Interview: Ryley Walker talks about the far-out folk sound of his new album

Photo by Dusdin Condren
Ryley Walker opens for Real Estate April 2 as part of the Mission Creek Festival — Photo by Dusdin Condren

Real Estate w/ Ryley Walker

Englert Theater — Thursday, April 2 at 8 p.m.

Chicago-based psych-folk guitarist and songwriter Ryley Walker opens Real Estate at the Englert Theatre on Thursday, April 2 as part of Mission Creek. Walker’s music has drawn comparisons to folk greats like Nick Drake and John Fahey, but he says he hopes to create a genre and sound he can call his own. Little Village caught up with Walker to talk about his music and his new album, Primose Green, as he drove with his bandmates to a show in Columbus, Ohio.

Listening to Primrose Green, I get more of a jazz feeling sometimes, rather than a straight folk. A Dylan kind of thing, perhaps.

Yeah, I mean it’s folk music to its roots, but there’s a lot of kind of swing on there. That comes from the dudes in the band, mostly. It’s a little more far out than something like Dylan I suppose. Far-out folk, I guess.

Recently, on NPR’s World Cafe you said you were into free form jazz, but not in a really academic way. What did you mean by that?

I don’t really have any formal training in jazz or anything. I kind of have a punk rock training in jazz, you know, through a lot of noise stuff and jamming in that sort of way. It’s all about that kind of energy that flows through everything we do, definitely.

You play “fingerstyle,” which I understand lends itself to folk and country music. Are there any challenges that come with that, as far as the distinct, psych-folk and jazz style that you have now?

No, not at all. I’m just trying to get better all the time on guitar. I mean, that just comes from playing everyday and having a cool crew to play with just makes everything a lot easier to do. Lots of good challenges though, I mean, I’m not like a straight ahead American primitive kind of guitarist like Jeff Fahey or something. I’m trying to make something of my own, I guess.

What was the songwriting process like on Primrose Green? How did the album take shape?

Most of the music came through — well, we played live a bunch last year, so we kind of got the ins and outs of the songs. We try to change it up a lot so we just kind of had snippets of time to document it in studio. It’s all done pretty quickly. It’s an in-and-out sort of process. We kind of go on the sly I guess. I’m not good at being concrete, in every aspect of my songs, so it took some time. That’s just how it goes for me. What comes naturally.

I’m also curious about the title. Where did “Primrose Green” come from?

Primrose Green is a whiskey drink, and we put morning glory seeds in it so it’s like an absinthe kind of cocktail. It’s just something my friends and I made up a long time ago, and we’d just get drunk on it here and there. Haven’t done it in a long time.

There’s definitely a psychedelic feel to some of your songs.

There’s kind of a trippy quality to it, definitely. I have no problem saying that there’s a psychedelic ambiance to the tunes. The overhead is kind of like, drifty.

Pastoral seems to be a buzzword right now that a lot of reviewers have used to describe your music, and I definitely hear some lush lyrics, and feel this sort of rustic connection to nature on the record. The Primrose Green video was shot on a farm. Was that a conscious thing for you? Did you mean for this record to have a “back to nature” feel to it?

I guess the imagery of nature on the record kind of — well, I mean I’ve lived in cities my entire life so it kind of wasn’t a huge conscious decision to do that. Maybe it’s just there because it’s something I like thinking about when I’m in the middle of a dense city where 98 percent of my life I’ve stayed in dirty, close-together, tight-knit spots. I don’t know, maybe that’s something that I want to do, or aspire to do.

What’s your live show like. Do you play with a full band?

The live set varies kind of depending on when and what the situation is. We tend to jam a lot live, which I think is really fun, and I think rewarding, and it makes it different for the audience every night. It keeps things fresh. We’ve got the songs, but they’re all kind of loose, and we make an effort to change it up every night or make something completely different.

It’s kind of cool to walk off the stage and be like, “Oh, that was cool how we did that tonight.” It’s better than a really concrete sort of thing. It’s really far out, I like playing like this a lot, I think it’s my favorite thing to do.

I’ve heard you have an eclectic taste in music, and that you listen to a lot of different styles. What are you listening to now? What should I be listening to now?

In the car, here, what have we been listening to in the car? We listened Mogwai for like 5 seconds and were like, “This is terrible.” (laughs) We’re traveling, so we’ve been listening to some podcasts, but earlier we were listening to Dexter Gordon, which I thought was really nice. A lot of weird compilations of like Alan Lomax archives, like the Georgia Sea Island Singers and stuff like that. We’ve got some weird field recordings from an old Baptist church and stuff like that that we’ve been listening to a lot lately. That and Aphex Twin.

Do you read while you’re on the road? Do you have a book with you now?

I should be reading more things, but I’m currently not reading anything. I usually bring a book on tour, but right now I’m just kind of looking at the road, I don’t know. I just read some Gordon Lish short stories recently. He’s a writer you should check out.

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