Ryley Walker Does Not Feel Worthy of Your Attention

Indie folk star Ryley Walker didn’t really take to Phoenix the last time he played here.

Google does not offer any clues of the exact date when the Rockford, Illinois, native previously performed in the Valley. It’s difficult to confirm if the sordid events he described even took place. Yet for someone who tours as much as the singer-songwriter does, the ill-fated show sticks out in his mind like a stubbed toe.

“It was the worst show I played in my life,” he says without hesitation. “It was a long time ago. It was some fucked-up meth house. I played a front porch. Dudes were wrestling. It was weird and so stupid. We didn’t have anywhere to stay, so we slept in some parking lot. It was just one of those days. I’m ready to take Phoenix on again and show them what’s what.”

You have to admire Walker’s gumption. After talking to him, it is apparent he is on a mission to prove to anyone who showers him with the accolades he so richly deserves that he is unworthy of the praise and attention.

“I hope I’m not the coolest person you have talked to, because I’m not,” he tells me after I tell him I enjoyed speaking with him over the phone.

I can only assume that Walker is weary from the road. The modern-day troubadour played more than 200 shows in a 10-month period in 2015 and has not shown any signs of slowing down this year. 
With such a full schedule, you have to wonder how the guitarist managed to come out with three full-length albums in the same number of years. Traveling abroad has provided inspiration and certainly altered his view of the world.

“I’ve been to northern Africa and eastern Europe a lot,” he recalls. “Seeing those countries definitely makes you feel like an outsider. The only thing I can write from is my reality. My reality comes from traveling. It makes its way into the music.”

Walker says his love of touring comes from meeting new people, making a sustainable living from music, and getting the occasional free beer. As eager as he was to talk about his alleged bad day in Phoenix, he shies away from the opportunity to share any crazy tales from the road.

“I could fill a book,” he says with a laugh. “It wouldn’t be anything I’d want my mother to read.”

The 27-year-old’s humble yet defiant attitude is frustrating. His quiet hostility might have something to do with the songwriter’s Midwestern working-class roots or his struggle to carve out a musical niche for himself in a town 90 miles west of Chicago. Walker started out playing in punk bands as a teenager, but he knew he wanted to take a serious crack at making music seven years ago. He found that audiences and critics were receptive to his jazzy, soulful ballads.

“I still like punk a lot,” says Walker. “Because I am getting older, my tastes are changing. It’s the folk rock that kind of stuck. I was in school, and school sucks, so I quit. I just toured all the time.”

The guitarist, who is also known for his fingerpicking dexterity, is obviously frustrated over the current state of music journalism. Before the recent release of his third full-length album, the critically acclaimed Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, many outlets were eager to label him the next Van Morrison, Nick Drake, or Tim Buckley. The new record should help music journalists from easily putting him into a box, but that doesn’t mean he has a high opinion of the field.

“There’s a trend now: ‘This Record Is Ten Years Old; Here’s A Think Piece On Something Nobody Gave A Shit About In 2006,’” describes Walker. “Who cares? Do I really care and want to read about Justin Timberlake’s 10-year-old album or some really irrelevant indie rock record of the time? No, so shut the fuck up. Something irrelevant doesn’t deserve a second look. Nobody gave it a first look. Anything journalists can do to get $100 now.”

The epic eight tracks on the psychedelic new album, including the lead-off song “The Halfwit In Me,” are filled with moments that make a music aficionado swoon. Produced by his mentor and occasional Wilco member LeRoy Bach, the record is chock-full of rambling guitar solos and beautiful, angry lyrics referencing parental issues and Christianity. When pressed about his upbringing and religious beliefs, he makes it clear how foolish people are for reading too much into what he has to say.

“I was never religious,” Walker declares. “I guess that’s a bunch of hoodoo voodoo poetry magic. It’s sleight of hand. It has to do with morality or taking drugs, you know? It shouldn’t be taken too literally. I don’t mind religion, but it just never took.” 
Believing the origin of these songs comes from an angry young man is not as far-fetched as Walker would want us to believe. When touring England, he stated that he goes onstage night after night to work out his issues.

“Half-joking, half-serious is a good way to put it,” he says of his remarks. “I don’t have daddy issues or anything. We’re cool. We send cards to each other on Christmas.”

If there’s anything traumatic from Walker’s upbringing, it stems from not growing up in a musical home.

“My mom would listen to Bruce Springsteen,” he recalls. “Some kids would be listening to John Coltrane. I’d say, ‘What the fuck? How did you get Coltrane when you were 10 years old? You know all the shit I had to go through to get that record?’ Kids would grow up with good music. I had to find it on my own. It was such a struggle.”

When he isn’t carrying on about his musically challenged childhood, he is whining about how the attention he receives does not translate into the money he needs to sustain his career. Walker, like most of America, is dissatisfied with his place on the totem pole. Yet his music seems specifically made for a minority of music lovers who relish the chance to flaunt the random bits of knowledge they have amassed over the years.

Walker will continue with his frustrating attempts to rise higher in the musical hierarchy. He firmly believes he was meant to make music a career, mainly because he does not know how to do anything else. When asked what he’d be doing if he wasn’t a musician, he jokes that he would be involved in petty crime. It is his fear of being broke that keeps him going.

“I literally have nothing else I am good at,” he states. “I might as well try my hardest doing this. I don’t have a résumé of any sort, that’s for sure. I never had any aspirations to do anything else.”

Ryley Walker is scheduled to play Valley Bar on Sunday, October 19.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil