If you’re reading this, and you haven’t heard “Sweet Satisfaction”, the latest single off Ryley Walker’s excellent upcoming LP, Primrose Green, open a new tab and get on that shit. My words fall short; his music speaks for itself. But, of course, I’ll try.
The guitar is having a comeback. Performers like Steve Gunn, Marisa Anderson, William Tyler, and Jessica Pratt are making serious waves in independent music, drawing interest from international press and mainstream outlets, in addition to music nerds and Dead Heads. Ryley Walker, a Chicago-based rising star in the world of “guitar music”- his words, not mine – is doing all that he can to expand his sound, blending elements of finger-picked baroque folk, noise rock, and free jazz into something energizing and new.
Primrose Green is the next step in his evolution as an artist. As he puts it: “It’s not really Sunday morning folk anymore, more like Saturday night boogie folk.”
The record substitutes the plaintive and bright folk of his debut All Kinds Of You with an edge, brought on by the effected guitars and keys, and the shapeshifting percussion by Chicago’s premier jazz drummer Frank Roasaly. Dark clouds swirl around Primrose Green, perfect for our impending rainy season.
We caught up with Walker over the phone during his tour. Read the interview below, and catch him opening for Kevin Morby—formerly of Woods and The Babies and also a leader in the “guitar music” world—in DC and New York this weekend.
The record’s great – I was jamming it this morning. Great Sunday morning tunes. If I remember correctly from the last time we talked, you’ve been sitting on these songs for about a year.
Yeah, since like last May. So, almost a year. I played ‘em all in the last year, though.
Do they still feel fresh to you?
I was pretty relieved to get the record out, finally. I think it still feels fresh because we jam so much. We always got new stuff going on, we’re playing new ones on this tour.
It’s great to hear you with a fuzzier, aggressive sound, as compared to your previous record.
Oh yeah, definitely. There’s a lot more electric guitar and keys all over it. I wanted to make this one to not sound like a folk record, though it is a folk record. I was listening to a lot of Funkadelic and John Martyn records, things like that, and veered into this heavy electric side of folk music that I was very into. Fairport Convention too; they do that kind of stuff. I wanted to do that, you know?
I don’t think that lyrically it’s heavier or anything – I still talk about the same shit – but, musically, it’s a little more abrasive and in your face. It’s not really Sunday morning folk anymore, more like Saturday night boogie folk.
Do you find your music is moving in that direction? Heavier?
I don’t know about heavier, but jams are getting real far out, like with the band, there’s a lot of instrumental parts. Obviously, the electric keys are a big part of the record, so it adds that element. I like doing that more; it’s more rewarding for me. I guess we’re going in that direction.
Are you touring with a band now or solo?
Right now, I’m touring with a trio kind of thing. It’s me [acoustic guitar], electric guitar and keys. Like, a low-key band. It’s Ben Boye and Brian Sulpizio [of Chicago’s excellent Health&Beauty]. Then, [we’ll be] adding bass and drums in a couple of tours during the summer, for some festival things. So, yeah, these small tours we keep a small band. [It’s] mostly a financial thing.
I saw you’re playing some pretty big fests this year. Pitchfork, that’s awesome. And I saw several in Europe too.
Yeah, we’re playing a bunch of festivals in Europe. I forget the names.
Do you have a good following in Europe?
Yeah, I think it may be a little better. I don’t mean better, I just think it’s bigger, I guess. The press over there really latched onto our music. I don’t know how the record is going to do here – like, at all. I don’t really know. Here it’s still good, I have no complaints or anything. I’m lucky enough to be able to play gigs everywhere. But in Europe, I think people got it a little quicker. Not all music, obviously, but for me at least. I don’t know why that is; maybe they like guitar music more or something, but gigs over there really feel like: “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here.” Whereas over here, it’s: ‘Oh I’m here, again.”
Do you find that Americans are becoming more accepting and interested in your music?
Yeah, I think it’s a good time for guitar music in America right now. Yeah, like Steve Gunn and Jessica Pratt and Kevin Morby and Daniel Bachman [note: of Fredricksburg, VA; highly recommended]: There’s so much great music being made here right now.
Europeans seemed to have grabbed onto that; they like their American guitar music a whole lot right now. I’m lucky enough, and all those guys are lucky enough, that there’s some real shit happening over there. Not that it’s not good here, but they’re catching on more and quicker out there.
Well, Europeans seem to be ahead of the curve. Sometimes.
Yeah, sometimes, not all the time. I like it here a lot more; I mean, it’s my home. But over there is just totally different. They just seem to have more money over there to do this. Like, you can’t expect to play a huge gig and get a giant delicious meal in like Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin or something. Over there, it’s just set up different. It’s really nice, but USA is always going to be #1.
You’ve been on the road straight for what seems like a long time now.
About a year or so. Not too much time off. When I get too much time off, I get pretty bored. Especially in Chicago, you know this winter has been really shitty. Too much time off can be a little taxing on the brain. I’m just sitting around at home.
So, I like always having to go somewhere. I like having it in my mind that like, “Oh I gotta go there in a few days.” And if I get two weeks in Chicago, I’m just like, “Uh oh, what am I going to do for two weeks”
I’ve been on the road solid for like a year, and it’s looking like this year is getting pretty booked up too. There’s a lot of shit to do, with this new record and everything. [I’m] trying to get it out more than the last one. There’s a lot of anxiety coming from that, but I’m looking forward to it.
Do you feel pressure to play the songs on the new record at your shows now? Or are you willing to change it up?
We’re playing stuff off the new record, but they’re on their way out. I don’t think I’m well-known enough for people to really give a shit. I like that idea, that every time you see me play, there’s something different each time. I think that’s cool.
So, we’re definitely playing a lot of new stuff, and then we’re going to record in the summer for our record next year. It’s just fun to do; that’s how the songs get better. I’m not one of those people who can make a record in the studio, because the music I play is meant to be played live. I’m not in the record biz. I think where me and the band shine is live. If we can work those songs out on the road for like six months, and then we’ll get the best shit.