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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ryley Walker Gets Lucky With the Folk-Jazz Primrose Green

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2015 at 6:00 AM

  • Photo by Dusdin Condren

Shitty punk shows, underground noise, experimental jazz, Drag City records spilled out on a floor -- these are not the first sources that come to mind when encountering the music of Ryley Walker. This year the 25-year-old guitarist and singer released Primrose Green, a vibes, electric piano and open-tuned guitar-based exploration of the jazz side of British folk-rock, with undeniable echoes of Tim Buckley, Pentangle and Nick Drake.

But the punk soul is just as undeniable: Walker delivers his songs with an inchoate wail and grouse, and if the melodies ever get too pristine, they don't stay that way for long. His guitar attack is hypnotic and violent at once, whether he's pushing through a solo 12-string passage or surrendering to a rhythm section that knows not where it's headed -- and can't wait to get there.

Not everyone gets it. Walker has enjoyed plenty of glowing press and received a rising-star's treatment at this year's SXSW, but Pitchfork (whose Chicago festival he'll play this summer) recently dismissed Primrose Green as a failed imitation of Van Morrison and John Fahey, as if the reviewer never got past the hazy psych-folk album art. But there's nothing imitative about the music inside. The fuck-it-all fury, the sense that nothing matters except the sound -- unscripted and unduplicable -- of what's happening between the musicians is what sets Walker's folk-jazz deconstructions apart.

A Chicagoan (who grew up 70 miles west of the city in Rockford, Illinois), Walker is no stranger to St. Louis. He has played the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center in the past, and on Thursday, May 7 he performs a few blocks away at the Luminary. Walker is currently completing his fifth (or sixth) European tour, and took some time out from a drive through the Swiss alps to chat with us about the conceptions and misconceptions of his music.

Roy Kasten: Do you get a sense that people relate to your music differently in Europe? Do you sense they're bringing different musical contexts?

Ryley Walker: Over here there's a bigger response. I don't know if it's the music or the press. Maybe people want to hear guitar music more over here. In the UK, it tends to be older guitar guys, people who saw and heard the music that I like a whole lot. That happens all the time.

Can you talk about the development of your guitar style, but also about the development of your voice? Did the two mature together?

I played guitar a lot longer than I did before I started taking singing seriously. I didn't really write songs, folk tunes or whatever, until 2009. I was writing punk songs before, just playing guitar. With these newer songs, the voice definitely came later. I'm still learning. I feel like the voice is something I'm getting better at. I'm trying to put the vocals more in the forefront.

Next: Walker talks about finding the Chicago music scene as a teenager -- and explains his shift to punk.

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