contract, it was hard to even survive, but if you had one, that was a ticket to some real money, or at least a good advance…
Yeah, you know, you don’t get money for records these days; you get whatever’s left over. For me, I have to rent a car, pay my buddies first, and I’ll take whatever’s left. You know, I don’t live anywhere, I don’t really have any outgoings, and so I’m happy with just what’s left over. I’ll probably just keep doing that for the next 20 years. Right now, I’m just touring all the time, so I just sleep where somebody lets me crash on their couch, and back home I just sleep on friends’ couches. I don’t have a place of my own.
And because you’re doing what you love, does that feel like a good choice?
I think I’m one of those people for whom anything permanent in life terrifies me, like having my own place is kind of terrifying, you know? I just don’t even really have any stuff. I mean, I have a guitar, and some records, and a bunch of t-shirts that, like, smell, because I’m on tour all the time. I don’t really feel the need to have a place right now. I’d like one eventually, it’d be nice to come home and, maybe to have my own couch or something. But you know, I’m lucky enough to have friends who put up with me, I guess. Any money I make just goes back into touring because I like working a lot. My parents worked a lot growing up, so did their parents; nothing really ever came for free, we had to work really hard growing up. It’s sort of a Chicago thing, the Midwest thing, you know? There’s no real music industry in Chicago, there’s no media moguls that are going to come to your show and go, “Hey, you wanna come back to the hotel and do a load of blow with Kid Rock?” – it doesn’t exist in Chicago. You’ve got to bust your ass to get what you want. The only thing that scares me is too much free time; if I have too much free time I think too much, and I get down, you know? Not having a place to live doesn’t bother me at all, what scares me is open dates on a calendar, because that means you’re not doing anything. If I can look and think, I’ve got 50 dates coming up, then I can get out of Chicago. Chicago is a really easy place to get lost in your head; it’s so dense, and it gets really cold. I mean it’s a good place, don’t get me wrong, it’s cheap to live there, you know, people stick around, because you pay next to nothing for rent.
When the calendar is empty, I feel bored, man, and I get antsy at home with nothing to do. I love to see my family, you know, but then I just want to play guitar. Some people find it hard to just sit in the car for seven hours a day, pausing only to eat McDonald’s and pee in disgusting bathrooms which are almost like war zones, but I thrive on it, I can hang. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, you know? I’ve fucked up everything else in my life, every straight job I’ve had I’ve sucked at it. I’m not a good employee at all. I’m late, I don’t care at all about the work, I’m not good with customers, and so this is the first opportunity in my life of succeeding in some small way. So I’m not in it for all that bullshit and I’m not interested in being a star, I mean, I’m not going to be a star. This is all I know, it’s all I can do. Some people are born to, like, mix concrete, or be schoolteachers, or nurses, and I just can’t do anything else. There’s no plan B, all I’ve got is a set of pipes and a guitar, and I get to hang in weird countries and cities, make new friends, meet cool people, and drink beer.
So what if this was 1971, not 2015, and you have the right sound and they throw money at you. What happens to Ryley Walker then?
Well, I guess I would take every chance to go on tour, and I guess I’d see Van Morrison in his prime, that’s all I can think of. There’s no pop sensibilities in me, man, not even in a past life.
Ryley Walker’s Primrose Green is out now. To keep up-to-date with Ryley and his live dates, follow him on Twitter.