Ryley Walker is a complete contradiction. An American artist with an English style, a folk performer in a city – Chicago – famed for its punk and left field scenes, his music is an unresolved dichotomy of old and new. But then, as the performer informs Clash, that's how he likes it.
“It's definitely not about looking back,” he argues. “You've got to show respect for the people who were there before you. It's about having respect for the past but always looking forward. I'm trying to make it my own, but I can't do that without a deep admiration for that music.”
Rooted in acoustic stylings, Ryley is inspired by the best: there's the fluidity of Pentangle, the emotional impact of Anne Briggs, the dextrous solo adventures of Bert Jansch or the bawdy performances of John Martyn.
“You're speaking my kind of language, man!” he grins. “It was such forward thinking future music. And there's tonnes of risk. They were just completely far out maniacs and they were such huge characters that I admire and their songwriting is so honest.”
What the American artist grasps – in such resolutely English stylings – is the spirit, the approach. This isn't some pained retro experiment; new album 'Primrose Green' positively overflows with a sense of exploration, with a sense of the modern.
“I don't think of myself as some nostalgic artist," he states. "I like all that music but instead of wearing some mask – hey look at me! I'm a 60s guy! - what influences me is that those guys reached out super far. Those were far out people, they didn't just listen to folk music they were listening to insane free jazz. They took in a lot of influence from a lot of different people, and I do too. That's what I like about them. They were completely honest.”
There's a rich jazz feel to 'Primrose Green'. It's there in the swung rhythm section, for sure, but it's also there in those moments of abstraction, when the folk template is fully stretched and finally snaps. In many ways, Clash posits, this is more of a Chicago record than an English one.
“The thing about Chicago is that it has a rich history of out music and collaborations – there's a lot of jazz there,” he muses. “If you think about a band like Tortoise, they're a rock band but with this jazz element. It's a really common Chicago thing to just reach out around the world and make this sort of different music.”
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Scratching the surface, it's clear that Ryley's own background is much broader than his acoustic troubadour image might suggest. “I like a lot of noise bands and stuff - drinking a six pack in the basement of a shitty crust punk house and just shredding. That's kind of how I learned to tour. That's where I got my feet wet, I guess – punk rock and noise.”
In a way, turning acoustic in a city like Chicago is one of the most rebellious things the songwriter could have done. “I always played acoustic guitar my whole life,” he says. “I've always liked that kind of music. A lot of my friends from that weird noise and punk scene encouraged me the most. It wasn't like it was a big thing."
"Chicago's a city where a gig is like... nothing's the same," he states. "You'll have a metal band and then you'll have some ambient synth guy and then an acoustic player.”
This background seems to fuel the new record in odd ways. Recruiting his band, Ryley Walker walked into the studio with mere sketches, with snatches of ideas and snippets of sound. “My songwriting process is probably the worst process a songwriter can have,” he laughs. “If you pay the rent by writing songs I would never recommend writing songs the way I do.”
“I just kind of have sketches, y'know. I'll have an idea or a riff,” he continues. “It's often really spontaneous. My background comes from improvisation, it's what I like to do a lot. Not a lot of things are planned out. It totally gives me anxiety but it's the way I work and I wouldn't have it any other way.”
The entire record, it seems, was done and dusted within hours. “We did it in a day, too. The whole record was done in a day. It wasn't like we needed six more months of studio time. The way I play is just like: first though, best thought. And that's a really rewarding feeling, to just improvise and have it work. I constantly want to get better at that.”
'First thought, best thought' is, of course, a quote from Jack Kerouac and the Beat writer is another touchstone for the Chicago artist. “He's a stream of consciousness writer. He's writing from this rambling, neurotic man. I kind of feel the same way a lot.”
“I travel all around the world and play music but I don't have anything to show for it, I don't own anything,” he explains. “I have like a stack of records – a good one, at that – and a guitar and a backpack full of clothes. But I have these really amazing stories. I have these really amazing memories and it comes more naturally to me to write about things like that, that I've seen.”
A recurring theme of our conversation is honesty: both personally and artistically, it seems to be a quality that Ryley Walker chases and cherishes, and one that seems to be in all too short a supply.
“I mean, so long as there's honesty in the song or honesty in the work that's what matters the most,” he argues. “I don't want to compare myself to Kerouac, who is probably the greatest writer of any generation in America, but it's totally influential to me. There's incredible truth in the way he writes and I just want to be truthful and honest. I mean, the world has so much bullshit in it, why give it more bullshit? It's a good time to be honest, right now.”
Always looking one step ahead, Ryley Walker is already thinking about the next gig, the next tour and the next recording session. “It's always about making the new stuff. I always like to play new things, play new songs and make more records,” he says. “Touring non-stop. I don't like being home a lot. When I'm home I get pretty freaked out so I'm always happy being on the road.”
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'Primrose Green' is set to be released on March 30th.