SPeaking on a video call from Massachusetts, Ryley Walker is obscured by a ray of sunlight streaming through a large open window as it filters the air into her apartment. “I must quit smoking,” the singer-songwriter frowns, lighting his third cigarette.
Given how much Walker has had to give up in recent years, emerging from the dependency on drugs and alcohol that shaped his adult life, it’s hard to envy him for one last vice he has left. Walker, who attempted suicide as a result of his addictions, says being here today is “a miracle.” The best album of his career, the progressive and unexpectedly beautiful Course in Fable, is the sound of an artist treating his life as such.
The 32-year-old grew up working-class in the formerly industrial “rust belt” town of Rockford, Illinois. “There was no culture there,” he says. “That thing about working to the bone, hiding your emotions in the middle of America.” Although his parents had little interest in music beyond classic rock radio, Walker taught himself to play the guitar and moved to Chicago, which became his home for more than a decade, joining the “bands Sonic Youth Scam ”and buying and selling rare records. “I was very depressed about being broke for the rest of my life, and I went on that path of tours that wreck the mind, wreck the soul and lose money.”
That was until Walker’s interest in fingering led him into the British folk rock canon of the 1970s, the era in which artists like Bert Jansch and the Fairport Convention made visionary and poignant records from raw material from the album. traditional English song, and began to write and record in that style. In 2015, Walker’s second album, Primrose Green, became an unexpected critical success for his faithful, if overly nostalgic, rendition of that era. Walker quickly became bitter about its success – the Chicago city boy mistaken for a Nick Drake-style rustic troubadour – and in interviews called it “a terrible record.” He makes a face when I mention that to him.
“That unfiltered hatred I had for him was maybe a little childish,” he says. “I’m a pretty poor and self-conscious salesperson, so I immediately shit on that. I’m happy it came out, but there’s no way I can do it now, I’m getting too fat for cool pants. “
Freed from that sound, his creativity flourished through a series of studio albums, collaborations, and live records, swapping pastoral classicism for urban experimentalism and plunging into the intersections between noise, free jazz, folk, and psychedelia. . A fervent Genesis fan, Walker is one of many younger artists currently bringing progressive rock out of the cold.
“Punk and indie obviously threw the progress down a lot in the ’70s and’ 80s. Like: this is old guard shit,” he says. “But even the nonsense about finding a mythical beast, I see it as the most free music.” If that sense of freedom is important on Walker’s new album, it’s because it comes from a hard-won personal revelation.
When I talk to him, he is days away from being two years sober. “Getting just two days sober was impossible since I was a kid,” he says calmly. “It was clear from the start that I was obsessed with this shit and didn’t care about anything else.” By 2018, he was addicted to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Drop me off at Butthole, America, and I’ll find the guy with the pills. That’s the kind of addict I am, ”he says. “I’m resourceful for the worst shit.”
Supporting popular godfather Richard Thompson on a North American tour in 2019, Walker began to feel like his life had become unmanageable. “There was a lot of shitty weather in all the mountain states, Colorado, Idaho, and I didn’t know anybody,” he says. “I was following his bus in this little rental car, driven alone for eight or nine hours every night. That was my crazy point. I dopesick every day, having trouble finding medications that won’t make me sick. “
Walker began talking to himself and fighting suicidal thoughts. “I hated myself and music at the time. I sucked live, I looked like shit, I woke up in cold sweats.
“I couldn’t think of how to get out of this on my own. I thought: I have set rules for myself and I have broken them all; this is only getting worse. ”He made a reservation at a desert motel and attempted suicide.
“I had a concoction that was safe enough to turn me on my ass and kill me,” he says carefully, “but I woke up. Somehow I woke up, thank goodness Buddha, whatever is there. “A pause.” When you try to commit suicide and it doesn’t work, it’s obviously a turning point. “
Still using drugs, Walker returned home to New York and contacted his record label for help. Within 24 hours, the Secretly Canadian label and MusiCares, a Grammy-affiliated nonprofit, had put Walker on a flight to a rehab center in Nashville. “Once I got there, I thought I was an alien and couldn’t relate to anyone, mostly rednecks absolutely fried for their drugs of choice.”
Group therapy sessions, initially overwhelming, turned surprisingly emotional. “You hear someone in the room who is seven days old [sober], who is 30 days old, and then someone who is seven years old. Just what? ‘ Is a life possible without these things? And all their stories are very similar to yours. “
Walker discovered that there were meetings in New York that he could attend, day or night. And then came the pandemic.
“It’s really bad for people in my situation,” he says. “I like seeing people in recovery, going for a walk, going to dinner after a meeting, but I had to be much more willing to make it work. I had to call people a lot on the phone. I have had some of the darkest moments of my life in sobriety, but I have not yet managed to drink or consume, which is this strange miracle. “
The change in circumstances forced a change of focus. Where previous albums had been sculpted from intense jam sessions, this time Walker sat down and began working on precisely written songs. “I had never written in a state of joy,” he says. “There is a lot of happiness in music now, there is more personality. It was like finding myself again. “
While Stormy Deafman Glance (2018) sounded exhausted and abstract, the first sound you hear on Course in Fable is exalting major chords, before diving into complicated progressive changes in time signatures. It is the strongest material of his career so far, with his collaborators including celebrated Chicago producer John McEntire of the post-rock group Tortoise. In Rang Dizzy, Walker sings, “I’m so fried / fuck me, I’m alive.” Walker is self-releasing the album on his own Husky Pants label, a source of pride for the former record dealer.
That work ethic was evident during a winter where he checked in at 8 p.m. to work at the Target department store, stacking shelves on the night shift for minimum wage. “It’s not a cosplay as a rigid job,” he laughs. “I really needed the money.”
Walker enjoyed his new routine. “I came to know many things that I had missed. As stupid as it is, I like to show up and do something outside of music. It’s great to be around people who say, ‘Who is Sun Ra?’
“I don’t have the answers, but I know this works for me,” he says looking out the open window. “I believe that it is possible to live without drugs and alcohol in pain and death now, and I never thought that would happen, and I am very honored by life at this time. I am grateful to be able to live ”.
Cause in Fable is now available in Husky Pants.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism